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Exploring the Interior

Karl S. Guthke

I. “The great map of mankind unrolled”

6. In “A Far-Off Land”: B. Traven’s Mexican Stories

Texte intégral

A German Revolutionary in the Tropical Jungle

1In the spring of 1926 the fledgling Socialist publishing house Büchergilde Gutenberg (Berlin) dramatically enlivened the literary scene by bringing out, within a few weeks of each other, two novels: Das Totenschiff (The Death Ship) and Der Wobbly – one about the life of an American sailor aboard a dilapidated freighter destined to be scuttled in an insurance fraud scheme, the other about the adventures of an American hobo suspected of being a Wobbly, a member of the radical Industrial Workers of the World, in the hinterland of the Mexican state of Tamaulipas on the Gulf of Mexico. The name of their author, B. Traven, was unknown, except to readers of the Socialist daily Vorwärts where, since February 1925, three vignettes of Mexican life and history had been published and the first part of Der Wobbly had been serialized that summer as Die Baumwollpflücker (The Cotton-Pickers), which was also the title of the book editions from 1928 on. The author did not remain unknown for long. Like a bracing breeze from nowhere, the two novels, especially Das Totenschiff, had an immediate and powerful impact far beyond the membership of the trade-union oriented book club that Büchergilde Gutenberg served. By the time Traven died in Mexico City in 1969, his books were selling by the millions, in many languages. As early as 1950, American college students could learn intermediate German from a textbook containing parts of Das Totenschiff; from 1971 on, they could study advanced Spanish from a textbook edition of a translation of Traven’s Macario, and by the end of the century, at least one of Traven’s stories, “Assembly Line,” first published in 1930 as “Der Großindustrielle” in the second edition of a volume of Traven’s narratives entitled Der Busch, was required reading in some American high schools, as was Die weiße Rose (1929; The White Rose) in some German high schools. John Huston’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), produced with at least some input from Traven himself, was, and still is, a cult film.

  • 1 Some were collected in Der blaugetupfte Sperling (1919); the epistolary novella An das Fräulein vo (...)

2In the literary and socio-political landscape of Germany, Traven loomed largest after the demise of the Empire and before the Nazis’rise to absolute power. To be sure, he did not come into full view until the second half of the Weimar Republic. But, in a sense, he was present at its very inception, or its prelude, and actively so. Under the fakelooking name of Ret Marut (which he had used from 1907 to 1915 as an actor in various provincial theaters, and since 1912 as the author of short prose fiction printed mostly in newspapers and magazines)1 he had published, and written virtually single-handedly, an anarchist-leftist journal in Munich, beginning in September 1917. Acerbic in its criticism of the social and political life of the waning years of the imperial regime, it was called Der Ziegelbrenner (“The Brickburner”), obviously with a view to providing building materials for the construction of a post-war, post-dynastic Germany. The time for this renewal arrived even before the capitulation: on 7 November 1918 the Republic was proclaimed in Munich. Marut’s Ziegelbrenner declared its solidarity, seeing nothing less than “die Welt-Revolution” beginning at that very moment. Marut himself played a highly visible role, primarily as a newspaper censor in the Central Committee of each of the two successive Bavarian “Räterepubliken,” republics relying for their authority on the councils of workers, soldiers, and farmers that were established at the outbreak of the revolution. When the revolution failed on 1 May 1919, Marut was arrested in a Munich street and would, he had reason to believe, have been condemned to death by the cigarette-smoking lieutenant who summarily sentenced the prisoners in a court martial improvised at the Royal Bavarian Residence – if he had not managed to give his captors the slip at the last moment. Wanted for high treason by the Bavarian authorities, Marut went underground, sheltered by friends in various parts of Germany – until, after escaping first to London, where he eked out a precarious existence without papers from August 1923 to April 1924, he turned up in the Tampico region of Tamaulipas in the summer of 1924, working at odd jobs and beginning to write prose works in German under the name of B. Traven, which, in their way, continue and develop the critical socio-political stance of Ret Marut.

  • 2 Quoted from Karl S. Guthke, B. Traven: Biographie eines Rätsels (Frankfurt, 1987), 435. Translatio (...)

3By the time the Weimar Republic drew to its close, the inauspicious and highly provincial literary beginnings of Ret Marut had blossomed into the world fame of B. Traven. To hear Die Büchergilde, the publisher’s in-house journal, tell it in 1931, “vor fünf Jahren war Traven noch ein unbekannter Mann, heute ist er eine Größe in der Weltliteratur” (“five years ago, Traven was a nobody, today he is a major player in world literature”), with translations into eleven languages published or in preparation.2 And just as Marut was more than a bystander in the unsettled political climate out of which the Weimar Republic grew, so Traven’s work produced during the mid to late twenties and early thirties – seven novels, a volume of stories and a kind of travelogue raisonné, all except Das Totenschiff about the wilds of Mexico – was critically, if indirectly, connected with the socio-political life of the increasingly turbulent Weimar Republic, notably with its left-of-center ideological factions. Less concerned with language in the sense of stylistic artistry than with a stirring story-line implying a social message, these books were a rousing appeal to a sense of personal responsibility vis-à-vis the rampant “Republikmüdigkeit,” that hedonistic apathy of the only seemingly “golden” twenties. In their refreshingly off-hand and down-to-earth manner, they championed the downtrodden, the disenfranchised, and the ignored of early twentieth-century society – proletarians one and all, whether they were stateless sailors or itinerant American laborers in the oil-fields near Tampico or, beginning in 1931 with Der Karren (The Carreta), indios enslaved by their colonial Spanish masters. Only now and then was there a touch of sentimentality or a fleeting sense of melancholy or suspicion of hopelessness in their forthright advocacy on behalf of the underprivileged.

4When the bell tolled for the Weimar Republic, it tolled for Traven. His books were among the first to be burnt by the Nazis in May 1933. The anti-fascist barbs of his novel Regierung (1931; Government) in particular were hard to miss.

  • 3 Ibid.

5But then, right after their seizure of power, which was soon followed by their seizure of Traven’s publishing house, the Nazis had also made an effort to acquire his books, or rather some of them, for sale under the new regime – much to Traven’s disgust, of course; but why had the Nazis been interested? Their inconsistency throws additional light on the nature of the works that had captivated such large audiences (nearly half a million copies of the German originals alone were sold by the spring of 1936).3 For apart from their implied or even overt denunciation of mentalities and conditions repressing the proletariat, anywhere in the world, Traven’s books were a good read, without degenerating into the light reading material that Germans call “Unterhaltungsliteratur.” They were teeming with exotic adventures and stirring exploits by a cast of characters rarely, if ever, encountered in German literature, high modernist or otherwise. Moreover, there was the much-touted mystery about the author, which cannot have been detrimental to the sales either. The more successful the books turned out to be, the more the readers clamored for information about the author, and the more he – or was it she, Traven once suggested in order to throw pursuers off his scent – obscured his identity. In fact, he developed mystification into a cottage industry that grew ever more elaborate and intricate – and obsessive – over the years. Only on his deathbed did he allow his identity with Ret Marut to be made public. Until then he had usually claimed to be an American of Norwegian descent, born in Cook County, Illinois, in 1890, instead of somewhere in (northern) Germany in 1882. On one occasion he “revealed” that the B. in “B. Traven” did not stand for Bruno; but in any case, in private life in Mexico he was T (raven) Torsvan or Hal Croves, and he consistently avoided revealing his real name, the date and place of his birth, his parentage, education, and occupation prior to 1907, the year when “Ret Marut” stepped into the floodlights of the Municipal Theater of Essen in the Ruhr district as a minor actor.

  • 4 I am taking this phrase from the concluding sentence of Marut’s fairy tale “Khundar,” published in(...)

6The circumstances of the genesis of his works, on the other hand, he eagerly disclosed, sensing the appeal of the offbeat and exotic to German readers for whom the Mexico of bandits, gold-diggers, cottonpickers, cattle-drivers, and Indians was a “far-off land.”4 To the editors of Westermann’s Monatshefte he wrote on 21 July 1925:

Eine andere interessante Geschichte waere, Ihren Lesern mitzuteilen, unter welchen Muehsalen im Dschungel ein Manuskript geschrieben wird, besonders wenn der Schreiber nicht mit jener kostspieligen Ausruestung ausgestattet ist, wie sie reiche amerikanische Universitaeten oder reiche Privatliebhaber in Deutschland zur Verfuegung stellen. Bis zu welch kleinem Umfang eine Tropenausruestung hinuntergespart werden kann infolge Mangel an Mitteln und uebergrosser Abenteuerlust, darf ich nicht einmal Ihnen mitteilen, um nicht fuer einen glatten Luegner gehalten zu werden.

  • 5 Guthke, 347; B. Traven: The Life Behind the Legends, trans. Robert C. Sprung (Brooklyn, NY, 1991), (...)

It would make for another interesting story to inform your readers of the hardships one must endure to write a manuscript in the jungle, particularly when the writer does not enjoy the expensive amenities which rich American universities or rich German patrons would supply. Lest I be held for a liar, I cannot tell even you just how much one can skimp when putting a tropical outfit together if one has no means, but more than enough of an adventurous spirit.5

7Writing to his editor at the Büchergilde Gutenberg on 5 August 1925, he reported:

  • 6 Ibid.

Die Novelle “Im tropischen Busch” [later “Der Nachtbesuch im Busch”] wurde gleichfalls und zwar urspruenglich englisch im Dschungel geschrieben. In Ihrer kleinen Zeitschrift schreiben Sie ueber die geistigen Qualen, die ein Schriftsteller zu erleiden hat, um sein Werk zu gebaeren. Zu diesen geistigen Qualen, die unertraeglich sind, kommen hier, bei mir wenigstens, physische Qualen, die ich vielleicht einmal in Ihrer Zeitschrift veroeffentliche. Qualen, die ihre Ursache in dem tropischen Klima und in der tropischen Umgebung finden. Zu arbeiten in diesem Klima, auf den gluehenden Feldern, das macht mir wenig aus. Aber schreiben in diesen Laendern, wenn man nicht in einem modernen Hotel wohnen kann, sondern in Barracken oder Huetten wohnen muss, das ist die Hoelle. Nicht nur das Hirn, nein ebenso sehr die von Mosquitos und anderem Hoellengelichter zerstochenen und blutenden Haende und Beine und Backen rebellieren gegen den Schreiber und gegen das Zusammenhalten des Gedankengefueges und der notwendigen Farbengebilde.
The novella “Im tropischen Busch” [original title of “Der Nachtbesuch im Busch” (“The Night Visitor”)] was also written in the jungle, and originally in English. In your little magazine you write about the intellectual torments a writer must undergo in order to bring his work into the world. To these intellectual torments, which are unbearable, are added, at least in my case, physical torments which I might one day describe in your magazine. Torments caused by the tropical climate and the tropical environment. Working in this climate, in the simmering fields, does not bother me all that much. But writing in such countries, when one cannot stay in a modern hotel, but must live in shanties or huts, that is truly a living hell. Not only the brain, but also the hands and legs and cheeks, bleeding from the bites of mosquitoes and other demons, rebel against the writer and against his ability to control his thoughts and their images.6

8Earlier in this letter he discussed Der Wobbly:

Den Roman schriebich in einer Indianerhuette im Dschungel, wo ich weder Tisch noch Stuehle hatte und mir ein Bett aus zusammengeknuepften Bindfaden in der Art einer noch nie erlebten Haengematte selbst machen musste. Der naechste Laden, wo ich Papier, Tinte oder Bleistifte kaufen konnte, war fuenfunddreissig Meilen entfernt. Ich hatte gerade sonst nichts anderes zu tun und hatte ein wenig Papier. Es war nicht viel und ich musste es auf beiden Seiten beschreiben mit einem Stueck Bleistift und als das Papier zu Ende war, musste auch der Roman zu Ende sein, obgleich er dann erst anfangen sollte. Ich gab das Manuskript, das ich in der unleserlichen Form niemand haette einsenden koennen und das so niemand gelesen haette, einem Indianer mit, der zur Station ritt, und sandte es nach Amerika zum Abschreiben in der Maschine.

  • 7 Ibid. 347 and 221, respectively.

I wrote the novel in an Indian hut in the jungle, where I had neither table nor chairs, and I had to make my own bed out of string tied together in the form of a hammock the likes of which has never before been seen. The nearest store where I could buy paper, ink, or pencils, was thirty-five miles away. At the time I had nothing much else to do, and had some paper. It wasn’t much, and I had to write on both sides with a pencil, and when the paper was used up, the novel had to come to a close as well, although it really was just getting started. As I never could have submitted the manuscript to anyone in its illegible state, and as no one would have read it had I done so, I gave it to an Indian, who rode to the station and sent it to America to be typed.7

9The milieu that generated Traven’s fiction is powerfully evoked in the opening paragraph of “Der Nachtbesuch im Busch” (“The Night Visitor”):

Undurchdringlicher Dschungel bedeckt die weiten Ebenen der Flußgebiete des Panuco und des Tamesi. Zwei Bahnlinien nur durchziehen diesen neunzigtausend Quadratkilometer großen Teil der Tierra Caliente. Wo sich Ansiedelungen befinden, haben sie sich dicht und ängstlich an die wenigen Eisenbahnstationen gedrängt. Europäer wohnen hier nur ganz vereinzelt und wie verloren. Die ermüdende Gleichförmigkeit des Dschungels wird von einigen sich langhinstreckenden Höhenzügen unterbrochen, die mit tropischem Urbusch bewachsen sind, der ebenso undurchdringlich ist wie der Dschungel, und in dessen Tiefen, wo immer Dämmerung herrscht, alle Mysterien und Grauen der Welt zu lauern scheinen. An einigen günstigen Stellen, wo Wasser ist, sind kleine Indianerdörfer über die Höhen verstreut; Wohnplätze, die schon dort waren, ehe der erste Weiße das Land betrat. Sie liegen fernab der Eisenbahn. Auf Eselskarawanen werden die Waren, die hier gebraucht werden, hauptsächlich Salz, Tabak, billige Baumwollhemden, Zwirnhosen, Musselinkleider, spitze Strohhüte für die Männer und schwarze Baumwolltücher für die Frauen herbeigebracht. Als Tausch werden Hühner, Eier, Eselsfüllen, Ziegen, Papageien und wilde Truthähne gegeben.

  • 8 Der Busch, 2nd ed. (Berlin, 1930), 195; B. Traven: The Life Behind the Legends, 219–220.

Impenetrable jungle covers the broad plains along the Panuco and Tamesi rivers. Just two railway lines cross this ninety-thousand-squarekilometer stretch of the Tierra Caliente. The settlements which do exist have nestled themselves timidly near the few train stations. Europeans live here only very sparsely and virtually lost to each other. The tiring monotony of the jungle is interrupted by a few long ranges of hills covered with tropical bush as impassable as the jungle, and in its depths, which are always enveloped in twilight, all the mysteries and horrors of the world seem to lie in wait. At a few favorable spots where there is water one finds small Indian villages scattered among the hills, settlements which were there before the first white man ever arrived. They lie far from the railway. Mule carts bring what goods they need, mainly salt, tobacco, cheap cotton shirts, work pants, muslin dresses, pointed straw hats for the men and black cotton scarves for the women. In trade they offer chickens, eggs, young donkeys, goats, parrots, and wild turkeys.8

10Mexico, though not the hut in the hinterland of Tampico, remained Traven’s home for the rest of his life. Since the late twenties, he was often to be found in Mexico City; about 1930 he moved to Acapulco, where he managed an orchard; after his marriage to Rosa Elena Luján in 1957, his domicile was in Mexico City, where he eventually acquired a modern three-story house in upscale Calle Río Mississippi. While he frequently traveled up and down his chosen homeland, especially to the state of Chiapas on the border of Guatemala, in search of material for his books, he returned to Germany only once, in 1959, for the premiere of the Totenschiff film starring Horst Buchholz. He had become a stranger in the homeland that he had written about early on; the great mystery man of twentieth-century literature was now the author of “Mexican” novels.

Social Issues in the Mexican Novels

11Das Totenschiff, arguably his most famous book, had in fact been the exception to the rule. Purporting to be the yarn of an American sailor, and no doubt in large parts autobiographical, Traven’s first novel is not set in Mexico, unlike the rest of his fiction (with the exception of his final novel, Aslan Norval of 1960, which is generally considered to be a failure). Chock-full of crassly “realistic” accounts of the colorful if backbreaking daily lives and labors of the lowest of the low in the social world of the merchant marine, Das Totenschiff is also a philosophical reflection on the tyranny of the supposedly enlightened and humane capitalist bureaucracy. It is a tyranny over those of its subjects who have, for one reason or another, not only been reduced to powerlessness but also deprived of their identity as a result of the loss of their identity papers. Such is the fate of the crew of the Yorikke – a crying shame in social terms, but also the cue for a searching examination of the existential mode of the non-person in the modern world: must the outsider succumb to sheer non-existence, or can he learn, contre cœur, to love his condition, to master his life by creating a proud new identity out of this very namelessness, thus finding a fresh life and a new sense of self-worth and even of community with other “nobodies” in the Yorikke’s no-man’s land of the living dead? Clearly, this theme points back to the social and political conditions of Europe that the author was leaving behind him as he wrote Das Totenschiff. (An English version was begun in Brixton prison, London, where Marut was held in 1923/24 for failing to register as a foreigner.)

  • 9 On this transformation, see Heidi Zogbaum, B. Traven: A Vision of Mexico (Wilmington, DE, 1992), x (...)

12Nonetheless, the anarchist temper of the first novel foreshadows the “Mexican” ones to follow, with the significant difference that Mexico reinforced the transformation, already incipient in Das Totenschiff, of the “individualist anarchist” Ret Marut into the “anarcho-syndicalist” Traven, who was more concerned with authentic forms of community life (Indian-style) than with the needs and desires of the subjectivist “self” (which had been a keyword for Marut in his Munich days when he had published a home-made journal entitled Der Selbe).9 Das Totenschiff, then, being no longer “German” and not yet “Mexican,” is the product of a transitional phase. The first of the Mexican novels, Der Wobbly (1926), was written too soon after Marut’s arrival (and suggests too much of a transcription of diaries kept in the early months of the author’s life in the New World) to allow his characteristic new theme – the communality of the indios’lifestyle vs. European and American money-grubbing and selfishness – to come into its own. Instead, one colorful episode loosely follows the other in the life of a happy-go-lucky American gringo living a hand-to-mouth life as an itinerant oildriller, unskilled baker, cattle driver, and cottonpicker in the “bush” beyond Tampico, enjoying a country where nobody cares or asks about one’s papers or real name. The native population comes into sight only marginally. This changes with Die Brücke im Dschungel (1929; The Bridge in the Jungle; serialized, in a shorter version, in Vorwärts in 1927) and the two novels to follow: Der Schatz der Sierra Madre (1927; The Treasure of the Sierra Madre) and Die weiße Rose (1929). In all three, the Indian idyll, austere as it is in its own way, is threatened by the presence of Americans who are out to exploit its resources and “civilize” the native population. The American boots worn by a normally barefoot muchacho cause his death as he slips off the unsafe bridge built by an American oil company, disrupting the tranquil life of the pre-industrial community… the yen of the “civilized” for money wreaks havoc with the lives of gold diggers from north of the border, though one of them overcomes the curse of lucre by seeing the wisdom of living, for the rest of his life, in the sustaining harmony of a primordial Indian community… the destruction of such family-based agricultural community life, anchored deep in history though it is, through American greed for the oil beneath the nourishing land – wherever Traven looks, he perceives the clash of cultures, the tragic threat to the native population. Yet, for all his misgivings about the future of the idealized Indian life, he is not without hope (buoyed by his understanding of the social reform policies of the Mexican federal government at the time) for the survival of the Indians’archaic existence under the onslaught of industrial ruthlessness driven by consumerist demands. Their form of communal living Traven tends to see as a panacea for all the shortcomings of modern industrial civilization. He editorializes in Die Brücke im Dschungel:

Der Fluch der Zivilisation und die Ursache, warum die nicht-weißen Völker sich endlich zu rühren beginnen, beruhen darin, daß man die Weltanschauung europäischer und amerikanischer Gerichtsaktuare, Polizeiwachtmeister und Weißwarenhändler der ganzen übrigen Erde als Evangelium aufzwingt, an das alle Menschen zu glauben haben oder ausgerottet werden.

  • 10 Die Brücke im Dschungel (Berlin: 1929), 170; B. Traven: The Life Behind the Legends, 216.

The curse of civilization and the reason nonwhite peoples are finally beginning to rouse themselves, is that people are forcing upon the whole rest of the world the views of European and American court stenographers, police sergeants, and drapers as if it were the word of God, which all men must believe or else be wiped out.10

  • 11 For a reading of the series as a statement of Traven’s disappointment with the Revolution and its (...)
  • 12 Zogbaum sees this return of some of the revolutionaries to communal life as a sign of complacency (...)

13The first book to appear in the 1930s, Der Karren (1931), initiated a coherent series of six novels culminating, in 1940, in Ein General kommt aus dem Dschungel (General from the Jungle) and including, midway, the grimmest and (thanks to the film based on Traven’s own script) best known of the sequence: Die Rebellion der Gehenkten (1936; The Rebellion of the Hanged). In these volumes, Traven’s confidence in a change for the better lying just ahead for the Indian population seems to be somewhat shaken. These crassly realistic novels, intended to document present conditions (though the scene is set in the years immediately preceding the national revolution of 1910), focus on the plight of the indios in the backward state of Chiapas who are brutally worked to death in the monterías, the Spanish-Mexican-owned mahogany logging camps. An appeal for reform is implied, of course, and it is not exclusively local or national. For there are not a few hints that what is at stake is the liberation of the oppressed everywhere, including, pointedly, in Germany, whose nazification Traven followed with grave concern. Yet the Mexican Revolution, which Traven, according to his understanding of the historical event, shows to be growing out of the inhumane conditions that he describes in great and horrid detail, fails in the end.11 But it should be noted that the resignation implied in this ending of the sweeping epic is significantly offset by the idyll of communal life that some of the revolutionaries achieve as they desist from pursuing their uprising further.12 Here, too, then, Traven still clings to his cherished panacea, even in the face of a “realistic” appraisal of the enduring powers of adverse tendencies and circumstances.

Beyond Ideology: The World of the Busch Stories

  • 13 Edward N. Treverton, B. Traven: A Bibliography (Lanham, MD, and London 1999), 103–112. My referenc (...)
  • 14 The English titles of individual stories cited in what follows are those used in these volumes. Ho (...)

14There is one among the numerous books published in quick succession by the Büchergilde Gutenberg from 1926 to 1940 that does not quite fit the description of Traven’s literary output offered so far. This volume, Der Busch (1928; enlarged edition, 1930), is not a novel but a collection of stories about Mexico, which were frequently reissued in several languages.13 Most of them are familiar to English-speaking readers from The Kidnapped Saint and Other Stories (New York: Hill, 1975), The Night Visitor and Other Stories (New York: Hill and Wang, 1966), and Stories by the Man Nobody Knows (Evanston, Illinois: Regency, 1961).14 Unlike the novels preceding or following, the short fiction of Der Busch for the most part avoids Traven’s sometimes ham-fisted socio-political editorializing that results from his leftist ideological stance. Instead, it is by and large a record of the European refugee’s encounter with the indigenous population, its mores and culture and history. Told in an unpretentious, at times rough-and-tumble style, it is often without subtlety of diction but full of down-to-earth idiomatic German and sprinkled with the usual Anglicisms, not to mention Traven’s familiar irony, sarcastic humor, and outrageously grotesque turns of phrase that sometimes rub shoulders with bits of Wilhelminian high-school erudition (120, 134, 165).

  • 15 Zogbaum, 21. To be sure, Traven taught an American farmer’s daughter, whereas the narrator in “Der (...)

15Of course, the novels following Das Totenschiff had been set in Mexico as well. But, to repeat: to the extent that they are significantly focused on the native population, they fit the image of the indios into the ideological framework of a somewhat schematic conflict between the exploitative Yankee business mentality, on the one hand, and the native values of deep-rooted communality and respect for individual worth, on the other. The six montería novels, finally, are clearly driven by Traven’s socio-political agenda, targeting the entrepreneurial abuses. It is only in the more occasional pieces of Der Busch that the author focuses more on the mind and the realities of the “far-off land” that he – like the protagonist of Marut’s “German Fairy Tale”, “Khundar” – had absconded to. At the same time he is to all appearances still, as he was in Der Wobbly, somewhat personal in an autobiographical way (introducing even a mule named Bala after the mule of his Chiapas diaries [152] and a narrator earning his keep by giving English lessons [157] as Traven did in his early years in Mexico).15 And throughout, the author-narrator is more relaxed in that he wields less fiercely the ideological axe that he felt he had to grind in earlier (and later) works. What takes over now is Traven’s sharp-eyed narrative exuberance. In a series of telling vignettes of the life of the natives, he focuses on his encounter with the (as he often puts it) “pure-blooded” Indian other, “in the bush in Mexico” where, according to the “American Song” that serves as the overture of the volume, he finds himself trapped, for better or for worse.

  • 16 Europe: 22, 75, 91, 117, 127, 137; USA: 23, 68, 100, 163, 165, 197; Germany: 137, 147, 214.

16Der Busch, then, is an account of total immersion in the “fremde Land” (183). And yet the narrator (who is often a first-person narrator whom, for all our narratological sophistication that has become de rigueur, we may to some extent identify with Marut-Torsvan-Traven himself) does not “go native.” Far from it: he is critically alert to what he perceives as the strange and sometimes childish ways and values of his new neighbors, but he is no less, and no less critically, aware of his own European or (as he claims) American cultural heritage and perspective. For not only are there references, throughout these Mexican stories, to Mexican pre-and post-Revolutionary social history and politics (to Presidents Porfirio Díaz and Plutarco Elías Calles, for example) but also to American, European, and specifically German conditions, customs, and values of socio-political life.16 The fact that these short narrative pieces are told from the European outsider’s perspective is never lost sight of, but neither is the awareness that this perspective can be reversed to show European-American-German ways as they are perceived with the eyes of the inhabitants of a far-away country with a very different culture. As a result of this dual perspective, both cultures are critically brought into clear focus, mutually questioning or relativizing each other with their distinctly alternative cultural assumptions. It is this dual perspective, too, that lends Der Busch not only its internal coherence and unity (which give it a place of honor alongside the “novels”, which tended to dissolve the overall narrative sweep into incoherence) but also its intense appeal to readers outside Mexico, and in Germany in particular. For it was here, during the Weimar Republic – years of socio-political experimentation and an attempted revolution of values and mores – that Traven’s, the ex-German’s, challenge to conventional ways, derived from his refreshing experiences in an alien “Wunderland” (198), fell on eager ears. What exactly, then, was the critical image of the predominantly non-white “other” with which the celebrity author from nowhere confronted his German audiences?

Encountering the Indios

17The world the narrator finds himself in is distinctly that of the indios, in their jungle habitat, with only the very occasional mestizo (a person of combined European and Amerindian descent), “Spaniard,” or American farmer or businessman thrown in. These stand out like a sore thumb, reaffirming the predominance of the indigenous population living in the “bush.” One of them is the narrator, Gale, the only white man for many miles around, a long and often impassable way from doctors, railways, roads, or shops. And a “fremdes Land,” a strange world it is in the eyes of the narrator. He appreciates faraway Mexico for its lack of streetcars, automobiles, telephones, and other sine qua nons of that “andere Welt” (152), America and Europe. But alienation persists: “Man ist ein Fremder, und man befindet sich unter einer fremden Rasse, die anders denkt und anders urteilt” (“One is a stranger, and one finds oneself among an alien race that thinks and judges differently,” 13). When Gale witnesses native dances in the nocturnal jungle, with the shrill and screeching pitch of their music, reminiscent, he thinks, of the war cries of the Aztecs that sent shudders down the conquistadors’spines, he feels that “ich in einer andern Welt lebte, daß Jahrhunderte mich von meiner Zeit, Tausende von Meilen mich von meiner Rasse trennten, daß ich auf einem andern Erdball lebte als dem, auf dem ich geboren worden war” (“that I lived in a different world, that centuries separated me from my time, thousands of miles from my race, that I did not live on the planet I was born on,” 21). Of course, it works the other way around as well: when an indio finds out that the American lives all by himself in the bush, with no woman around to cook frijoles and bake tortillas for him, he “stand einer völlig fremden Welt gegenüber” (“faced a completely alien world,” 86), much as his ancestors did when they first set eyes on a horse brought along by the white men: surely a god to be worshipped and to be offered a tribute of the most beautiful flowers – until he dies of starvation (“Die Geburt eines Gottes” [“A New God Was Born”]). Understanding across the cultural barriers, this case shows, is virtually impossible (as some postmodern discourse theorists will be quick to observe). The impasse extends in particular to the encounter of emotions. True, the indigenous tribes have largely discarded their traditional costumes and cultural paraphernalia for Western dress, boots, soap, perfumes, even Western dance-hall music, but their minds remain terra incognita:

Die wahren Motive einer Handlung zu ergründen, die der Angehörige einer Rasse begeht, die nicht die unserige ist, ist ein törichtes Beginnen. Vielleicht finden wir das Motiv, oder wir mögen glauben, daß wir es gefundenhaben, aber wenn wir versuchen, es zubegreifen, es unserer Weltund Seeleneinstellung nahezubringen, stehen wir ebenso hoffnungslos da – vorausgesetzt, wir sind ehrlich genug, es einzugestehen – , genau so, als wenn wir in Stein eingegrabene Schriftzeichen eines verschollenen Volkes entziffern sollen. Der Angehörige der kaukasischen Rasse wird, wenn als Richter über die Handlung des Angehörigen einer andern Rasse gesetzt, immer ungerecht sein. (54–55)

It is foolish to try to get to the bottom of the true motivations of the action of a member of a race that is not ours. Maybe we discover the motivation, or we believe that we have discovered it, but if we try to grasp it, to bring it in line with our worldview and mindset, we don’t stand a chance – presuming we are honest enough to admit it – no more than if we had to decipher the chiseled inscriptions of a lost civilization. The Caucasian, sitting in judgment on the conduct of one of another race, will always be unjust.

18Der Busch is teeming with the cross-cultural misunderstandings, both touching and grim to the point of grotesqueness, that result from attempts to overcome this impasse: Gale lives by himself in his grass-covered cottage, overjoyed to be far from the curses of everyday civilization, but his Indian neighbors conclude that a solitary man must ipso facto be unhappy, and so they try to cheer him up (“Indianertanz im Dschungel” [“Indian Dance in the Jungle”]); all inhabitants of a village have their teeth pulled because they have paid for the privilege of medical care (“Die Wohlfahrtseinrichtung” [“The Welfare Institution”]); an Indian family rejoices when a skinny uncle’s dead body swells up in the tropical heat so that the white-tie suit handed down by an overweight white merchant will actually fit and thus ensure that the funeral service is a huge social success (“Familienehre” [“Family Honor”]), and so on.

  • 17 See Karl S. Guthke, “Rassentheorien von links: Der Fall B. Traven,” in Guthke, Die Entdeckung des (...)

19A noteworthy feature of the quoted statements about the strangeness of Mexico is the reference to the “race” of the natives as well as that of the newcomers, suggesting that race is at the bottom of the intercultural difference in outlook, behavior, and attitudes. These statements are by no means isolated instances; nor is the insistence that the Indians the gringo encounters are not mestizos but pure-blooded, “Vollblut-Indianer,” even “ungetrübtes [“undiluted”] indianisches Vollblut” (28, 18). On the face of it, “Rasse” is of course a biological term, as it is also in Traven’s nonfiction book on Mexico, Land des Frühlings (1929; Land of Springtime).17 But perhaps one should also keep the connotations of the Spanish word “raza” in mind here, which are cultural as well as biological. For, on occasion, Traven seems at least to hint at that dimension, as when he has an uneducated Indian associate technological competence and financial greed with the “white race” (153). This is corroborated by the distinction that is elaborated more than the mere catchword “race” – that is, the distinction between (European-American) “Zivilisation” and “still genuine” indigenous ways (80). This distinction still serves as the overall conceptual framework for the stories, as it did for the novels, but more unobtrusively so, as it is overshadowed by the richness and variety of human experience. Civilization vs. Nature is, of course, a time-honored alternative; but Traven in the Busch stories does not merely revive a tired cliché, precisely because he gives the wealth of his observations its due. As he does so, he implicitly contradicts his own belief that the “other” is categorically inscrutable, projecting instead interpretations and judgments characteristic of his own, European mindset.

20For one thing, Traven’s Indians are definitely not the “noble savages,” that construct of the European imagination, which to some extent owes its existence to the discontent of Europeans with their own mores. True, the Indian tribe that elevates the Spanish horse to the rank of a god is touchingly “gastfreundlich” (“hospitable”) and full of “Güte und Friedensliebe” (“kindness and love of peace,” 24); another tribe thinks nothing of treating the gringo holed up in his cottage in the wilderness as one of their own, inviting him to their ritual dance. True, also, as early travelogues often pointed out, prudishness is unknown to the natives, and they have an uncanny sense of hearing beyond the reach of the white man (“Indianertanz im Dschungel”), to say nothing of their fabulous health and longevity, which offers the narrator a welcome opportunity for time-honored satire on the medical profession (162). Furthermore, there is something appealingly authentic about the unrestrained emotionality of the Indians, exemplified by the uncontrolled shrieks of horror in the face of personal tragedy, like the loss of a child or another loved one:

Der Schrei Teofilias kam nicht von dieser Welt, in denen [sic] die Gefühle und Empfindungen der kaukasischen Rasse wurzeln. Man falle nicht in den Irrtum, anzunehmen, daß diese Gefühlserregung Teofilias Komödie oder Verstellung war, um vielleicht das Mitleid ihrer Herrin wachzurufen. Dieses Stadium der Zivilisation, wo man mit vorgetäuschten Gefühlen Geschäfte macht, Geldgeschäfte oder Gefühlsgeschäfte, haben die Indianer noch nicht erklommen. Ihre Äußerungen des Schmerzes oder der Freude sind noch echt, wenn sie uns auch manchmal gekünstelt oder übertrieben erscheinen, weil sie in andern Instinkten wurzeln. (80)

Teofilia’s scream did not come from this world, in which the feelings and sensations of the Caucasian race are rooted. One should not make the mistake of presuming that Teofilia’s emotional outbreak was a farce or pretense, designed, perhaps, to arouse her employer’s sympathy for her. The Indians have not yet reached this stage of civilization, where one simulates feelings to conduct business, financial or emotional. Their cries of pain or of joy are still genuine, even if they sometimes strike us as artificial or exaggerated, because they are rooted in different instincts.

21Yes, then, there is a certain naiveté “unspoilt” by “civilization” about some of the indios that come into focus in Der Busch, but shrewd is the observer who can tell where it shades into deviousness or where an innocent becomes a clever crook. The familiar schematic dichotomy of the perversions of civilization and the innocence of man in the state of nature breaks down time and again. In “Die Wohlfahrtseinrichtung” one begins to have one’s doubts about the real motivation for the seemingly naive communal wish to have perfectly healthy teeth pulled. For the upshot is that, through their later demand to have their teeth put back into their jaws, the natives, threatening an uprising, bamboozle the American mining company into granting higher wages, while the matter of the teeth is not brought up again. Naiveté or cunning manipulation of the gringos?

22Cunning is everywhere in the Mexican bush and its villages, and all too often the line is hard to draw between criminal fraud and mere deviousness when it comes to outwitting the white man, even one so well-disposed to the Indians as Gale. In “Ein Hundegeschäft” (“Selling a Dog”), “the Indian Ascension,” a clever practitioner of double-talk, contrives to buy a puppy from the American newcomer with the American’s own money. This transaction, commercially complicated and logically sophisticated as it is, does however, on the part of Ascension, have a sort of innocent joy in trading about it. Something similar may be said about one of the longer stories, “Der aufgefangene Blitz” (“When the Priest is Not at Home”), which foregrounds Cipriano, a “Vollblut-Indianer” of long-time service as factotum to the mestizo village priest. Given this constellation, it is not hard to guess who gets the better of whom by hoodwinking him. Cipriano’s negligence leads to the partial burning of the church’s statue of the Virgin Mary, but he keeps his mouth shut when the vox populi proclaims that the mishap was a matter of the mother of God sacrificing herself in order to deflect a bolt of lightning from the rest of the church. The priest and the clerical administration profit handsomely from the much-touted “miracle” that so clearly favored them. Needless to say, it is the Indian, Cipriano, the man of indigenous common sense, who emerges as the real hero, fooling the European and mestizo authorities by not confessing his sacrilegious, if accidental, mutilation of “das Allerheiligste,” which represents “Sinn und Inhalt der ganzen Religion” (“the most holy object, […] the meaning and content of the entire religion,” 34).

Die Kirche wurde eine fette Pfründe. Und eine fette Pfründe ist sie heute noch.
Es ist menschlich durchaus zu verstehen, daß Cipriano niemals etwas sagte. Denn wie durfte er, der einfache Indianer, der weder lesen noch schreiben konnte, den Bischöfen und anderen großen Herren der Kirche, die hierherkamen, um Messe zu lesen und zu firmen, in das Gesicht hinein sagen, daß hier ein kleiner Irrtum unterlaufen sei. Die Bischöfe würden ihn ausgelacht haben, und sie würden gesagt haben, er sei zu alt geworden und darum schwach im Geist. Und als echter Vollblut-Indianer wußte er wohl zu schweigen, wo es nicht notwendig schien zu reden und wo gar kein Vorteil für irgend jemand darin lag, Dinge zu verwirren, die große geistliche Herren, tausendmal klüger als er, als zu göttlichem Recht bestehend betrachteten. Es war nicht seine Aufgabe, Religionen zu reformieren. Nach guter Indianerlebensauffassung dachte er, daß man die Dinge am besten läßt, wie sie sind, solange sie einem selbst keine Unbequemlichkeiten bereiten. (43)
The church became a cash cow. And a cash cow it is to this day.
It is quite understandable, in human terms, that Cipriano never said a word. For how could he, a simple Indian who could neither read nor write, tell the bishops and other great men of the Church who came here to celebrate Mass and conduct confirmations, to their faces, that a little error had been made here. The bishops would have laughed at him, and they would have said he was getting old and feeble-minded. And as a genuine full-blooded Indian, he knew to keep quiet when it seemed unnecessary to speak and where there was no advantage to anyone in confusing things that the great man of the church, a thousand times wiser than he, viewed as an act of God. It was not for him to reform religions. In his fine Indian attitude, he thought things are best left as they are, as long as they don’t cause one any inconvenience.

23Cipriano’s expert deviousness may still be passed off as obliquely ingratiating. But it gets worse. Crooks rule the day in “Der Eselskauf” (“Burro Trading”), where the unsuspecting newly-arrived gringo pays various “owners” several times for the same mule that nobody wants. Theft and armed robbery are the order of the day in the bush. If one needs to organize a wedding on a shoestring, a nearby American farmer will find that two of his cows are missing (54). Worse still, “Der Banditendoktor” (“Midnight Call”) suggests in its concluding section, where a chief of police reveals his monumental incompetence, that organized banditry is rampant. And it was always so, and in all classes of society. If Porfirio Díaz had shot all bandits, we hear, not a single Mexican would have survived (105), and the exploitation of all classes by industrial concerns from north of the border does not help matters (107). Violence is the law of the land. Weddings are a risk – one may end up with a bullet in the heart, even the bridegroom, or, more rarely, the bride (135). Elections are no safer – stabbing is common at political speech-making (169–170). When Gale, in “Der Banditendoktor,” is called in to save the life of a wounded bandit, he more or less expects it to be good business practice for the bandits to shoot him for his efforts (177): after all, he might talk, and “zwischen einer intelligent geführten Räuberbande und einer gewissen Sorte von Bankgeschäften, wo der Präsident im eleganten Automobil fährt, ist der Unterschied nicht so groß, wie man meint” (“the difference between an intelligently run gang of robbers and certain transactions of banks whose president rides in an elegant automobile, is not as big as one thinks,” 178). Brecht would have understood.

24Actually, shooting, ubiquitous as it is, is a relatively mild form of brutality in the strange world of the hinterland of Tampico. Take the Indian in “Die Medizin” (“Effective Medicine”), whose wife has run away and who, prompted by his belief in the superiority of the “weiße Rasse” (153), now expects the gringo to tell him where she is, or else “schlage ich Ihnen den Kopf ab” (“I’ll chop your head off,” 154). “Die Geschichte einer Bombe” (“The History of a Bomb”) takes the prize in this category. When “der Indianer Guido Salvatorres” discovers his wife has run away and set up home with another man, he, with routine competence, throws a homemade bomb into his rival’s hut while a party is in progress; none of the survivors, not even his unfaithful wife, will give evidence against him in court; acquitted, he finds himself another wife the next day, only to be blown to bits by a tin-can bomb of similar design in his hut the same evening.

25It is a macho world. If a woman – a mestiza, significantly, not an Indian – thinks otherwise, she will be taught a lesson. “Die Bändigung” (“Submission”) is The Taming of the Shrew, Mexican-style. A parrot, a cat, a favorite horse are shot point-blank for what is perceived as disobedience – the bride gets the point and mends her ways in a matter of minutes. Would Don Juvencio really have shot Doña Luisa too, if she had not brought him his coffee as ordered? Of course he would have, he says; for after all, the worst that could have happened to him would have been the death penalty, whereas a good horse is very hard to find (145). Strangely, this matter-of-fact statement, with its bizarre variation on ordinary logic, is interpreted to be “das innigste Liebesgeständnis, das ein Mann einer Frau nur machen kann” (“the most tender confession of love a man can make to a woman,” 145). The “fremde Land” has a psychology all of its own.

26Human relationships, it must be said, are among the most alienating features of the new life that the narrator finds himself thrown into. As “Die Geschichte einer Bombe,” where wives are changed more quickly and more casually than shirts, or “Familienehre,” where the human loss is so gloriously outweighed by the sartorial gain, or other stories touched upon might already have suggested: for all their passionate nature, human relationships, as seen by the outsider, are only skin-deep or seem to be. Wives are chosen according to the value of the gifts to her family that the prospective bridegroom can afford, and if one daughter is too expensive, it is: “Ich kann auch die da nehmen” (“I might just as well take that one there”), namely the older and less pretty and therefore bargain-priced sister (52). Here is the concluding observation on the Indian in “Die Medizin” who threatened to chop the gringo’s head off if he did not reveal the whereabouts of the Indian’s wife who eloped with another man; the gringo sends him to a village some 600 miles away, confident that he will find a “new Mujer” en route:

Er ist ein starker und gesunder Bursche. Er wird keine fünfzig Meilen gehen und dann irgendeine Arbeit finden. Oder er stiehlt einem Farmer eine Kuh. Inzwischen hat er Tortillas gegessen und Frijoles. Und wenn er Arbeit hat, hängt ihm am nächsten Tage eine neue Mujer ihren Sack mit dem Sonntagskleide, den Strümpfen und den Schuhen in seine Hütte. (156)

He is a strong and healthy fellow. He won’t go fifty miles before he finds some kind of work. Or he’ll steal a farmer’s cow. Meanwhile he will have eaten Tortillas and Frijoles. And when he has found work, the next day a new Mujer will hang her bag, packed with her Sunday dress, stockings, and shoes, in his hut.

27To be sure, there is also sympathy with the indios, and while this does not make their not always admirable behavior any less strange to the Western observer, it may make it more plausible by throwing into relief the hardships they are laboring under. They are enslaved and exploited by both the government and the Church.

28The agencies of the state are corrupt and incompetent, and it is the destitute Indians who bear the brunt of the malaise (though there appears to be confidence that the new President, Calles [1924–1928], will make a difference [108]). The broadest pageant of corruption at all levels of government and society, including the army, is painted in “Diplomaten” (“The Diplomat”), a story about a valuable pocket watch stolen at a presidential ball in Chapultepec Castle and retrieved by means of thorough familiarity with the forms and ubiquity of corruption. The overwhelming majority of the population, the hungry and illiterate indios, this story reveals, are exploited by the miniscule ruling class, which in turn is aided and abetted by American industrial and business interests – the classic proletarian-capitalist dichotomy with its inherent social injustice.

29These conditions, to be sure, are presented as those prevailing under Porfirio Díaz, the dictator overthrown by the 1910 revolution after decades of dictatorship. But there is a reminder elsewhere that the unsuspecting indigenous tribes had been “ausgebeutet” (“exploited”) even in the days of Cortés (25), and there are precious few indications that life has since changed significantly for the Indian “proletariat” as Traven calls it, his Marut vocabulary still intact (46, 99). (The very first story of Der Busch sets the scene, with somewhat heavy-handed symbolism, when an Indian youngster dies as a result of the imperious ministrations of a would-be medical man who is introduced simply as “ein Spanier” [13]). Indeed, the real revolution of the indigenous population is still to come; but “today,” in the 1920s, the exploitative class structure can already be seen to “wanken” under the “Ansturm” (“reel under the attack”) of the Indian masses (99). This attack is nothing less than a “heldenhafter Kampf um ihre geistige und wirtschaftliche Befreiung” (“heroic fight for their intellectual and economic liberation,” 46) – and that, in turn, is part of a worldwide awakening of colonized populations ready to throw off the yoke of “Zivilisation” forced on them by white exploiters. As the ghost of the Panukese prince puts it in “Der Nachtbesuch im Busch”: “Aber können Sie nicht hören, Senjor, wie alle nichtweißen Völker der Erde ihre Glieder regen und strecken, daß man das Knacken der Gelenke über die ganze Welt vernehmen kann?” (“But, Señor, can’t you hear all non-white peoples of the earth move and stretch their limbs so that one can hear the cracking of the joints all over the world?,” 201). This, then, is the overall socio-political and historical situation the indios are trapped in, exploited by foreign business interests and oppressed by the Mexican ruling class propped up by corrupt and incompetent government agencies such as the police and the military (see e.g., 183). Is it a wonder that the proletarians, too, in their small-time manner, try to exploit the exploitable – the gringo, for example, whom they sell a mule they do not own, whom they threaten with a machete for failing to do the impossible, whom they are likely to shoot even if he heals a wounded bandit, and so on?

  • 18 Scott Cook, “B. Traven and the Paradox of Artesanal Production in Capitalism: Traven’s Oaxaca Tale (...)

30On the other hand, the natives, while no unadulterated “noble savages”, do have their own set of values with which to challenge the mores of the powerful, be they foreign or domestic. But, of course, they are precisely the values that are threatened by the power of the local or central government: those of self-effacing family and community life, with its awareness of the worth of each and every individual, their feelings, aspirations, and ways of living. Their chance of surviving in a country increasingly taken over by business and industrialization, American-style, is slim. Still, in “Der Großindustrielle,” one of the most widely read of the stories under its English title, “Assembly Line,” it is the indigenous values that triumph over the business mentality imported from El Norte. The bast baskets that the indio weaves in his village in the state of Oaxaca are “kleine Kunstwerke” (146), little works of folk art (“Volkskunst,” 147). Recognizing this, an American entrepreneur offers to buy thousands of them – only to be told, after due consideration, that the more baskets he would buy, the more each would cost. This flies in the face of the basic commercial assumptions of mass production, but the Indian has his reasons. Such a vastly increased manufacturing scale would wreck his family and social life because his immediate and extended family would have to be drawn into the business full-time, which in turn would mean that their cornfields and their cattle would not be attended to. But the more significant reason is cultural in another way: mass production of untold identical items would replace the beauty of objects which are truly one of a kind. “Aber sehen Sie, Senjor, tausend Körbchen kann ich nicht so schön machen wie zwanzig. Die hätten alle ausgesehen eines wie das andere. Das hätte mir nicht gefallen” (“But, you see, Señor, a thousand little baskets will not turn out as beautiful as twenty. They would all look the same. I wouldn’t have liked that,” 151). Not comprehending such a lack of greed, the businessman returns to New York; Indian self-sufficiency and wisdom win the day, but will they win the days to come?18

31Another oppressive and exploitative power has only been touched upon so far, in “Der aufgefangene Blitz” – institutionalized religion. In this case, too, the indios emerge as superior in more respects than one. The pattern of domination is only a matter of surface conformity, at best. The Catholic Church, its functionaries, its teachings, its rituals, and its hierarchy are accepted by the native population; yet in their hearts they know better, and remain “Indian.” No amount of missionary indoctrination, brutal as it can be, will change the overt or instinctive allegiance to the old gods or prevent the appropriation of Catholicism by the Indians for their own purposes in a sort of counter-colonization. If a saint who is called upon – and paid – to help find a lost watch, does not perform, he will be punished by being dunked and then dumped in a stinking snake-infested well – just like the underperforming peons on any Spanish-run hacienda (“Der ausgewanderte Antonio” [“The Kidnapped Saint”]). Conversely, if a burglar does not pay the appropriate saint his promised share of the loot, who can expect the burglar not to be caught by the police (“Spießgesellen” [“Accomplices]”)?

32Believers in Catholic supernaturalism are put in their place by native realism and common sense, as “Der aufgefangene Blitz” shows amusingly: faced with natural facts, such as a bolt of lightning, the narrator comments, an Indian Catholic will always revert to his “pagan” way of thinking, “trotz aller christlichen Erziehung” (“in spite of all Christian education,” 36, cp. 38). In other words, miracles, divine interventions, do not happen in Mexico (38–40). Church officials who do not understand such down-to-earth native wisdom end up with a lot of egg on their faces, targets of Travenesque irony. The priest in the tale about the bolt of lightning deflected by the Virgin Mary is proud to have been honored by this “milagro” that will bring in so much money from believers in miracles; the priest in the story about the failure of Saint Antonio to find a lost watch will make the most of the miraculous “emigration” of the saint from his church to the bottom of the abandoned well – this clearly supernatural event will cure his parishioners of their “verdammenswerten Unglauben” (“damnable unbelief,” 77). Such deft touches remind the reader: in this Indian world, European religion is but a veneer that cracks easily. What opens up between the cracks is that history (“pre-history” in Western terms) which nurtures the culture of the indios, no matter how deprived of dignity they may seem at the present time. A bit like Napoleon in front of the towering Egyptian pyramids, the narrator of “Der Nachtbesuch im Busch” reminds us of the six thousand years of “hoher Kultur” (“advanced culture”) that look down on us in Mexico from its pyramids:

Ich war nicht wenig erstaunt, als ich vernahm, daß diese Leute die Vergangenheit ihres Volkes gut kannten. […] Viele jener Indianer beteten noch ihre alten Götter an, während alle übrigen die Hunderte von Heiligen, die ihnen ganz unbegreiflich erscheinende unbefleckte Empfängnis sowie die ihnen ebenso unverständliche Dreieinigkeit derart mit ihrer alten Religion verwirrt hatten, daß sie in ihren Herzen und ihren Vorstellungen die alten Götter hatten, während sie auf den Lippen die Namen der unzähligen Heiligen trugen. (199)

I was not a little astonished to hear that these folks knew the past of their people well. […] Many of those Indians still prayed to their ancient gods, while all others had confounded the hundreds of saints, the (to them totally incomprehensible) immaculate conception and the equally incomprehensible trinity with their ancient religion so that in their hearts and minds they had the ancient gods, while the names of countless saints were on their lips.

33Faced with dogmatic specifics of Christian theology, Indian religious common sense soundly triumphs over the illogical gobbledegook of the Church. Cipriano’s wisely unspoken arguments, in “Der aufgefangene Blitz,” against Christian providentialism and the Christian God’s double-dealing are highly amusing (35, 40). Christian and Indian religious conceptions meet head-on, however, in an important story not mentioned so far, “Indianerbekehrung” (“Conversion of Some Indians”). An Indian chief inquires whether the local missionary can offer “bessere Götter” (“better gods”). The answer, the chief concludes after listening respectfully, is no, and much to the credit of Indian concepts of a worthwhile life it is. The indignities suffered willingly by Jesus do not make him a role-model, let alone an appropriate god, for Indians. How can God the Father, who lets us commit sins and makes us suffer – or even damns us – for them, be a god of love, or an almighty god, for that matter? Such divinities bear no comparison with the sungod of the Indians, who is apotheosed in a passage of radiantly poetic prose in which “Indianerbekehrung” culminates. This “truly great god” of the Indians dies every night in “deep golden beauty,” only to rise again “from the dead” the next morning with equal splendor (193): “Tausche deinen Gott nicht, mein guter Sohn, denn es ist kein größerer Gott als dein Gott” (“don’t give up your god, my dear son, for there is no greater god than your god,” 194). So the “Conversion of Some Indians” is in fact non-conversion; if anyone is converted, it is the narrator, who comments in mock-seriousness that good Christians will have to put up with the fact that they won’t meet these wonderful people in paradise at the end of time, since they are beyond “wahres Heil” (“true salvation”) and will probably not even have much of a chance to do anything about it, given the “raschen Zerfall der katholischen Kirche in Mexico” (“the rapid decay of the Catholic Church in Mexico,” 194). Small wonder that the clerics fear “die alten indianischen Götter” more than Satan (28).

34These ancient Indian gods, however, are not only the gatekeepers of an Indian heaven; they also inspire a way of life on earth – one that significantly challenges the Western one, both in religious and in social respects. They provide an alternative to the Catholic Church, sterilized in its self-serving ritual, as well as to the ruthlessly profit-minded capitalist-industrial complex. This is the message (in “Der Nachtbesuch im Busch”) of the ghost of the pre-conquista Panukese prince buried in a mound near Gale’s hut in the jungle of Tamaulipas. His peace has been disturbed by the gringo who robbed the mummy of the precious gifts it had been interred with:

Im Angesicht der Ewigkeit zählt nur die Liebe, die wir gaben, die Liebe, die wir empfingen, und vergolten wird uns nur in dem Maße, als wir liebten. Darum, Freund, geben Sie mir zurück, was Sie mir nahmen, so daß, wenn am Ende meiner langen Wanderung vor dem Tore stehend ich gefragt werde: “Wo sind deine Beglaubigungen?,” ich sagen kann: “Siehe, o mein Schöpfer, hier in meinen Händen halte ich meine Beglaubigungen. Klein sind die Gaben nur und unscheinbar, aber daß ich sie tragen durfte auf meiner Wanderung ist das Zeichen, daß auch ich einst geliebt wurde, und also bin ich nicht ganz ohne Wert.”
Die Stimme des Indianers verhauchte in ein Schweigen. (217)

When we face eternity, only love will count, the love we gave, the love we received, and we will be rewarded only to the extent that we loved. Therefore, my friend, return to me what you took away so that when at the end of my long pilgrimage I shall be asked at the gate: “Where are your credentials?” I can say: “Look, o my Creator, I am holding my credentials in my hands. The gifts are small and inconspicuous, but the fact that I was allowed to have them with me on my pilgrimage is an indication that I too was loved once, and so I am not entirely worthless.”
The voice of the Indian fell silent.

35It is a silence worth pondering. To be sure, this story – easily the most richly textured, the most topical and deservedly the most famous of all – concludes by making light of the American’s hallucination of a pre-Columbian prince: “Nehmen Sie sich ein nettes, nicht zu dreckiges Indianermädel in Ihre Strohbude. Als Köchin. Dann erscheinen Ihnen keine toten Indianer mehr.” (“Take a nice, not too filthy Indian girl into your straw hut. As a cook. Then no dead Indians will haunt you any longer,” 220). But ghost or no ghost – the depth of the past, of indigenous culture and wisdom, has been opened up in a flash that haunts the reader’s memory.

  • 19 Treverton, 103–112.
  • 20 A version of this essay appeared in my book Die Erfindung der Welt: Globalität und Grenzen in der (...)

36Ridding himself of excess ideological baggage and at the same time controlling his urge to spin yarns of stirring adventures, Traven, in Der Busch, recreated in telling detail the strange and exciting world of the faraway country with which he had cast his lot. This world is a powerful challenge to the cultural assumptions or givens of the Europe he left behind, the Europe of his readers at the time. And readers he had from the first – in fact, an ever-swelling stream of them. Not only were the stories of Der Busch among the most widely read of all of Traven’s works, and in several languages at that, they still are (as a glance at Treverton’s bibliography will quickly confirm).19 Looking back on Traven’s entire oeuvre, which is increasingly gaining recognition as a signal contribution to literature, one may well wonder whether Traven did not make his most significant and most lasting impact with his short fiction, rather than the full-length novels.20


1 Some were collected in Der blaugetupfte Sperling (1919); the epistolary novella An das Fräulein von S… was published in 1916 under the pseudonym of Richard Maurhut.

2 Quoted from Karl S. Guthke, B. Traven: Biographie eines Rätsels (Frankfurt, 1987), 435. Translations are my own, unless indicated otherwise.

3 Ibid.

4 I am taking this phrase from the concluding sentence of Marut’s fairy tale “Khundar,” published in Ziegelbrenner, IV: 26–34 (1920), 72 (Reprint: Berlin 1976). For context, see Guthke, 255.

5 Guthke, 347; B. Traven: The Life Behind the Legends, trans. Robert C. Sprung (Brooklyn, NY, 1991), 220.

6 Ibid.

7 Ibid. 347 and 221, respectively.

8 Der Busch, 2nd ed. (Berlin, 1930), 195; B. Traven: The Life Behind the Legends, 219–220.

9 On this transformation, see Heidi Zogbaum, B. Traven: A Vision of Mexico (Wilmington, DE, 1992), xxi.

10 Die Brücke im Dschungel (Berlin: 1929), 170; B. Traven: The Life Behind the Legends, 216.

11 For a reading of the series as a statement of Traven’s disappointment with the Revolution and its aftermath, see Zogbaum, esp. 200–202, 208, 209–211.

12 Zogbaum sees this return of some of the revolutionaries to communal life as a sign of complacency and acquiescence to “the system that they have vowed to destroy” (202).

13 Edward N. Treverton, B. Traven: A Bibliography (Lanham, MD, and London 1999), 103–112. My references are to the second edition, enlarged from twelve to twenty stories (n. 8 above). Some of the stories had been published previously in periodicals. See the textual apparatus in volume II of Erzählungen, ed. Werner Sellhorn (Zürich, 1968).

14 The English titles of individual stories cited in what follows are those used in these volumes. However, some Busch stories are not included in them; so their English titles are my own improvisations.

15 Zogbaum, 21. To be sure, Traven taught an American farmer’s daughter, whereas the narrator in “Der Banditendoktor” teaches bandits eager to rob American residents. Zogbaum’s book contains a chapter on Traven’s “Discovery of the Mexican Indian,” which does not, however, touch upon the points made here.

16 Europe: 22, 75, 91, 117, 127, 137; USA: 23, 68, 100, 163, 165, 197; Germany: 137, 147, 214.

17 See Karl S. Guthke, “Rassentheorien von links: Der Fall B. Traven,” in Guthke, Die Entdeckung des Ich (Tübingen: 1993), 235–242.

18 Scott Cook, “B. Traven and the Paradox of Artesanal Production in Capitalism: Traven’s Oaxaca Tale in Economic Anthropological Perspective,” Mexixan Studies/Estudios Mexicanos, XI: 1 (1995), 75–111.

19 Treverton, 103–112.

20 A version of this essay appeared in my book Die Erfindung der Welt: Globalität und Grenzen in der Kulturgeschichte der Literatur (Tübingen, 2005). Its final section elaborates the epistemological paradox of the encounter with the cultural “others” (on whom definite – positive or negative – qualities are projected even though they are considered inscrutable). This conundrum is touched on briefly on pages 166–169 above and highlighted in the introduction to the present volume.


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