|To Preserve and to Learn
Moritz Thomsen's The Farm on the River of Emeralds
MORITZ THOMSEN (Ecuador 196567) ENDS HIS FIRST BOOK, Living Poor, on a vague note; not really knowing what do to once his Peace Corps duty comes to an end in 1968, he simply leaves the town of Rioverde, spending an unsettling last few weeks in the town he had hoped to transform three years earlier. My last weeks in Rioverde were punctuated by screams, he writes in his last chapter, as well as goodbyes to those who had long since given up viewing the gringo as a novelty, and a final, slow unraveling of the cooperative he had worked to form in the little fishing town. So, too, does it appear that his ties to Ramon Prado and his family (wife Ester and baby daughter Martita) unravel: But as I stepped off the porch to leave, Ester screamed, and I turned to see her, her face contorted and the tears streaming down her cheeks. We hugged each other, and Ramon rushed from the house and stood on the brow of the hill looking down intently into town.
Yet, watching, I began to grieve for them, for they were still under the illusion of their power to direct their own lives, lost in the magnificence of the newly awakened awareness of their own manhood, lost in their dreams of how they would conquer life. How modest their expectations and, in this brutal land, how impossible to fulfill. I knew they had no future; they lacked the opportunities and the inner discipline to do anything but end up like their fathers. Have you ever watched a little herd of lambs as they frisk and play in the slaughterhouse corral? . . . Watching them, one forgave them everything they were so trapped, so doomed. On the weekends it seemed relatively unimportant that they were impossibly lousy workers.
Thomsen is learning, and fast, that applying middle-class North American standards to the culture of poverty he is now smack in the middle of makes no sense whatsoever, and will serve only to alienate him further from his neighbors:
O.K., so the worker doesnt work very well because he eats so badly. O.K., so out of desperation a man steals. Now it gets complicated and confusing. How can this poor worker who suffers so from malnutrition dance for twelve hours straight or, on Sunday afternoons, play futbol [soccer] with such fierce sustained enthusiasm? Why does the thief like as not end up in the local saloon, dead drunk from the sale of your radio or his neighbors chickens? . . . And now that worst and most delicate of questions, which made the head reel, Wasnt it possible that the man who stole your radio actually regarded you as his friend?
Its probably no coincidence that The Farm on the River of Emeralds often reads like a war narrative Thomsen served as a bombardier on a B-17 squadron in the European theater in World War II and it was a war with many fronts. His equal partnership with Ramon is cause for many heated, painful exchanges; at the same time they must present a united front to the local workers, who bring their own battles and demands to the farm. Thomsens Peace Corps experience has left him with a belief that modern farming techniques can be the salvation of third-world farmers (I had wanted to stun the province with twentieth-century technology . . . that modern system of that uses fifteen times more energy per acre than a farmer in an undeveloped country.), a belief that dissolves in the face of monsoon-like rains, failed crops, non-existent markets, and the intractable mindset of desperately poor people, the Walking Wounded of a full chapter.
There are certain days in life so packed with horror or revelation that if you survive them your whole past stands rendered, the essence so distilled and clarified that it is impossible to keep on deluding yourself. In the revelation department one thinks of those religious conversions that strike one down like lightning, turning drunkards or thieves into missionaries. Days of revelation are the mileposts in life at which one makes ninety-degree turns or puts a bullet through ones head or murders ones wife or loops back violently, seeking again in the innocent past what had gradually faded away and made existence chaotic or meaningless.
One such experience leads him to join the Peace Corps in 1964 a twenty-four hour stretch during which he finally sees his California hog farm is doomed, finished; he has to put down his beloved dogs, sell his pigs, shut down the farm where he is already reduced to living in an unheated tool shed, and stand for the first time in a room filled with his butchered hogs: I had fallen under the malevolent eye of God, and He had more tricks up His sleeve. I didnt know if I could take any more that day, but I remember thinking, Its coming, whether or not you can take any more, and its coming today. It comes, all right, when a cow is dispatched right in front of him by a grinning slaughterhouse employee. As far as Thomsen was concerned, he was every bit as finished. A Peace Corps commercial on television that night put an idea in his shorted-out brain; it must have looked like a modern-day Foreign Legion: Spewed out of that deadening rural life, screaming with rage and self-pity, as bloody and battered as a new born child, I was given another chance at a brand new kind of life.
How he had changed since I first knew him, how hard and sad and stubborn his face. I thought of those two ultimate sins, the two unforgivable sins against life: to murder and to be poor. Poor Ramon. It looked like he was moving toward that awful moment when he would have to commit the first one to get saved from committing the second.
It never comes to that in The Farm on the River of Emeralds, but the change in Ramon and the disintegration of his partnership with Thomsen loom large in the final chapters. As with Thomsens other books, this one raises far more questions than it could ever pretend to answer. Thomsen demonstrates that he is one of those unfortunate souls who must constantly seek out reasons and motivations what is it that makes a man steal pennies from your pockets as you sleep or punch his wife in a drunken rage or slash his neighbor with a rusty machete? But what Thomsen does best is observe what it is that leads to the way the dramas unfold around him, not taking the outrages and constant thievery and disgraceful behaviors he writes about at face value, never taking the easy route.