I read the anarchist Leftist writer B. Traven when I was a romantic, idealistic teenager, led to his classic Treasure of the Sierra Madre by its more famous screen adaptation. From there, I read a half dozen or so of his novels. I recall that I liked some (The Bridge in the Jungle, The Rebellion of the Hanged, Government) more than others (The Caretta). Then, like most of my youthful passions, my interest rolled off yonder, like a passing wave on fiction’s great teeming sea, while yet another wave approached.
What I would think of those books now as a more jaded, ideologically disinclined adult, I don’t know. But now that a mmmmm few decades have passed, I've opened Traven once more, this time for pragmatic purposes: research for a work in progress. The book in question is his first novel, The Death Ship, first published in Germany in 1926-1927.
The Death Ship is narrated by the drifting Everyman from other Traven novels. His given name might be Gerard Gales, but being a B. Traven Everyman, his identity is slippery, amorphous. He’s more compassionate observer of the downtrodden than a participant in their dramas. In The Death Ship, Gales is more at the center of things, a merchant seamen who becomes stranded at a European port after losing his identity card and papers.
With nothing to prove his existence to government authorities but his own honest word, Gales finds himself shunted from bureaucracy to bureaucracy, back and forth across European borders, dealing with a variety of bureaucrats and border guards, some them sympathetic and kindly, some of whom are not. But all of them are just doing their jobs. Gales, who does exist becomes a stateless person—an absurdly non-existent “non-person.”
This section, which takes up about the first third of the novel, is much the best. Traven, with Gales as his front man, nimbly takes us back and forth and around the ports of Europe in a tart satire of governmental oppression as seen in the 1920s. He’s a buoyant clear-eyed anarchist-satirist, frustrated and adrift in what was then new world bristling with new rules and new regulations that grew like weed-like out of the Industrial Revolution, the end of World War I and the growing interdependence of nations. (Not all that long ago, most people did not need passports to cross borders. “Your papers please!” that jokey cliché from corny old movies set in dictatorships, is a now a universal command.)
Many of Traven’s observations are funny: “Always consider your boss crazy and you will always be right and stand in good with him.” Others might raise an eyebrow, including a staunch assertion that the French much preferred their German occupiers to the Americans Doughboys during the Great War—a statement that could use some checking, especially since Traven himself was likely a German. Maybe a little bias there.
But then finally, Gales stumbles as coal stoker aboard The Yorikke, the “death ship” a decaying tramp steamer so decrepit and leaky, it’s a miracle it still floats. Here, Traven’s story starts chugging in circles and zigzagging about. It never finds its keel. From the start, you can tell English is not the author’s first language, but his storytelling skill in the first section overrides this concern. Not so later on, as the novel becomes a frantic jumble, a disorganized and tedious read. It hops and skitters arbitrarily from scene to scene and subject to subject, burdened by poor writing and awful dialogue, as the author tries to embrace every idea and theme possible. There’s telling and gruesome detail galore, but the editor/ translator appears to have signed off by then. Traven is not even unable to stick with his central metaphor and the novel finally, quite literally, crashes on a reef.
Oh, well. We all gotta start somewhere. And then go on from there. And B. Traven sure did, becoming internationally popular and renowned (though less so in this country due to his Leftie Anarchism.)
He may also well be the most successfully reclusive Famous Author who ever lived. To this day, his actual identity, his very life, remains a mystery beyond the reach of the most redoubtable literary sleuth. He covered his tracks exceptionally well. Next to B. Traven, Thomas Pynchon, J.D. Salinger and Harper Lee look like a trio of craven exhibitionists. Bravo for Traven!
Copyright 2015 by Thomas Burchfield
Photo by author
Thomas Burchfield’s latest novel is Butchertown, a ripping, 1920s gangster shoot-‘em-up that will appear in Spring 2015, via Ambler House Publishing. He is also the author of the contemporary Dracula novel Dragon's Ark, winner of the IPPY, NIEA, and Halloween Book festival awards for horror in 2012. He’s also author of the original screenplays Whackers and The Uglies (e-book editions only). Published by Ambler House Publishing, those three are available at Amazon in various editions. You can also find his work at Barnes and Noble, Powell's Books, and Scribed. He also “friends” on Facebook, tweets on Twitter, reads at Goodreads and drinks at various bars around the East Bay. You can also join his e-mail list via tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.