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 identity has been a topic of interest for scholars and researchers for many years. Evidence suggests that Traven was either a German named Otto Feige or an anarchist named Ret Marut, escaping persecution in Europe. Others argue that he was Chicago-born Traven Torsvan, or the reclusive author’s supposed Mexican agent and translator Hal Croves, or perhaps all of these at various times. More creative theories propose that Traven was really writer Jack London in disguise, or the illegitimate son of Wilhelm II, or satirist Ambrose Bierce, who had disappeared in Mexico about ten years before Traven surfaced there. Complicating the problem is the large number of pseudonyms under which the author is known to have written. Speculation about why Traven chose to hide his true identity—in contrast to most serious writers, who depend upon appearances and public relations to sell books—runs rampant.
Closely allied to the concept of identity in The Death Ship is the topic of bureaucracy. Gales, like the protagonist in Franz Kafka’s novel Der Prozess (1925; The Trial , 1937), moves through frustrating, labyrinthine governmental systems at the mercy of petty, self-important officials employed by the state (and, thus, relatively immune to the vagaries of economics). These officials are empowered to dispense passports, certificates, sailor’s cards, licenses, and similar documents. Without such documents, Traven maintains, a person can survive in the modern world...
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