Peace Corps Writers
Howls From a Hungry Place, Part III (page 2)
Howls From a Hungry Place, Part III
page 1, page 2, page 3, page 4, page 5

     Thomsen’s journey takes him to Brazil, and in Rio de Janeiro he is faced once again with the crushing poverty that pervades life in South America. Eating in a small restaurant, he is served a huge bowl of potato salad (“I order what I think is a tossed Italian salad” — despite some 15 years spent living in Ecuador, Thomsen still hasn’t quite gotten the hang of Spanish, and the Portuguese of Brazil is beyond his grasp). He pushes the half-eaten bowl away, and

    . . . immediately a Negro who has been standing against the wall and made invisible by some large potted plants appears by the next table and with the fierce power of his concentration impales me with his look. He stares into the bowl of salad, brings one hand to his mouth, and implores me with the other hand, the palm up, open and vulnerable . . . . I offer him the salad; he takes it and sits at the next table, hunched over the food, eating rapidly. We do not look at each other again for there is something unspeakable in that desperate hunger that lies between us like an accusation.
         Walking in the street I consider with confusion that good feeling I had had at offering a hungry man my garbage.

Although it does not take place on this trip, Thomsen recounts a journey he made to Lima, Peru, years before. He sought out a church in that huge, sprawling city of eight million people that contains the mummified remains of Francisco Pizarro, the infamous Spanish conquistador, founder of Lima and conqueror of the Incas. Standing before the body, Thomsen took advantage of his opportunity to spit on the floor at the head of the glass coffin. He sees Pizarro as "the greatest capitalist the world has even known”:

    …and his figure, the eyes still flashing with avarice, still strides across the continent, across the world. . . . The manipulators of technology are the new Pizarros; the directors of the multinationals are the new rulers of the world — nice men with gentle manners some of them, connoisseurs of wine, modern art, beautiful women. . . . They are the most honored men, sharing the admiration of the world with the politicians whom they have bought off and who serve them. . . . These guys may own the world, but they don’t control it: they are puppets caught up and driven ahead by the cresting wave of an incredible science that is way past their power to control: they are puppets blind to the consequences of their actions, alive only to the big chance. They are the bastards, these sober-suited Pizarros, who are going to kill us all.

The Saddest Pleasure is, like all of Thomsen’s published works, impossible to pigeonhole into any one category. What makes it such an important and powerful book is the far-ranging sweep of Thomsen’s ire as he rages against the powers that have been strangling all of South America for centuries. It’s tough going at times; dark, cynical, utterly stark in the hopelessness he sees in the future of that huge, complicated continent. It is writing that is heartbreaking in its timelessness — a book written during the early eighties and published in 1990, Saddest Pleasure is still right on the money in 2002. Ongoing drug wars; roving gangs of murderous thugs; huge tidal waves wiping out villages where most people don’t have two sucres to rub together; rioting and demonstrations over gasoline prices; hordes of refugees from neighboring Colombia; crushing debt unforgiven by developed countries or the World Bank; police corruption and brutality — things have not changed enough (for the better or worse) in Ecuador or South America to make Thomsen’s twenty-year-old writing lose its relevance:

    Poor raped South America. We lie over her in a kind of post-coitus triste but beginning to feel the itch of a new engorgement. After Pizarro it was all so easy. We won’t roll away from her yet; she still has the power to enflame our lusts, and her feeble efforts to roll away from us strike us as being not quite sincere. She has not yet been raped into madness like her black African sister.

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