There are quite a few things going in favor of this novel: it’s funny, it doesn’t romanticize the life of a high-seas sailor, it has a playfully Kafkaesque view of governments and bureaucracy, and it has touches of the bizarre-absurd that are entertaining.
What the novel lacks, however, is a character – at least a human character; the Yorkiee is more fully realized than either our hero, Pipip (we don’t even know his real name even when he says it’s something else), or Stanislav. Both characters are so distant and lie about nearly everything and are either flippant about everything (Pipip) or morose about everything (Stanislav) that even though they are fun to follow around, they are unknown, vaporous entities.
One thing that did occur to is that Pipip and Stanislav might actually the same person. And even if they aren’t the prototype of The Narrator and Tyler in ‘Fight Club’, thematically they might as well be the same person because neither have a country, a past (that they’re willing to tell the truth about), a future, or any prospects. Both are quite obviously members of that great early 20th century literary type known as ‘The Lost Generation’ that Hemingway so wonderfully romanticized and that explored the fractured new world order post WWI that modernism still deals with to this day. And unlike Kafka who was eternally pessimistic about a bleak world filled with faceless bureaucrats and stifling, soul-crushing laws, Traven at least tries to make the best of it with some humor.
The best thing about the book is the ship itself – The Yorkiee. She is constantly reffered to as being as old as the Greek Triremes and Viking Long-ships and even having sailed the seas when Moses was safe in his arc. The Yorkiee has a wonderful, if unforgiving personality: her boilerroom is quite literally hell, her crew dirtier than any other crew alive on the earth, her skipper (and the company the skipper works for) so cheap that not even silverware or plates are provided for the crew.
The Yorkiee also represents an interesting paradox concerning economics and governments (specifically capitalism): is it better to be stranded in the middle of the ocean, dying of thirst and delirium with no chance of survival or rescue and where blind, bleeding death is imminent any moment, or is it better to work for the worst, most inhumane, uncomfortable, filthy, unregulated, unsympathetic, lawless company in the world where you probaby won’t even get paid and sure won’t be provided for anything beyond enough water to keep you alive? These are the options Traven presents to the reader – well, that or Communism which is frowned upon by everyone who actually owns something in the story.
The other interesting theme Traven explores is what does it mean to actually belong to the human race and how do you even prove you are human? With no passport, no birth certificate, no sailors card, no embassy willing to vouch for you, no records back home, and no government willing to help you, do you actually get to belong to the human race? Do these documents alosne make a person a Real Person? In a way, it’s like trying to prove you are not crazy after you’ve been committed to an insane asylum such as the Rosenhan Experiments.
Yet even with all these interesting things to think about, there really isn’t much of a book here because it never seems to be able to decide what it wants to be: comedy? social satire? scathing economic critique? social justice? And these failings come from there being no character other than the machinery of a ship. Basically this novel fails in all the way where the great film The Wages of Fear succeeds. That film balanced the cheapness of human life with comedy with social satire and with dramatic tension in all the ways this novel could have had it been given a few more drafts. In fact, I almost feel as if this novel were written really, really quickly because Traven liked the voice of Pipip so much that he just ran wherever the story took him and didn’t bother digging deeper.
Still, there are enjoyable moments and the writing was easy-breezy, but it lacks depth; the sea in this novel is very wide but also very shallow. Go watch ‘The Wages of Fear’ instead.