It’s easy to know who the great adventure novelists were before the twentieth century. When we think of the “classics” of adventure fiction, the obvious names are those of Conrad, Kipling, London, Stevenson, and Dumas.
However, the list of the twentieth-century adventure novelists becomes splintered and harder to define. Hemingway wrote decidedly “literary” fiction with adventure as a backdrop. His obvious descendant for the title of adventure novelist would be Graham Greene, who wrote what he called “entertainments,” adventure/spy novels that were higher literary horseplay. Perhaps, with the Cold War in effect, adventure fiction got co-opted by spy novelists such as le Carré or, with less rigors of realism, Ian Fleming. George MacDonald Fraser and his Flashman series of novels certainly pay homage to the nineteenth-century adventure novel, albeit with a sardonic wink. Perhaps, with the advent of film noir and the ever more popular gangster movie genre, crime novels and their urban setting became the new landscape of adventure fiction, penned by such authors as Hammett, Cain, and Raymond Chandler.
Still, there is one author, a name rarely mentioned, who fits the bill of a twentieth-century pure adventure novelist: B. Traven. But he seems to have been neglected.
Perhaps because the author who wrote such adventure masterpieces as The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The Death Ship, and General from the Jungle is a mystery himself. He might have been Otto Feige, the son of a Polish potter. He also could have been the anarchist actor Ret Marut, who ended up in a London prison before traveling to Mexico. Two contradictory biographies present each case with compelling fact and argument. Whoever B. Traven was will no doubt always be shrouded in secrecy because that is the way the reclusive author wanted it.
The real question is: What is the case for B. Traven topping the canon of twentieth-century adventure novelists? Surely, the fact that his first language was German might have made some literary critics complain that the author’s sentences have an almost wooden feel to them. One strike against being in the canon. Other critics lump him as a one-book novelist whose fame resulted mainly from the classic film made by John Huston of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Still others dismiss him as a “proletariat writer” due to the overtly anticapitalist message of his works.
In his two novels The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and General from the Jungle, B. Traven, I believe, allows us to pose a serious argument to the above naysayers. Both books possess a breakneck pace and are filled with action and adventure. Both books also succeed in resonating on a metaphorical level. And both books serve as a mirror image of human experience and come to the same humane conclusions, although they arrive at their similar themes through strikingly different stories and methods of storytelling. It is not only the unique experience rendered in each book but the utter difference in plot and form that put B. Traven’s fantastic range as a writer on display.
General from the Jungle is the lesser known of the two works. It is the last novel in his sextet that has come to be known as the “Jungle novels,” which B. Traven wrote in the 1930s and finished with General from the Jungle in 1940. This group of novels follows the “spirit of rebellion that slowly spread through the Mexican labor camps and haciendas, culminating in the bloody revolt that ended Porfirio Diaz’s rule.” When B. Traven arrived in Mexico, the author’s socialist (or perhaps anarchist) sympathies were outraged by the practice of peonage that still existed in many parts of Mexico, even though it had been officially abolished by the Mexican constitution in 1917. General from the Jungle is the most satisfying and most perfectly plotted novel in the sextet. It is both a war novel and an adventure novel. Perhaps only a novel about guerrilla warriors could be both, because of the tight scope: we follow this small band of warriors eking out an existence, surviving ambushes, traitors, spies, and physical hardship brought about by their trek through the jungle, and they hardly seem like an army. Yet this troupe of warriors passionately and scientifically wages war against the imperial power. Despite the small scope, it is B. Traven’s detailed understanding of the strategy and tactics of guerrilla warfare that make it a war novel of substance. Indeed, it could almost be seen to equal Che Guevara’s manifesto, Guerrilla Warfare, for its practical application of the principles of that very same manual transposed throughout the plot of a novel. Although the division of forces, the sneak attack upon a fortified enemy stronghold, the treatment of prisoners, the evading of an ambush, and other situations are displayed by the author with a keen knowledge of guerrilla warfare, it is B. Traven’s rendering of the humanity of the title character that makes the book come alive.
As the novel begins, it is a chess match. The General must commandeer his rebel Indian forces—made up of peons—through the jungle toward the forces of the Federal army. It starts out as a tactical game of cat and mouse, with the rebels hiding in the jungle and raiding surrounding fincas, while outrunning and outmaneuvering the pursuing Rurales (police) and Federales (the army). B. Traven shows with minute detail the process of military decision making behind the General’s commands. At the beginning of the novel, it is indeed through such characters as the venerable rebel known as the Professor and two muchachos, Celso and Andreu, that B. Traven shows the passion and humanity of the guerrillas, as they discuss their families, their hunger, and their battle anthem, “Tierra y Libertad.” However, as the action of the novel grows and the escapes, ambushes, and firefights come at a closer clip, the excitement and drama of the book envelope the reader in a feverous pitch: it is then among the wounded men, the bloody jungle floor, and the acrid smell of gunpowder that B. Traven reveals the General. Up until this point he has been a courageous soldier, a fair and humble leader, but he has been viewed by the reader from a distance. Lieutenant Manero, a loyal and capable officer of the rebels, has made a grievous mistake that has cost rebels lives. He now requests from the General that he be allowed to take his own life to account for his dishonor:
What a man! What a figure of an officer! He would go down forever in the history of the battalion as the officer who preferred death to dishonor. That was the material the officers of this glorious army were made of. So long as such a spirit prevailed among the officers, there was not the slightest danger of the nation’s possible decline. Without workers and similar rogues who’re always grumbling about hunger, always trying to undermine the government, a nation could very well flourish and bask in the well earned respect of all other civilized people on earth; but without such officers as Lieutenant Manero, no nation could survive for a day…Lieutenant Manero I do NOT give you my permission for such childish nonsense…Suicide on active duty is equivalent to desertion in the face of the enemy.
It is here in this speech where the General at once forgives and makes fun of one of his officers that we see his humanity, his goodness blossom forth through a single glimpse of his character. It’s as if B. Traven, who throughout the novel has let us view the General purely through his military commands and bravery as a soldier, now says: “The General is more human than one can know, it is only because he is the General from the Jungle with fate of many lives fighting for a just crusade that he himself cannot show his tenderness, his love for fellow man.” And this is the theme of this great adventure novel. B. Traven charts with exacting detail and blazing ferocity the actions of war. However, like a sniper who has but one bullet in his rifle, he saves that one shot to reveal with diamond-hard truth the essential and enduring goodness of humanity.
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre approaches B. Traven’s question of humanity from the other side of the coin. Instead of depicting rebels who fight for an idea, this novel plumbs the ugly depths of human greed. Instead of viewing the human collective on a macro scale, a rebel army, B. Traven gives us individuals, in this case three white prospectors seeking gold. Two broke, down-on-their-luck American drifters, Dobbs and Curtin, befriend an older and wiser prospector named Howard, who offers to accompany them into the mountains in search of precious metals. There is no character that B. Traven writes better than the broke gringo in Mexico wasting away from hunger in chigger-infested bunkhouses, waiting to bum a cigarette off the first person who’ll oblige him. The reader gets the sense that B. Traven himself had endured that same jobless, starved, and generally malaise-filled existence. It is the perfect precursor to the action that follows. Without the bleak setup of the vagrant, malaria-filled town at the edge of the jungle, one could not envision humanity existing at levels so close to that of animals.
However, once the toil of the trek through the mountains is made and our threesome discovers a vein of gold in the bedrock, it is once again the masterful B. Traven’s chess game at work. B. Traven moves from the searing description of harsh physical reality to the game of human minds so seamlessly that the reader is still wiping his brow from the dust and the heat and the thirst before realizing betrayal and greed is already afoot. From the moment the three prospectors discover gold and their eyes glitter with the dreams of the nearly fulfilled, it is immediately a dilemma of choosing sides, a game of survival. B. Traven’s writing here takes a different tact. While the reader is still cognizant of the landscape, the true map being navigated by B. Traven is the grotesque journey of the human mind. The writing in those sections in the last third of the novel is so psychologically acute, so driven by the inner workings and calculations of plotting minds, that it seems to pulse with the very id of evil; and the sentences have the taste of iron in them, the iron will of humans to survive. Dobbs, the craven plotter, the backstabber, the thief and criminal mind—his dialogue literally attacks and then relents as he drives the action on the chessboard of plotting. Curtin and Howard, not entirely trusting each other and fearing Dobbs’s manipulation and evil, must play their cards wisely. Just as the fracture in the group seems about to happen, B. Traven ingeniously brings our threesome together as their stake is threatened by a wandering patrol of Mexican soldiers. B. Traven details this new alliance of convenience with such calculating cynicism that you wonder: could this be the same author who depicted the honorable souls of the rebels fighting for higher justice?
Indeed, B. Traven seems to revel and relish in this agreed-upon lie of their new “friendship” so much that one can only surmise that the author himself had in his lifetime ingested a healthy dose of human hypocrisy and lies in order to be able to capture with such compelling truth the innate dishonesty of human beings.
However, the end of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre obeys both the rules of Hollywood and Eastern religions, as bad karma catches up with Dobbs and the other two adventurers find what they have sought: Curtin, a welcome amount of wealth; and Howard, the old prospector, a more spiritual sustenance.
Whereas General from the Jungle utilizes the collective experience from an army and its humane General fighting for a higher cause, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre explores the lust and desire of the individual to survive and prosper in a material world. B. Traven’s ability to dissect human nature from two separate approaches, the macro and the micro, displays his storytelling range. The fact that both tales, thematically, are flip sides of the same coin—tales of surviving with honor or without—reveal that B. Traven’s passion was the eternal conflict, and its eternal question:
Can we live with decency? Must man be an animal? Or can he possess higher motives?
General from the Jungle and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre are a pair of adventure novels that thrill with unrelenting action, air-tight plots, and meticulously described, psychologically realistic characters. However, it is the author’s passion for humanity and the questions about our actions that define B. Traven as an adventure novelist nonpareil for the twentieth century.
Cortright McMeel’s first novel, Short, is coming out on Dec 7th 2010 from Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martins Press. He was also the publisher of the literary magazine, Murdaland. He has published short stories in Mississippi Review, Gettysburg Review, and Chicago Quarterly Review.