Imagine a trans-textual “proletarian” protagonist, one that has travelled the world, gets stuck into adventures aboard ships and on land, and has a laconic easy sarcasm and a way with words. A kind of working class Marlowe with a better sense of humour and no penchant for imperial condescension. Imagine, then, that this character lends his name, Gerrard Gales, to his creator. Imagine, still more, that his creator is himself a creation; his name, B. Traven, possibly a pseudonym for a German (or possibly German-American) writer called Ret Marut, or the real name of a Germanophone Swede called Bendrich Traven. Or possibly B. Traven is two people, Ret Marut who stole the manuscripts written by a US drifter called Traven Torsvan. And then imagine that a novel written by this mysterious author -only about whose anarchist politics and sympathies for the Wobblies we are certain- writes a novel that is made by a great director, John Huston, into a classic and innovative film, The Treasure of Sierra Madre, the first Hollywood film to be filmed on site in Mexico.
But the book feeding my current obsession with everything maritime and thalassic is his The Death Ship, a wondrous novel written from the perspective of the lowly on the ship, and thus unlike Conrad and a bit more like the Crab Cannery Ship. Except much less didactic, far more cinematic, and much more of a romp. Here is Traven on officers versus sailors:
Ship’s officers are merely bureaucrats with a claim for an old-age pension, and the stewards are just waiters. The skipper is in command of the ship. All right, but he does not know the ship. No, sir, believe me. … When a commander is loved, or thinks he is, it is only because everybody under his command is clever enough to know that they can get along with the old man best by complying with his whims and caprices. .. The ship loves the crew. The crew are the only true comrades a ship has at sea. They polish the ship, they wash it, they stroke it, they caress it, they kiss it -and they mean it, because they are not hypocrites where their ship is concerned The skipper has a home, sometimes a country home or an estate, and he has a family, a pretty wife, and lots of worries about his family. Some sailors too have wives and kids. They seldom make good sailors. They look at the ship just as a factory-worker looks at the plant he works in to make a living. The good sailors, the true sailors, the born sailors, have no other home in the world than their ship. It may be this ship or that one, but home is always a ship… The ship speaks to the crew, never to the skipper or to the officers. To the crew the ship tells wonderful stories and spins yarns of all sorts. The ship in turn likes to listen to the tales told by the crew (pp. 109-110).
[Compare this with Conrad for whom “Command is a strong magic.“]. There is also a way that The Death Ship is firmly embedded in the politics of early 20th century and of labour struggle. Here is Traven on sailors demanding overtime:
No sailor has yet been found who asked to sign off [over unpaid overtime wages] in mid-ocean, without another ship standing by. Being in port, the skipper could not throw the man overboard. The port authorities would not permit such a thing to be done, because it would pollute the harbor, for which crime the skipper would have to pay a heavy fine. The port authorities were not interested a bit in what a skip per might do to his men so long as the port was kept clean. Suppose the skipper had let his man go without paying for overtime; the sailor (sailors are that mean) would have gone straight to the seamen’s union, or, worse, to the Wobbly firemen’s syndicate, or, in a mild case, to the consul. In any case the skipper would have been forced to pay the overtime, or the whole Yorikke would have been put under an embargo. The Wobblies in particular and the communists would have held the ship for half a dollar if the skipper had refused to pay it to a sailor when due (pp. 132-133).
The story Traven tells feels real and wonderful and rich. A sailor left behind by his ship wanders from country to country in Europe without his papers and has to fight against a tragicomic succession of bureaucracies, consuls, police forces and all else who demand of him a documentary proof of his existence. Only in Spain does he find solace and sustenance:
Oh, you sunny, wonderful Spain! May you prosper and live long! No one calls you God’s country. It was the first country I met in which I was not asked for a sailor’s card or for a passport. The first country in which people did not care to know my name, my age, my beliefs, my height. For the first time my pockets were not searched. I was not pushed at midnight across the border and kicked out of the country like a leper. Nobody wanted to know how much money I had, or what I had lived on for the last three months (p. 95).
There are wonderful descriptions of the ways in which a person’s personhood is entirely constituted through the paperwork they are supposed to carry:
…don’t be short of papers that make a modern citizen, such as birth-certificate, vaccination-certificate, certificate of baptism, certificate of confirmation, marriage license, income-tax receipts, receipts that you have paid your light-bills and for the telephone, an affidavit that you have no connections with criminal syndicalism or Moscow, and a certificate from police headquarters that there are no charges against you still pending (p. 352).
At sea, Traven’s description of working to stoke the coal-fueled engine of the ship is dark and hot and infernal. The labour involved is dirty, grueling, monstrous. In a long and wonderful passage, Traven explains what a “death ship” is:
Death ships belong to the period long before the American Civil War, to the times when slave-trading was a great business, and blockade-breaking could make a ship-owner rich with three successful trips. No, there are no longer any death ships today. They are things of the past. Any consul can tell you that. And a consul is a high personage of diplomatic rank. He won’t tell you anything which is not true. No one knows death ships. No government recognizes them. After all, that which is not admitted does not exist, like the Russian revolution. Don’t look at it, and then it disappears.
The seven seas are so full of death ships that you can have your choice of them! All along the coasts of China, Japan, India, Persia, the Malay Islands, Madagascar, the east and the west coats of Africa, the South Sea, South America, coming up as far as the Pacific coast of Mexico, where they land Chinamen and dreams of artificial paradises by the truckload. Money is always useful, no matter how you make it. The point is to have it. As long as you have it, no minister will ever ask you where and how you got it; just rent, or better buy, a church seat, and pay something for the missions in China.
There is still room enough for a couple of thousand more of these beautiful and useful ships. Making immigration restrictions does not help the shipping trade very much. So the ships must look elsewhere for a sound business. One cannot do away with all the bums of the world, because there might be a few artists among them, and writers, or cranky millionaires. So it is close to impossible to check white slavery, just because there might be among the slaves a few wives of men with influence and some daughters of great kings of finance who wish to adventure on their own account. White slavery makes more money for those fine men who are paid to investigate and prevent it than for those who are actually in the trade. One is just as good a business as the other. Difficult as it is to do away with all the bums, it is just as difficult to do away with all the death ships. There are not a few shipping companies who would go broke overnight if they had no death ships. Other companies could not survive boom or depression if they did not send down to the bottom a ship when it is time to do so for cold cash (p. 288-289).
His wonderful description of the kind of shipboard wage labour which borders on slavery reminds one of Marcus Rediker’s wonderful work on seafaring:
Sailors are certainly not slaves. They are free citizens, and if they have established residences, they are even entitled to vote for the election of a new sheriff; yes, sir. Sailors are free laborers, they are free, starved, jobless, tired, all their limbs broken, their ribs smashed, their feet and arms and backs burned. Since they are not slaves, they are forced to take any job on any ship, even if they know beforehand that the bucket has been ordered down to the bottom to get the insurance money for the owners. There are still ships sailing the seven seas under the flags of civilized nations on which sailors may be whipped and lashed mercilessly if they refuse to ship double watches and half of the third watch thrown in (pp. 134-135).
And this extraordinary section on sailors like gladiators:
We, the gladiators of today, we must perish in dirt and filth. We are too tired even to wash our faces. We starve because we fall asleep at the table with a rotten meal before us. We are always hungry because a shipping company cannot compete with the freight rates of other companies if the sailors get food fit for human beings. The ship must go to the ground port, because the company would be bankrupt if the insurance money would not save her. We do not die in shining armor, we the gladiators of today. We die in rags, without mattresses or blankets. We die worse than hogs in Chic. We die in silence, in the stoke-hold. We see the sea breaking in through the cracked hull. We can no longer go up and out. We are caught. The steam hisses down upon us out of cracked pipes. Furnace doors have opened and the live coal is on us, scorching what is still left of us. We hope and pray that the boiler will explode to make it short and sure. “Oh, down there, those men,” says the stateroom passenger who is allowed a look through a hole, “those filthy sweating devils, oh, never mind, they do not feel it, they are accustomed to the heat and to such thingsas a ship going down; it’s their business. Let’s have another cock well iced.”
Of course, we are used to all that may happen. We are the black gang. If you are hungry and you need a job, take it. It’s yours. Others are waiting to take it for less (pp. 150-151).
The book is full of fabulous polemical passages like this – but the story it tells is also rich and funny and sentimental and brutal and exciting. And the wonderful friendship between Gerrard Gales and Stanislav, a Polish sailor and coal-stoker, is a kind of fraternity of the damned, and has an emotional depth, a roundedness to its sense of solidarity and affection, of shared experience of statelessness, and of being at sea, both literally and metaphorically. There are other characters, many nameless, but of all of them Stanislav is the only one allowed to tell his story at length, the one whose fate is fused with that of Gales, the narrator.
In this rich story, we hear about shipwrecks and fraudulent sinkings, of gun-running and smuggling (to Syrian and Moroccan rebels no less – it is the 1920s), of ports and cities, and roads. But Traven also writes about seasickness (I think this is the first time I have read of seasickness in a maritime novel), and the dirty work sailors do in ports, and an extraordinary section on descaling the boiler aboard the ship:
In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread. Well, you who said so, you have never scaled a boiler of the Yorikke right close to the Equator with the fire out only ten hours and the boiler next to it under full steam! It must be done. Boilers have to be scaled or they go up to heaven, taking along the whole crew and all that is left of the ship.
We were sitting inside that boiler as active members of a nudist camp. The walls of the boiler were so hot that we could not touch them with bare hands, nor could we kneel at the bottom without a thick layer of rags under us.
There wasn’t such a thing as goggles for boiler-scaling on the Yorikke. No goggles were known at Carthage, so why should the Yorikke have them? The dust of the scale sprang into your eyes and almost burned the light out of them. If you tried to rub it out it would only pierce so deeply into your eyelids and under them that you would have to pick the specks out with a pin or with a pocket-knife. You feel that you are going mad. You cannot stand it any more and you call on one of the other guys to get them out. He works with his dusty and clumsy hands about your eyes until he gets them clean, but your eyes swell under this torture and they stay swollen and bloodshot for a week. Even suppose you had goggles, they would not do you any good. The dust darkens them to such an extent that you cannot see where you are.
The boiler inside has to be illuminated for you to see what you are doing, because it is as dark inside as it is in a coalmine. If you had electric light it would be easier. But on the Yorikke we had only the ancient lamps of old Carthage. Five minutes, no more, and the boiler was filled with black smoke so thick that we could cut it like a cake. And the smoke stood as if chained and gummed.
The drumming, hammering, and knocking against the hull inside seemed to crack open your head and mash your brain to powder.
Hardly ten minutes’ work and we had to come up and out to get air, exhausted each time like pearl-divers.
We would crawl out and dart under the air-funnel which reaches into the stoke-hold. The ocean breeze would strike our hot bodies, and then you feel as if a sword were thrust through your lungs. After fifteen seconds you feel like lying naked in a blizzard. To escape this terrific snowstorm, which in fact is only the soft breeze of the tropics, you hurry back into the hot boiler as if hunted, and go to work harder than before with the hope that the harder you work, the quicker you will be out of the inferno.
Before ten minutes have elapsed, however, you have to crawl out again into that blizzard of Saskatchewan, because you feel you are surely going to die if you don’t have fresh air.
There is a moment where the nerves seem to burst. It happens when you feel that you have to go out that very second and you see your fellow-man squeezing slowly through the manhole. The boiler has only one manhole. The narrower it can be made, the better for the boiler. Only one man can crawl through at a time. The others have to wait until he is through and fully out. While he is squeezing himself through, which takes a certain time, the hole is entirely closed, and not one mouthful of air can come in. The two men still inside feel exactly like men in a sunken submarine. No difference (pp. 310-311).
There are a number extraordinary chapters in Moby Dick in which a sperm whale is skinned, beheaded, processed in a cataract of blood, fat and flesh. It is a documentary record of whaling few nonfiction works can best, and it is operatic (or painterly, if your painter is Hieronymus Bosch) in its composition. Though the passage on descaling the boiler does not come close to Melville’s great masterpiece, it nevertheless has something of the power of Moby Dick‘s ethnography in conveying the work that is shipboard labour and for that, I am grateful to Traven.