B. Traven's The Jungle Novels

by Louis Proyect

Book Review

October 20, 2003


B. Traven, Government, Elephant Paperbacks, 1971; ISBN: 156663038.
                 Trozas, Elephant Paperbacks, 1977; ISBN: 1566632196.
                 General from the Jungle, Elephant Paperbacks, 1995; ISBN: 1566630762.
                 These three novels can be purchased from your local bookstore through BookSense.
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Most people get their first exposure to B. Traven indirectly through the film "Treasure of the Sierra Madre," which was based on one of his early novels. If the time were ever ripe for a B. Traven revival, it is now. During the 1920s and 30s, this anarcho-syndicalist writer from Germany attacked the evils of the capitalist system in Mexico, his adopted homeland. Of particular interest are The Jungle Novels, which are set in Chiapas, Mexico. Focused on the plight of Indian debt peons, they are filled with the same kind of passionate commitment to the oppressed found in a Subcommandante Zero speech while embodying the same sorts of contradictions that face the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) today. This review will examine "Government," the first in the series, "Trozas," the fourth installment, and the last, "The General from the Jungle."

In keeping with his anarcho-syndicalism, Traven sees "Government" as nothing but an instrument of thievery. More particularly, it is one used by a Ladino (Spanish-speaking European descendant) against indigenous peoples. The opening paragraphs describe how the system works. It is vintage Traven, written from the point of view of a villainous Ladino hoping to justify himself to the reader.
"The government was represented in the eastern district by don Casimiro Azcona. Like every other jefe politico, don Casimiro thought first of his own interests. He served his country not for his country's good, but in order to profit at its expense. He worked better on those terms and, above all, he lived better. If a man can earn no more as a servant of the State than he can by running a snack bar, there is no reason whatever why he should aspire to devote his energies to his country's service.

"After he had taken care of himself, he thought of his family. Then came his intimate friends. These friends had helped him obtain his post and now he had to humor them so that they would let him keep it, at least until one of them decided the moment had come to take it for himself.

"Every member of his family to its remotest branches--nephews, cousins, brothers-in-law, uncles, brothers and their nephews, cousins, brothers-in-law, and sons -- all were taken care of. They were given jobs as tax collectors, postmasters, chiefs of police, justices of the peace for as long as he himself could hold his. For this reason they were all on his side, whatever he might do. He might steal to his heart's content -- provided always that when they in turn stole he did not order an inquiry into their conduct. Whatever they might do, lawfully or unlawfully, had to be right in his eyes."
These are the words of Don Gabriel, a local official in a small Chiapas town who complains ceaselessly about the "paltry salary" he receives from the government. Nothing he does in his official capacity seems to generate money, least of all a local school he runs for Indian children. Inexplicably they prefer their native language to Spanish. As the Justice of the Peace, he has the power to fine Indians for minor offenses such as public drunkenness. Yet when he imposes hefty fines, nothing comes of it since the Indians are outside the cash economy.

In his capacity as tax collector, the last hat he wears, he stumbles across a brilliant plan. The federal government requires the Indians to pay taxes, but they have no money to pay them with. On the other hand, there were labor contractors who were starved for labor. So Don Gabriel would become a kind of middleman:
"Don Gabriel quickly took to it. He saw there was a fortune to be made, without real effort and without the need of allowing a margin for losses. He did not consider don Ramón any brighter than himself; and no intelligence was required. There were thousands of indebted peons and independent Indians in the district he was best acquainted with. In his own village alone there were more than a dozen who were deeply enough in his debt to give him the right to proceed against them in any way and by any means not expressly forbidden by the law. It was not illegal to offer them the chance of contracting with a monteria [lumber chopping company] as a means of freeing themselves from debt. On the contrary, the government was glad to see debts paid off, and even more glad that the companies who paid it well for licenses and concessions should be kept supplied with labor, so that production could be maintained and exports increased. Exports were necessary to the finances of the country and kept up the value of the peso on the money markets of London and New York. It was therefore a highly patriotic activity to supply the coffee plantations and the monterias with labor and to keep the supply constant; it was just as important as dying gloriously and miserably for the honor of your country assured of the joys of paradise."
Although some of the more dogmatic strands of Marxism define the capitalist system as resting on free wage labor, B. Traven made no such distinction. He saw the capitalist system as a global web whose strands connected the backward, semifeudal Chiapas region with the most advanced sectors in London or New York. If free wage labor could not be found to go into the Lacandon forest to cut mahogany for the furniture emporiums of Manhattan, then the capitalist would dragoon Indians to do the job. It was obvious to Traven that the system pitted two major classes against each other in an antagonistic social relationship. One class owned the means of production and the other was forced to operate them. That force could be exerted through market pressures when labor was in abundance. If labor were in short supply, as it was in Chiapas where Indians lived communally, then they would be coerced into labor gangs. From this perspective, one might say that slavery can take various forms: chattel slavery, peon slavery or wage slavery. While this might be an unsettling prospect for the orthodox Marxist, B. Traven, the anarchist, easily accepted it.

According to John Kenneth Turner, there were 750,000 debt peons in Mexico in 1911 when he wrote "Barbarian Mexico." Records from the British Anti-Slavery Society put the number at 6 million, a likely overstatement. Whatever the actual number, it was not only pervasive at the time when they were studying Mexico but in the late 1920s as well when B. Traven first began to visit Chiapas. In later years, he became something of a recluse but in the late 1920s he was part of a rather well defined and popular radical milieu in Mexico that had embraced "indigenismo." He made his first trip to Chiapas as an apprentice to photographer Edward Weston.

When he learned of the plight of the Chamula Indians, who were one of the major supplies of indigenous-based peonage in Chiapas, he resolved to take up their cause in a series of novels. He spent 5 months in Chiapas interviewing former "monteros" [lumberjacks] and took anthropology classes at the National University in order to understand the background to this forgotten people. While B. Traven made numerous mistakes that reflected both his political prejudices (the Indians tend to be romanticized) and his inability to master the intricacies of Indian history and society, his ability to dramatize their story and win support for their cause cannot be underestimated.

When we arrive in the world of "Trozas" (logs), the point of view changes from the oppressor to the oppressed. The major character is a young Indian named Andrés Ugaldo who has been coerced into working in a mahogany plantation run by the profit-hungry Montellano brothers. This novel captures not only the subhuman conditions of the work camps, but also the rising spirit of resistance among the virtual slaves who work there.

In a manner that evokes "Moby Dick," B. Traven supplies the technical minutiae that go into the mahogany cutting business. We learn how the Montellano brothers organize their crews; we learn how the monteros spend a working day. Although Traven himself never did this kind of work, he painstakingly interviewed former workers who conveyed their experience to them. This intimate knowledge is reflected in the following passage:
"The oxen hauled, and the troza began to move. An important job for the boyero, as Andres told Vicente, was to make sure the chain always lay under the troza where it was attached with the hooks. If the troza turned so that the chain came up to the top, the troza must be turned again with the next haul so that the chain was underneath again. For it was only when the chain was below the chuzo that the chuzo, the point, rose, otherwise it bored into the ground. The boyero couldn't simply stroll along beside it as he could with a carreta. The troza had to be lifted every time with the iron hook that Andres carried in his hand. The point got caught in tree roots, which stretched all over the trail. Then it had to be stopped. If the roots were not too thick they were cut, but if they were too strong and it took too long to cut them, the towing hooks had to be taken out. The oxen were turned round, the hooks inserted again at the other end of the troza, and the oxen pulled the troza out of the roots backward. Once that was managed, the hooks were pulled out again and put back at the front, by the chuzo, and the troza was lifted so that now it could be hauled over the roots and a second snarl-up with the roots avoided."
(Oxen play an important role in The Jungle Novels. Not only are they used in the monteria, they constitute the main form of transportation from the forests to the lumber yards in major cities. "The Carretera," the second novel in the series, depicts the fate of debt peons who work on such oxen trains -- or "carreteras.")

B. Traven was always a champion of the underdog. Born Ret Marut, he came to anarchism through the individualistic philosophy of Max Stirner, whose belief in the primacy of the will and the need to struggle also was an influence on José Carlos Mariátegui, the founder of Peruvian Marxism and an exponent of "indigenismo." During the Munich Soviet of 1919, Marut was appalled to see the Socialist government send troops to impose law and order. This experience, plus his hatred for socialist support of World War One, shaped his early political experience.

When forced into exile in Mexico, he hooked up with the local affiliate of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) after seeing anarcho-syndicalists lead a powerful oil workers strike in Tampico. One of his earliest novels that you can see in bookstores is titled "The Cotton-Pickers." It is also known as "Der Wobbly" and puts his political philosophy into a fictional form.

From Mexico Traven sent manuscripts off to the Buchergilde, which was a nonprofit book club run by the printers union in Germany. He became a best-selling author, but after Hitler's rise to power was put on the banned list. Early in his writing career, he told Ernst Preczang, the director of the book club, that "workers must not honor authorities, neither kings nor generals, neither artists nor aviators. Every man has the duty to serve mankind to the best of his abilities, to make their lives easier, to bring enjoyment, and to direct their thoughts to higher goals. I fulfill my duty toward mankind as I have always done, as a worker, a sailor, an explorer, as a private teacher in isolated farms, and now as a writer." (Heidi Zogbaum, "B. Traven: A Vision of Mexico," p. 24)

B. Traven arrived in Mexico at the very time that the great revolution of Pancho Villa and Emilio Zapata was going into decline. Although the revolt in Chiapas that is depicted in the final novel in the jungle series was not connected organically to the broader struggle, Traven was distraught over the nation's failure to abolish slavery, of either the debt peonage or wage form. This would affect his artistic vision negatively. As the middle-class revolutionaries of the 1919 generation gradually became the new elite, Traven found his anarchist distrust of governments deepening somewhat to the detriment of his writing.

Even when a new kind of government arrived in the form of Lazaro Cardenas, Traven detected no difference. Despite the willingness of this radical-bourgeois regime to attack privileges that had accumulated for a generation, Traven could not be inspired. He simply could not understand how the state could reflect even imperfectly the class interests of the oppressed. This, of course, is the dilemma of today's anarchists. Convinced of the need to abolish class society, they cannot recognize partial steps in that direction mounted at the state level in Castro's Cuba or Chavez's Venezuela.

In "General from the Jungle," the brutalized and exploited Indians finally rise up. But by this point, Traven had already begun to lose heart in social and political solutions. His compassion for the cause of the Indian is still intact, but he cannot envision a new society. The novel does not portray life in a "liberated zone," but instead depicts Indians taking rightful but excessive vengeance on their oppressors, all the while crying out, "Tierra y libertad."

Although the novel contains gripping scenes of Indians outsmarting the Ladino regular army on the battlefield, it is nearly devoid of political and social commentary. It is telling that the novel concludes on a downbeat exchange between a Ladino teacher and some of the Indian guerrilla he has happened upon. Like a stranded Japanese soldier on a Pacific atoll, the rebels do not seem aware that the war is over.
"Who's in power now?" asked Professor [a rebel leader].

"That's what I'd very much like to know," replied the teacher. "That's what everyone in the country would like to know, poor and rich, capitalists and workers."

"But there must be a government," interposed General [the top leader of the rebels].

"A? A government?" The teacher made a wry grimace. "There are now five thousand governments. Five thousand politicians are shouting and yelling, and each one has his own government. There's not a parliament; there are ten, twenty, forty, all at the same time. Each state hasn't got one governor, but seven or eight, simultaneously."

"Isn't there a party to which the people could rally in order to set up a popularly elected government?"

"There are parties, too. Countless parties. Constitutionalists, Institutionalists, Revisionists, Reformists, Re-electionists, Anti-reelectionists, Laborites, Communists, Communalists, Imperialists, Anti-imperialists, Indo-Americanists, Agrarians, Domin-guezists, Separatists, Regionalists, Continentalists, Unionists, and about two hundred more ists. It's impossible to remember the names. Every day new ones crop up, and every day there vanish some that yesterday had the most followers."
While Traven was writing this dialog, the Cardenas government was providing sanctuary for Leon Trotsky and nationalizing the country's oil. Although the party he headed would decline over the years, it was for its time a powerful instrument of those who Traven spoke for in his novels. Whatever lapses exist in his political thinking, we cannot gainsay his compassion for the downtrodden. In a postmodernist era that elevates irony to a principle, The Jungle Novels constitute a powerful reminder of the higher calling of art.

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Louis Proyect is a computer programmer at Columbia University and a long-time peace activist and socialist. He is also the moderator of the Marxism mailing list at www.marxmail.org. He writes a bi-monthly book review for Swans.

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Published October 20, 2003
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