Reading B. Traven

B. Traven is a mysterious author (identity still unknown), the inspiration for VM Straka in S, which was a novel I enjoyed. I was looking forward to reading his writing; but I found The Death Ship uninspiring, and a collection of his short stories only marginally better.


The steam ship “Hawea” run ashore at the entrance to the Grey River, Greymouth, 30 October 1908, courtesy of the National Library of New Zealand.

The Death Ship

One of the things that I enjoyed about The Ship of Theseus was the sense of mystery that was associated with the mysterious author, V. M. Straka. It was unclear who he was – reading the S/Ship of Theseus (the titling is somewhat unclear) was like reading something by a literary Bond.

VM Straka is based loosely on B. Traven, a similarly mysterious figure. From what I’ve read it seems that he was an anarchist or a socialist of some kind, but who exactly remains a mystery, although there are several conspiracy theories.

Given the sense of excitement built up in Ship of Theseus, I was looking forward to reading The Death Ship, a Traven novel that was the inspiration for the ship that features prominently in Ship of Theseus. 

I was somewhat disappointed. The Death Ship centres on an American sailor who suffers through a series of ever escalating misfortunes. Traven uses those situations to highlight (at length, and somewhat bluntly) the misfortune of those caught up in a bureaucratic passport system that can leave unlucky people stateless, and in turn how people in that situation can be exploited (as workers on horrific ships). But unfortunately that’s about as far as the novel goes; the characters are paper thin, and there’s not much development. The exposition is clumsy, and reads a little like Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, in being almost directly rhetorical, bypassing narrative altogether.

That said, there are some images and ideas in the book that will likely linger; but it wasn’t a page turner. Might be worth a go if you’re particularly keen after The Ship of Theseus, but otherwise there are plenty of other good books out there.

To the Honourable Miss S…

To the Honourable Miss S… is one of several short stories in an eponymous collection. It’s an easier read than The Death Ship. Some of the stories are only a few pages long, others (in particular the titular story) is almost a quarter of the book’s length.

The stories are good, for the most part. Not breath-takingly good, but they’re decent reads, and mildly enjoyable. Throughout there’s a flavour of those ideas that come up in Traven’s work; the individual chewed up or facing up against a larger system of states, corporations, and selfish corruption.

There’s also a foreword speculating on Traven’s identity, which actually came the closest to capturing the sense of mystery and intrigue around his identity of anything in the two books.

Not brilliant, but maybe worth a read if you’re fascinated by Traven/VM Straka; probably a better choice than The Death Ship.


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