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THE DEATH SHIP

THE DEATH SHIP (Das Totenschiff 1926; Eng. trans. 1934). Ascribed to
B. Traven (1882? 1890?–1969), The Death Ship was first published in Germany in 1926 and translated into English in 1934. A scathing indictment
of bureaucracy, privilege, and social class, The Death Ship follows the life of
a fictional American sailor named Gerard Gales. Distracted by a night of
drinking and a newfound female companion, he misses the departure of his
ship. With neither passport nor sailor’s card to prove his identity, European
authorities pass him from country to country. While the rich and powerful
quickly navigate the bureaucratic morass established after World War I,
Gales, a common sailor, is shuffled between consulates and police stations.
Failing after considerable effort to identify himself legally, he settles for a
berth on the Yorikke, an illegal steamship involved in smuggling arms to
various revolutionary groups. Gales is a coal-drag, hauling coal from the
bunkers to the firemen stoking the boilers, the lowest position on the ship.
He endures horrid working conditions: brutes for officers, an agonizing
watch schedule, and nearly catastrophic equipment failure. Working in the
boiler room, Gales is perpetually burned, scalded, and scorched by hot coals,
leaking steam, and the grate-bars that fall from the furnace.
The Yorikke appears to be the “death ship” of the novel’s title in both
physical condition and mission. On board, Gales gives up the identity that
he has tried so hard to establish and becomes known as Pippip. Nonetheless,
he comes to love the old Yorikke just as he is shanghaied* on the Empress
of Madagascar, a supposedly “civilized” British vessel. This vessel is about
to be scuttled for the insurance money, and it is the real “death ship.” Gales
and his companion come to a frantic end, delirious and hallucinating, as the
ship finally sinks. How Gales apparently survives to tell the tale remains a
mystery.
Identity is a theme relevant to both the work and its author. Traven
admits that Gales, who tries to prove his identity before accepting the anonymity of a tramp sailor, is his closest biographical character. Likewise,
Traven’s personal identity is enigmatic. He was deliberate in his attempts to
mislead investigators, reporters, and researchers and was known to have used
over twenty-five aliases crossing seven nationalities. For his trouble, he succeeded in drawing even more attention to himself, creating one of the
greatest literary mysteries of the twentieth century.
Researchers have hotly debated whether “B. Traven” was Rex Marut,
actor, author, revolutionary, and alleged illegitimate son of Kaiser Wilhelm
II, born 25 February 1882, in San Francisco, or Otto Feige, born 23 February 1882, in Schwiebus, Germany. Once Traven began publishing from
post office boxes in Tampico, Mexico, records and references to Marut and
Feige disappear. His identity was then traced to one Traven Torsvan, born
5 March 1890, in Chicago. Traven’s claims to being an American seemed
confirmed, but there is no birth record for Torsvan in Chicago. A final alias,
Hal Croves, the writer’s “agent,” appears late in the author’s life. In his will,
Traven states that all the names are indeed his. Perhaps the only certainty
is that the author known as B. Traven died 26 March 1969. FURTHER READING: Chankin, Donald O. Anonymity and Death: The Fiction of
B. Traven. University Park: Pennsylvania State UP, 1975; Guthke, Karl S. B. Traven:
The Life behind the Legends. Frankfurt am Main: Buchergilde Gutenberg, 1987, Eng.
trans. Brooklyn, NY: Lawrence Hill Books, 1991; Stone, Judy. The Mystery of B.
Traven. Los Altos, CA: William Kaufmann, 1977; Wyatt, Will. The Man Who Was
B. Traven. London: Jonathan Cape, 1980