Written in a naturalistic style with plain, unadorned language, and peppered with mild epithets and profanity, B. Traven’s novel The Death Ship is part picaresque novel, part character study, and part proletarian lament. The story is told from the perspective of an ordinary person, a particular and unique representative of the faceless sea of humanity. The story proceeds from one apparently random incident to the next, and then to an inevitable conclusion.
The Death Ship, a symbol for the voyage toward oblivion that every living thing must make, is an important introduction to the themes and fatalistic tone that prevail in the bulk of Traven’s other long fiction. The Death Ship, Traven’s first published novel, is a work of imagination in the literary tradition of earlier sea-story adventures written by writers such as Herman Melville and Joseph Conrad (in the novel, Traven alludes to Conrad, who had died in 1924). The novel is likewise based on the author’s own real-life experiences. He had earned his passage from a Europe in political, social, and economic upheaval to postrevolutionary Mexico, where he would live the rest of his life. Though the conclusion of The Death Ship seems to tell of the end of character Gerard Gales, he lives to appear again in two of Traven’s subsequent novels: Der Wobbly (1926; The Cotton-Pickers, 1956) and Die Brücke im Dschungel (1929; The Bridge in the Jungle, 1938).
A central issue of the novel is the matter of identity. National governments—in Traven’s time or now—define a person upon the strength of his or her documentation, even, one could say, upon the thickness of his or her wallet. Without proper credentials (certificates, passports, visas, written records) or without money to bribe officials, a person does not exist and therefore has no rights; also, without a solid past supported by papers, a person has no future. This is an entirely appropriate subject for Traven, because the question of his own mysterious...
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