Friday, February 22, 2013

Descent into Statelessness

The Death ShipThe Death Ship 
by B. Traven

The death ship it is I am in,
All I have lost, nothing to win
So far off sunny New Orleans
So far off lovely Louisiana.
(from "Song of An American Sailor")

This was B. Traven's first novel, first published in 1926, and it is my favorite of his works. It is a sea story unlike any other, being a story of men at sea as a metaphor for men against what Jack London infamously referred to as the "Iron Heel" of modern industrialism.
Gerard Gales misses his ship, the Tuscaloosa, in Antwerp and is picked up by the police. After some back and forth between Holland and Belgium he ends up in Paris and, since he has no "papers" and cannot prove he is an American he becomes a "nameless" creature. He makes his way to Cadiz, Spain and signs on to the Yorikke, a "death ship"; that is a ship which has been condemned by her owners to go to the bottom of the sea so that they may collect her insurance. Gale has further adventures, surviving against all odds. The book is an attack on a certain sort of pernicious business practices, nationalism, and bureaucracy; its viewpoint is anarchist; its humor is sardonic, grim, and cheerful by turns; its style is ironic; its hero is both wise and naive, an American "innocent' who suffers his "fate" though he is fiercely indignant at the injustice of the prevailing social conditions. The novel's vision is tragicomic, deeply involved yet highly detached.
Bruce Catton called the book "a startling novel about the horrible things that can happen to a man in the cock-eyed post-war world of Europe if he can't prove he is who he says he is. . . Our sailor is entangled in a world gone mad,a world in which justice and sanity have simply ceased to exist." A few decades later and several wars as well, and the world seems at times to be just as cock-eyed, no more just or sane.
What intrigued me, perhaps even more than this mesmerizing first novel, is the mysteriousness with which B. Traven hid his personal life. Even after many more novels, including the great Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Traven continued to hide behind a post office box in Mexico City. However that does not matter since his novels stand for themselves as exciting and daring adventures into the world of men and nature. This reader found Death Ship was a novel with hypnotic power, timelessness, universality and authenticity. Traven approaches the ability of Joseph Conrad to make the sea come alive, and for that alone I would continue to read and enjoy the his novels.

The Death Ship by B. Traven.  Collier Books, 1962 (1926)


Amy said...

How interesting. I hadn't heard of this author, although I've heard of Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Your review suggests a combination of Kafka-esque surrealism (the drifting without identity) and London-esque nature-over-industrialized society. I'm not sure I've encountered those two themes together in one work, although there must be more.

James said...

Thanks for your comment. Traven is more like London than Kafka. Based on the novels I've read he was a sort of individualist anarchist who raged against the state (especially in his Mahagony novels where he championed the native Indians), or against the combination of state bureaucracy and the industrial world as in Death Ship.