b. traven

Hill & Wang 1967 Knopf 1938

Lawrence Russell

Charges: technical incompetence; gross sentimentality

Bench: Judge Reader presiding

Prosecution: Iago
Defense: Cicero

Synopsis: The action is probably somewhere in the jungle of the Aztec-Mayan triangle, in Mexico's Chiapas State, during the late twenties or early thirties, although the author leaves time and place largely generic. Gales -- a recurrent Traven hero -- is on an alligator hunting mission, although we never see any hunting or gators as he becomes distracted by a local tragedy when staying with a fellow American called Sleigh in a remote Indian village. In the opening scene, Gales is ambushed by Sleigh at a water-hole, disarmed as a precaution, then abandoned only to encounter Sleigh sometime later in another part of the jungle. Sleigh has "gone native", taken a young Indian woman as a wife, and is living in a jacale in a small village beside a big bridge that an American oil company built to span the gorge near their drilling operations. He invites Gales to hang out with him, and together they will go hunting alligators. The story can be reduced to a simple dialectic: a party which becomes a funeral which becomes a party again. The village pump- master has decided to throw a party, and the peasants roll in from the neighboring villages. With no electricity and few lamps, a bridge with no railings would be a dangerous crossing in the tropical darkness except for the agile moccasin-footed Indians... yet the bridge does bring tragedy. The young son of the fiddler disappears early in the festivities and when his body is found in the river below, the cause of his accident is easily identified with his new shoes, a gift from his older brother Manuel, a visiting oil worker from Texas. The search is hampered by the darkness of a starless night until a consecrated candle is used in a peculiar, primitivistic ritual. Repeated dives by young men, even draggings by a hook suspended from the bridge, fail to realize the body until a "holy" candle is rigged to a board and floated into the pool below the pilings. The triumph of superstition? Gales repeats the incident with controlled disbelief and later struggles to comprehend what has happened in a conversation with Sleigh. Sleigh, of course, has long ago blended with the supernatural predispositions of the Indians whose fatalistic view of life and death is still largely rooted in a pre-Christian mythology. The party finds a rebirth and new energy in the "wake" and subsequent funeral procession. As the long night gives way to the dawn, more people arrive, drawn by news of the tragedy. Women console the bereaved mother with flowers, paper crowns, weeping, while the men smoke and drink mescal. The procession to the cemetery at a neighboring village is like a carnival, replete with dancing, the latest music ("Ain't Gonna Rain No More") and drunken revelry. The school teacher is called upon to say the final words but, dazed and fearful, ludicrously falls into the grave. The dead boy's mother throws herself on the coffin while people stumble over the remains of the dead, their bones expelled from their shallow graves by the action of the merciless sun and the scavengers of the jungle. Gales, confused by the grotesquery, yet moved by the simple honesty of the emotion, reverts to his (by now) familiar philosophic pondering. "Man comes, man goes, the jungle stays on." In the end, a story that started with a stick-up closes with "yes we have no bananas today", Traven’s bitter refrain on the folly of human government and the latest victims of civilization.

Prosecution: What we have here, your honour, is a short story padded into novel length by the strident beer hall rantings of Herr Traven, a.k.a. Marut, Torsvan, Croves, Feige, et. al. "How insignificant is man in the universe," he brays. "What is left of the great Caesar?" Etc etc. It is said he concealed his true identity because he considered himself a revolutionary, and subject to harassment, arrest, even assassination. What vanity! The man was barely literate, wrote with the technical skill of an amateur. Admittedly there is an occasional flash of charm in his portraits of the Central American Indian, a rustic sense of authenticity even, but the writing is very confused. So what he was German. He claimed to be an American. Just remember that he was writing at the same time as the great Ernest Hemingway. Mixed tenses, double negatives, authorial intrusions, expositional dialogue, confused narrative... the examples are endless. It’s known, for example, that Harlan Ellison had to rewrite many of the stories for the collection "The Man Nobody Knows" because the English was so poor. But let me just draw attention to one early example of Traven’s technical incompetence: in the first chapter Gales is ambushed and disarmed by an unnamed gringo, then later he encounters an American called Sleigh, whom he knows from elsewhere. A hundred and thirty seven pages later Sleigh refers to the water-hole stick-up, and this is first time the reader has this important connection confirmed. Traven isn’t good with names. Maybe he had a psychological problem with them as his own deck of aliases suggests, but this doesn’t excuse his duty to the reader. He names characters as an afterthought. It’s like he’s talking about his own family, assumes we already know these people. The second charge -- that of gross sentimentality -- is one that maybe fifty, sixty years of hindsight makes possible. We know utopianism is part of the human spirit, but the romantic excesses of this bush rat Traven are ridiculous. Like all the socialist misanthropes of his era, he blames the white industrialist for the corruption of the native, and here it’s the almighty gringo with his oil rigs and his death-trap bridge and his lousy shiny shoes. It’s people like Traven who started this reactionary secular morality we call "political correctness", infecting the caucasian intellectual with this absurd global guilt. Did he really believe that the Aztecs and the Mayans lived in some sort of pastoral harmony devoid of political intrigue and murder before the Conquistadors arrived with Christianity? And the American gringo with his machines and exploitative labour practices? For all his sneering about the insensitivity of the gringo, Traven chose to proselytize through an American protagonist. "What is left of the great Caesar..." Gales ruminates. He could easily have said Montezuma, but that wouldn’t have fit the ideological thrust, would it? No. He rails against ethnocentricism with the fervor of an Old Wave Marxist. The kid drowns; he blames the bridge, the shoes, yet he might as well blame the party, the parents, the jungle night.

Judge: Is that it?

Prosecution: It is, your honor. I rest my case.

Defense: Now that my learned friend has finished jeering, let us reflect for a moment on the legacy of one of this century’s more interesting authors, B. Traven. He wrote -- what? Twelve novels, perhaps thirty stories, some non-fiction. Some of his fiction is very well-known -- The Night Visitor, Macario, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, for example. The fact that he chose to conceal his identity, and allow his work to speak for itself rather than be confused by the cult of personality is hardly a sign of sentimentality. And the fact that he used the natural cadence of the oral voice to tell his stories rather than the omniscient grammar of an academic robot is hardly a sign of technical incompetence. The Bridge is very justly recognized as a masterpiece. Using the sympathetic voice of the American adventurer Gales is the perfect P.O.V. for describing the subtle but deadly encroachment of industrial imperialism on the simple, isolated world of the Mexican bush peasant. And unlike the older Sleigh, Gales is always forcing the threshold of his naivety, which is exactly what the average reader requires. In the beginning, Gales is shown as a relative innocent (which is why he was easily bushwhacked by the canny Sleigh), but by the end he is a man examining his conscience as a representative of an insensitive European culture driven by New World excess and capitalist predation. "The more fatalistic I become, the closer I get to understanding these people," Gales reflects. "They could not bear life were they not all fatalists." The symbolism of the bridge itself is excellent. That we experience it mostly in the concealment of night reinforces its ambiguous significance, brilliantly dramatized by the death of Carlosito, a young Indian boy who loses his balance because he is wearing a pair of unfamiliar shoes. We never see a truck, or a gringo boss, but we are aware that this bridge exists only to help extract oil from the jungle. On one side of the river is the village, on the other the capped wells. Yet this bridge spans not only space but also time, like a link between the pre-Christian past and the post-Christian future. While the body is recovered by a ritual of pagan intervention, the spot is marked by a cross hacked into the centre of bridge. The prosecution claims weakness of narrative voice through gross sentimentality. Consider this description of the dead boy on display in his mother’s hut: "The kid, who had been a very beautiful sight at night, was now an ordinary carcass -- a carcass dressed up in a monkey suit. His mouth was green, and matter was running out of his smashed jaw." Does this sound sentimental to you, your honor? I think not. Nowhere does Traven gloss a description of the unpleasant or disguise his cynicism when discussing the fundamentals of life and death. Nowhere does he spare the Indians from his unflinching observations. He could’ve romanticized the funeral but he didn’t. He could’ve romanticized his alter-ego Gales but he didn’t. And if he was a mere propagandist, he could’ve had the bridge destroyed... but he didn’t. The prosecution has some hostile remarks about Traven’s technical skills as a writer. Mixed tenses, he claims. I see active and passive voices, not ungrammatical switching. Authorial intrusion, he claims. I see interior monologuing, not broken omniscience. I see a master of the oral narrative, regardless of what language he composed in, one who doesn’t allow stylistics to get in the way of telling a good story. Ideology? What’s an artist without ideology -- you might as well say "personality". He wasn’t writing anonymous bylines for the newspapers, after all. As in ”The Night Visitor“, a jungle narrative by Traven is always a beginning or an end of a hallucination.

Judge: What -- was Traven a drug writer?

Defense: (patiently) No, sir. It’s a condition, a way of seeing.

Judge: Thank you, Cicero. Let me ask you, though: did you realize right away that the man who disarmed Gales at the water-hole was, in fact, Sleigh?

Defense: It was obvious.

Prosecution: Your honor, we ran a survey, and every reader we canvassed was confused.

Defense: (sotto) Too sophisticated for you, eh.

Judge: I found it to be unclear too, as a matter of fact. However, on the charge of technical incompetence I find there to be enough reasonable doubt to dismiss the charge. And now that our attention has been drawn to the plight of the Chiapas Indian by the masked pipe-smoking "terrorist" Commandante Marcos, maybe now is a good time to take another look at this novel by the enigmatic "B. Traven". There’s some very provocative stuff in there. (reads) "He is the white, who has not been invited to come here, but he has come nevertheless. He is the guilty one. By his blue eyes and by his skin of the pale dead he has brought the wrath of our gods upon us poor people. He is a gringo. He has brought us misfortune and sorrows...." (sighs) The charge of gross sentimentality is also dismissed.

Prosecution: (stunned) Did we read the same book?

©LR 25/3/98


B. Traven The Bridge

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