AT FIRST sight The Death Ship by B Traven seems nothing more than a Boys' Own style story of adventure on the high seas. However, in the pages of this book you will find no glamour or heroism. Instead The Death Ship is a wonderful indictment of the absurdities of capitalist society, and a gritty description of life as the lowest of the low, full of burning anger, black humour and razor sharp wit.
Our narrator, whose real name we never learn, is a merchant sailor out of New Orleans between the world wars. After being inadvertently stranded in Antwerp without any money or identification papers, he runs the gauntlet of police in several countries while being unable to find work on another ship, and is given no help by US consuls owing to his lack of papers.
Eventually he manages to land a job on the only ship which will take a man with no papers-the Yorricke. He enters the world of the death ships, dangerous rustbuckets liable to sink at any moment, the owners of which provide little safety equipment and foul food, and barely even pay the sailors.
Only the desperate will work on them-men like the narrator, men left with no nationality when the borders were redrawn by the Treaty of Versailles, and men who simply don't want any questions asked about them. They are worked harder than slaves and treated like animals, and have gone beyond care or fear.
This is a world where people are only valued if they have the right documents or enough money to buy them. The shipping companies care little for their sailors, as long as they keep the ships going and don't bring any 'Communistic' influences aboard.
If a ship needs to be sunk for insurance purposes, it doesn't matter if the crew survives or goes down to the bottom. This inspiring struggle for survival would fit well on any socialist's bookshelf.
Who was B Traven?
By Chris Harman
B TRAVEN wrote a dozen or so immensely readable novels. Most are set in Mexico in the 1910s and 1920s. They show how capitalism oppresses the world's poorest people, but also how they can fight back. This is particularly true of the three novels The Correta, The Rebellion of the Hanged and The General From the Jungle.
The first tells of the enslavement through debt of indigenous people who work on plantations. The second tells of how bitterness at oppression suddenly transforms itself into revolt. And the third tells of how a local rebellion becomes part of a great revolution. Traven first gained an international reputation after director John Huston made one of his less political novels, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, into a film starring Humphrey Bogart.
For many years there was a mystery about Traven's identity. Who was the unknown man who pumped out a succession of novels based upon the lives of the Mexican poor? And why just the 'B'? B Traven was probably the pseudonym of Ret Marut, a German writer who had been active in the Bavarian workers' council republic of 1919.
He fled into exile as it was crushed and its leaders executed or jailed. He ended up in Mexico after working as a deck hand on various ships, as he was driven by the authorities from country to country.
The Death Ship by B Traven (£12.99) is available from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop. Phone 020 7637 1848 or go to www.bookmarks.uk.com