I once knew a man who painted pictures of Adolf Hitler on commission. He was a gifted landscape painter, primarily a watercolor artist, and he lived in Swakopmund, wedged between the cold South Atlantic and the Namib desert, in a town with palm trees and colonial German architecture and at least four German Namibians who wanted their own private portraits of der fuhrer. And this artist, a British subject who was a child in wartime London, swallowed his principles and collected his pieces of silver.
I have thought about him ever since the night we met in 1992, when the guest house where we had hoped to stay in Swakopmund was full, and the owner called his artist friend to see whether he could provide a place for two travelers for the night. In exchange for taking him out to dinner, this man extended his hospitality.
I do not remember that our host was particularly interested in us and our stories, but neither was he especially outgoing. There were layers to him, like the glint buried within his deeply lined eyes that suggested a capacity, once, for laughter, and watchfulness. He had Hemingway's short, stiff beard, but was not a garrulous storyteller. He never said what life of disappointments drove him to self-exile on this desert shore, a survivor of his own mistakes.
During the course of the evening, he peeled a few cards from the deck of his life and lay them on the table, and left it to us to reconcile these things, for he would not. He survived the bombing of London. He painted Hitler's portraits. He lived in a strange place of mirage and sea fog that blurred the edges and blunted expectations.
I think he told us his secret because we were young and new to Africa and life had shorn him of his absolutes and illusions long ago. I think his confessional was as much a challenge to us as an unburdening for him.
Whatever braided tracks had lead him to compromise something core in his humanity were not examined that evening. I do not know, in fact, whether he was prepared to do so in the private reaches of his solitary heart. But I do know he had a heart.
A few years later we returned to Swakopmund, staying at the guesthouse this time. We asked after the artist, and learned that he had died of a heart attack a year or two before. He had tried to save a life beyond the cold and pounding surf, someone he did not even know.