'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Saturday, March 13, 2010

BOOK REVIEW: The Carreta 

Have the novels of B. Traven been relegated to the literary periphery? His Jungle Novel series is difficult to find on the shelf, even at chain stores like Borders and Barnes and Noble. I recalled, perhaps mistakenly, that smaller, lefty stores used to carry them, but I was surprised a few weeks ago when there were none available at Modern Times in San Francisco. I do remember, however, purchasing the first novel in the series, Government, at the anarchist bookstore in the Haight, Bound Together, several years ago.

Perhaps, this is because the man believed to have written under the pseudonym "B. Traven", Ret Marut, was an anarchist of the Stirnerite kind. Throughout the novels in the series, one encounters commentary that hints at Stirner's individualistic rejection of communal constraints. To the extent that it grounds Traven's hostility towards the role of the Mexican government and the Catholic Church in subjugating the indigenous people of southern Mexico, it enriches his work, although some may find it didactic. To the extent that it maligns the historical agency of these people, it doesn't, although, to be fair, the overall thrust of the series is the development of a social consciousness among the native peoples that lead them to rebel against the dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz.

Upon first engagement, it is easy to dismiss the Jungle Novels as an anachronism. Traven calls the peoples of Chiapas Indians. He can't fully shake relating to them at times as noble savages, although his cynical practicality acts as a brake upon such sentimentality. He falls within a tradition of Europeans that emigrated to Mexico in the early 20th Century, and, like many of them, displayed a peculiar form of what Edward Said described as orientalism in the Middle Eastern context, a tendency to swing between romanticization and condescension of the culture as pre-modern.

But all of this is overcome by one thing: Traven's elevation of the experiences of his native protagonists to epic status. Despite their inability to read, write and perform basic mathematical calculations, he does not accept their relegation to a subordinate to non-existent one. He explains, with great empathy, how they are exploited by those who have these skills and, even more, how their communities often serve their needs quite well despite the lack of them.

More specifically, Traven profiles their dehumanization by Mexicans through debt peonage, a transaction whereby jefes lend out money at usurious rates to uncomprehending natives to buy goods at exponentially marked up prices resulting in debts that can never be repaid. Moreover, the debts are passed down through the generations because they are not discharged upon the death of the person who incurred them. Furthermore, he also recognized that it was the emergence of an embryonic consumer society in manufactured goods, however rudimentary, that expanded opportunities for debt peonage as a form of expropriation and social control. His Marxist recognition of debt peonage as a residue of a feudal society enables him to transcend romanticized notions of native peoples in the Americas.

Instead, the natives find themselves navigating their way through a semi-feudal society in which foreign capital is reorganizing Mexican production on a massive scale, with large logging operations as one of the most immediate manifestations of this process. Constraints of cost and transport in the global economy of this era require that local ruling elites squeeze every last dollar out of their native peons. It is to Traven's credit that he resists the demonization of his Mexican characters because of his awareness that they are acting in a manner consistent with their social conditioning as they seek to satisfy the demands of international capital.

Sounds pretty contemporary, doesn't it? In The Carreta, the second novel in the series, Traven interweaves these broader social themes through the story of Andres, a young boy who is sent away from his family to pay the debt of his father to the local jefe. Traven's description of his departure is one of the high points of the novel, as Traven relates his father's grief despite his outwardly stolid appearance. In other words, Traven does not mistake a failure to speak and display intense emotion as indicative of an absence of parental despair. Andres is fortunate enough to be sent to work for a family where he becomes educated, and then, after the merchant for whom he works loses him playing cards, he ends up as a carretero, a cart driver who transports goods for his new boss across the mountainous dirt roads of southern Mexico.

It is difficult, but rewarding work, marked by a degree of independence lacking for those who work on fincas, ranches, or monterias, logging camps where the survival rate compares, perhaps unfavorably, to the gulag. Traven was supposedly a former journalist, and his eye for what anthropologists call ethnographical detail is acute. For a typical example of his ability to utilize his eye for detail as part of a broader social analysis, see this quote within one of my posts a few weeks ago. His description of the work and lives of Andres and the other carreteros is rich yet precise, although one must remain wary for periodic trangressions of romanticization. He humanizes what he perceives as an emerging working class in the jungle, one that is developing a class consciousness day by day as they work. But, in this instance, Traven doesn't say it explicitly, he leaves it to the reader to recognize it through the accumulation of seemingly mundane detail that he provides.

In the concluding passages, Andres goes to a festival after making a delivery and finds a wife, a young native women who has been subjected to sexual abuse by previous employers while working as a domestic. While the middle and upper class men engage in their yearly Dionysian bacchanalia of gambling and sexual excess in honor of their patron saint, he encounters her cold and hungry against the wall of a home near the city square. Traven describes the courtship between two such vulnerable people in a matter of fact way that is all the more moving because of it. Andres takes her back to the carreta train soon to depart, and gives her the name Estrellita. Unlike many women, she adapts quite readily to the demanding life on the road required of carreteros, and travels with Andres around southern Mexico for four years, until, reminiscent of Greek tragedy, a chance encounter disrupts their rough, idyllic life together.

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