Tuesday, May 10, 2011

B. Traven, The Death Ship, Das Totenschiff

I've finished reading The Death Ship and The Bridge in the Jungle,  novels by the mysterious B. Traven.

Ken Sanders (proprietor of Salt Lake's artistic and intellectual center -- Ken Sanders Rare Books) recommended The Death Ship the last time I was in his store. Editions of Traven are one of his specialties, along with books by Ed Abbey and any number of other pricey books.

Ken said that he and Charles Bowden (see my review of Bowden's Dreamland in an earlier post) have an ongoing argument about which is Traven's best book. Ken thinks it is The Death Ship. Chuck thinks it is The Bridge in the Jungle.

Before reading these two books, I had only read The Treasure of the Sierre Madre.

After reading The Death Ship, I'm thoroughly enamored of B. Traven and his sarcastic narrator, a man without a state, without a passport, without sailor's papers, who has to work as a coal drag on a death ship, the only kind of ship that will take on a sailor without papers.

His work is perilous, exhausting, poorly paid. His sarcasm is aimed at exploitative capitalism.  His sympathies are with immigrants and working people:

"Why passports? Why immigration restriction? Why not let human beings go where they wish to go. . . .? Human beings must be kept under control. . . . For what reason? . . . Expanding markets and making large profits are a religion. It is the oldest religion perhaps, for it has the best-trained priests, and it has the most beautiful churches; yes, sir."

The descriptions of pride in work well done, even in the context of danger and exploitation, resonate in my memory of work on drilling rigs. The smart mouth and disrespect of authority echo in my mind as well.

There's also the mystery of the book, of the actual paperback copy Ken found for me after I rejected the fine $50 edition he first showed me. I paid $6 for a book marked $5 after it originally sold for $1.25 (click on the image to the right to expand it). It's well worn. It had been read before I got it. The pages are coming unglued. The back and covers are stained by dirty hands. Feels just right for a coal shoveler in a death ship.

Who read it before I did?

Who held it?

What did they think? Feel?

As for The Bridge in the Jungle, its wry narrator is a gringo who works in the Mexican jungle. He happens on a village next to an oil-field bridge over a river. During the couple of days he stays there, he attends a dance, or what would be a dance if the musicians would show up. In the dark, waiting for the musicians, a boy falls from the bridge (at fault are the shoes his brother has just brought him from Texas, where he works in an oil field; they keep him from feeling the bridge with his bare feet) and dies. The drawing of the cover shows the boy's head with a paper crown made for him as they are dressing him for burial.

Almost the entire novel takes place during that one night. The narrator's descriptions of people and their customs are detailed and rooted in contrasts between civilized and native cultures. In scope, focusing on that single event, it feels more like a novella than a novel.

I like it very much. And although I admire Chuck Bowden's taste in books (I recently readBaxter's amazing Paris Trout on his recommendation), I'm siding with Ken on this one. The Death Ship, at least for me, is the more powerful work.

And who was this enigma B. Traven? The Wikepedia article on him and his work starts this way:

B. Traven (February, 1882? – March 26, 1969?) was the pen name of a German novelist, whose real name, nationality, date and place of birth and details of biography are all subject to dispute. A rare certainty is that B. Traven lived much of his life in Mexico, where the majority of his fiction is also set—including his best-known work, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1927), which was adapted as the Academy Award nominated film of the same name in 1948.
Virtually every detail of Traven's life has been disputed and hotly debated. There were many hypotheses on the true identity of B. Traven, some of them wildly fantastic. Most agree, that Traven was Ret Marut, a German stage actor and anarchist, who supposedly left Europe for Mexico around 1924. There are also reasons to believe that Marut/Traven's real name was Otto Feige and that he was born in Schwiebus in Brandenburg, modern day Świebodzin in Poland. B. Traven in Mexico is also connected with Berick Traven Torsvan and Hal Croves, both of whom appeared and acted in different periods of the writer's life. Both, however, denied being Traven and claimed that they were his literary agents only, representing him in contacts with his publishers.
B. Traven is the author of twelve novels, one book of reportage and several short stories, in which the sensational and adventure subjects combine with a critical attitude towards capitalism, betraying the socialist and even anarchist sympathies of the writer. B. Traven's best known works include the novels The Death Shipfrom 1926 and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre from 1927, in 1948 filmed by John Huston, and the so-called Jungle Novels, also known as the Caoba cyclus (from the Spanish word caoba, meaning mahogany), a group of six novels (including The CarretaGovernment), published in the years 1930-1939, set among Mexican Indians just before and during the Mexican Revolution in the early 20th century. B. Traven's novels and short stories became very popular as early as the interwar period and retained this popularity after the war; they were also translated into many languages. Most of B. Traven's books were published in German first and their English editions appeared later; nevertheless the author always claimed that the English versions were the original ones and that the German versions were only their translations. This claim is not taken seriously.

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