Saturday, June 3, 2017

The Death Ship

The Death Ship
a novel by B Traven

Traven writes about work. Most of his novels involve people at work. This is not the usual work, but work at its most difficult, at its most exploitive of the worker. Work that takes full advantage of a difficult human situation, using it to enslave for the profit of a few. This is not kicking a person when they are down, although that is also a feature of this work environment, but first making a slave of them.  
These extreme conditions represent a broader situation that allows Traven to comment indirectly on all work.

In The Death Ship, we have a USA sailor on a nice ship with decent work, food and housing. He polishes brass, he paints, and paints again. This is a first person novel. This man is telling us his story. He goes to shore in Antwerp and for one reason or another the good ship leaves without him. He left his papers on the boat. He is suddenly a man without a country, a poor sailor who cannot prove his US citizenship, who is unwanted and deported from every European country he is forced into by the previous one.
Here the narrator points out that things were not always like this. Before the Great War, meaning WWI, there was less of this bureaucratic, passport necessary, control. He tells us that all this came in after the war. This novel was written in the 1920s less that 10 years after the war. What we know of the mysterious Traven is that he was a man in exile like in the novel, adrift across the globe and later to settle in Mexico.
Back to the story of the novel. Without papers, due the regulations, he cannot sign onto another ship. He is an unfortunate with no options ripe for the virtual slavery and the exploitation he eventually falls into on The Death Ship.

The work on the ship, the conditions, are the worst. He is a coal hauler. He brings the coal in the steam powered machine from where it is stored to the fireman who feeds the six coal fired furnaces that boil the water which creates the steam which powers the ship. It is extremely hot There is no electric light on the ship. It is an old piece of junk that has not been retrofitted with such modern luxuries. The coal hauler is at the bottom of the pecking order. He has to deliver the meals to another worker who doesn’t work as hard. The coal job also has frustrating details that make it worse. The heavy steel bar grates on which the coal fire lives often fall off the old rotted away ledge on which they rest and fall into the lower part of the furnace. He has to work with the fireman to reposition the hot heavy bars which takes him away and behind in the hauling as the steam drops due to lack of fire in the furnace in which they work. Traven goes into detail of this operation in which often other of the grate bars fall while they are attempting to reposition the first.
The ship gives him a wooden bunk in which to sleep, but no bedding, no pillows, sheets, blankets, no soap to wash up with. He is continuously black with coal dust.

In this and others of his fine and unique novels Traven presents his point of view on this phase of the globalized work situation on the ground and on the seas. Unquestionably in sympathy with the worker and presenting us with stories and situations where we can feel the worker’s pain, frustration, entrapment, and utter hopelessness, he comments about it all being at service of profit for some unseen remote wealthy businessman or business conglomeration, he doesn’t present a simple solution. He is not telling us that if the “Worker of the World Unite” all will be well, because he sees that picture clearly in an unblinking way. He knows that the workers of the world are not going to unite and if they do some among them will exploit that situation so that it will still not be set right with universal justice. While he tells us that the organized IWW ships are far better and more justly run he doesn't see much hope in the regionalism of the workers themselves to really get together to make a better world for all.
Yet these novels do not give one a feeling of demoralize cynical hopelessness. They are so solid with humanity that keeps going no matter what, that they override the horror of the situation with the human spirit to go on. I think that is the reason I love his novels. He doesn’t give me some pipe dream hope, pie in the sky, that I might be inspired by for a moment but ultimately not believe in, but presents me with humanity that adapts and will not give up on life as it is as hard as it is without the devices of melodrama.
This also shows me how relatively easy my own situation is and helps defeat the devolution into self-pity. This is the greatness of B Traven.

I still suggest The Bridge in the Jungle for a Traven beginner. It is not about work but is a very human story set among indigenous people in Mexico who are oddly affected by modernity.

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