Mystery Writer

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One of my finest moments occured at Na-Bolom in San Christobal de las Casas, Mexico, in the fall of 1992. I had just given a talk about the Labrador Innu in the hacienda’s library, and when I sat down, Trudy Blom, the facility’s 92 year old owner and a prominent ethnographer, said, “You are sitting in B. Traven’s favorite chair.”

A Traven book that is perilous to ignoreB. Traven was — and is — my favorite fiction writer. If you’ve seen the Humphrey Bogart film The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, then you might know that the film is based on the Traven novel of the same name.

Traven would not have wanted you to know anything about his life, however. He gave a wide berth to interviews, journalists, prizes, and publicity of any sort. Such a wide berth, in fact, that he makes Thomas Pynchon seem like a David Letterman regular.

There are quite a few theories about Traven’s identity. One theory is that Traven was the illegitimate son of the German Kaiser. Another theory is that he was Jack London, who faked his death and became Traven. Given that he, like London, wrote about down-and-outers in remote locations, this theory at least makes literary sense, which is more than I can say for the theory that he was the American writer Ambrose Bierce, who disappeared in Mexico in 1913.  Traven died in 1969, and if he were Bierce, he would have been 126 years old at the time of his death.

In all probability, Traven was the German anarchist writer Ret Marut, who, being pursued by the Kaiser’s secret police, fled to Mexico around 1925 and adopted a new name, lest he be extradited to Germany. To consolidate his camouflage, he engaged in a number of manual jobs — cotton picker, oilman, miner, etc — which gave him an excellent window on his subsequent subject matter.

“An author should have no biography other than his books,” Traven wrote, and perhaps we should respect that sentiment rather than try to prove he was really (for example) Flannery O’Connor. Perhaps we should respect that sentiment with all authors, not just Traven…

What of Traven’s books? I’m not easily moved by fiction, but I’ve been powerfully moved by The Bridge in the Jungle every time I’ve read it. This novel concerns the disappearance of a young Indian boy and a small village’s efforts to find him. I also recommend the novella Macario, which describes an elderly Indian man’s encounter with Death right after he’s obtained his life’s wish — a roast turkey.

And if you want a reading experience that out-Kafka’s Kafka, then you should procure a copy of the doubtless autobiographical novel The Death Ship, a tale of a sailor who has lost his identity papers and who signs on a “death ship” — i.e., a ship destined to be sunk at sea so that the owners can claim the insurance money.

Or you could read The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, which, believe or not, is a lot better than the movie.

Speaking of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, let me conclude this bog entry by quoting a passage from that novel — a passage that should be memorized by the myriad mining companies that have laid waste to natural environments. Howard, a gold miner, says to his fellow miners:

“We’ve wounded this mountain. It’s our duty to close her wounds. It’s the least we can do to show our gratitude for the wealth she’s given us.”

Bibliodeath

Bibliodeath, by Andrei CodrescuPoet, NPR commentator, novelist, literary magazine editor, travel writer, English professor, polyglot, gentleman farmer, and raconteur Andrei Codrescu is a veritable heterogenius whose remarkable new book Bibliodeath takes the reader on an autobiographical journey through the notebooks, typewriters, and computers on which he’s scribbled, pounded, and tapped during the last 50 years. In response to the book, I engaged my old pal Andrei in the conversation that follows.

L: I have to admit, Andrei, that I’m still reeling from the pyrotechnics to which you put your adopted language in Bibliodeath. Why do you think certain European writers — Nabokov, Conrad, and (don’t blush!) you, for example — write a better, more felicitous English than most native-born writers of English?

A: We don’t write better English. We just write slow and breathless English. If you have to think about every word, you travel to its origins, swing through its meanings, and surface with that word subjected to something like cosmic agitation. Or more simply put, we get our writing chops from reading, so we see before we hear. We die in one language, only to be reborn in another. It’s the dying and coming back that makes us so fascinating to anyone who isn’t us. And I’m not blushing: I like my work. I like Nabokov’s even more.

L: In Bibliodeath, you celebrate the evolution of the printed word from notebook to book to (sorry for the obscenity!) cybertext. Can you offer any words of solace to writers like yours truly who see their careers frustrated as a result of the contemporary cyber mania?

A: I think our careers are going down the drain because we’re getting older and are allergic to working for free. When I was young, I did (almost) everything for $100. In the mid 90s, I had a streak of luck and the nerve to ask for real bucks. Amazingly, I got my chutzpah stamped. We’ve also come to the end of the cult of writing and the worship of the writer. Other media have caught up. Some movies are so good that it seems a sin to rehash them in words. On the internet, everybody has an opinion, so the job of “opinion-maker” has gone the way of shoe-cobbling and watch repair (or watches, for that matter). We are fallen gods, and sore as hell because it happened so fast, and we fell so hard. Nobody’s afraid of Virginia Woolf anymore, damn it!

L: We are getting older, it’s true, but elders like us were once regarded as fonts of wisdom. Now we’re flung by the wayside like so much chattel. Unless we happen to write teen-oriented zombie novels. I don’t think the other media have caught up. In the United States of Amnesia, the lowest common denominator rules, so other media have dumbed everything down. With the internet, even a right wing Bible thumper with an IQ of -35 has a voice. As for movies, 99% of them are products, nothing more. Products with pretty faces.

A: I think you’re an ageist, Millman. You prefer literature because it’s older than movies. Rear Window and Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator are as good as anything by Steinbeck or Faulkner. But, yes, we’re becoming very good at forgetting, which puts us safely in the arms of the military-industrial-entertainment-cyber complex, a comfortable place in which to fuck up Mother Nature and to be transported to the Bardo of the clueless (where the teen zombies live). On the other hand, we have many good writers of children’s and young adult books. Perhaps those who write such things get back their child-brains from the adult exo-skeleton of received facts. Being infantilized in this way is not so bad for a writer. Personally, I’d rather write something as good as The Lorax at this point in my life than something as hopeless as Beckett’s Molloy. I say this: humor the young, give them no cash, and steal your grandchildren with charming stories.

L: Today’s Boston Globe reviewed the following movies: Wake in Fright, Keep the Lights On, Seven Psychopaths, Sinister, and Girl Model, but there was not a single book review… not even a review of Bibliodeath. Sic semper gloria mundi! I confess I haven’t read The Lorax, but I do like the not necessarily scientific idea of Horton, a male elephant, hatching a bird’s egg… and not crushing it. Which brings me to my last question: it sounds like you’re writing a kid’s book. I know you’re living on a farm in Arkansas, but by “kid” I mean human, not goat progeny.

A: You’re right. I’m writing a kid’s book because I recently read Dr. Seuss’ Yertle the Turtle 6 times to my 3 year old grand-daughter Raya, and if I had stayed any longer where she lives, I would have had to have read it to her 120 times more. Who would want to read Ulysses 6 times? Out loud, for chrissakes! But the reason I want to write a book that is not only read and reread many times over is that Yertle the Turtle is a work of genius: at once simple and profound, and a story about justice that a “grown-up” might take 5 years to write. I think I might be old enough now to try something like this. I once met Theodore Geissel (Dr. Seuss) at a party in Old Metairie, Louisiana: he was an elegant tall man, shy and self-contained. It’s too late for “tall,” but maybe I can try the others. Who needs the Boston Globe when you’ve got the ear of an insatiably curious 3 year old?

Relics: Three Recent Books of Interest

In this post, I’d like to take off my mycological hat and put on the hat of a passionate reader (and reviewer) of books on both the rapidly melting North and our rapidly disappearing natural world. You could say that I’m sloshing to a different part of the bog, which has a somewhat different ecosystem…

Toward Magnetic North
(Available from The Oberholtzer Foundation, 300 N. Hill St, Marshall, MN, 56528)

Toward Magnetic NorthThis extremely handsome book which includes photographs, diary jottings, and essays by various hands details explorer conservationist Ernest Oberholtzer’s epic 1912 canoe trip from The Pas, Manitoba, to Hudson Bay. The photos, especially, are remarkable; at once lyrical and austere, they provide an eloquent window on a lost time and a distant place. A “must” for canoeists and Arctic aficionados.

The Chukchi Bible, by Yuri Rytkheu (Archipeligo Books, 2011)

Chukchi BiblePart myth, part fiction, and part family memoir, The Chukchi Bible details the history of Siberia’s Chukchi from the time when Raven created the world out of gobs of his own shit to the year 1999. But it’s not only a history. It’s also an elegy on the death of a traditional culture due to assaults from the outside world. I have no hesitation in calling the late Yuri Rytkheu’s book a master piece. Urgently recommended to anyone with even the slightest interest in the Arctic or its Native people.

Horseshoe Crabs and Velvet Worms by Richard Fortey (Knopf, 2012)

Horseshoe Crabs and Velvet WormsPaleontologist Richard Fortey (author of Life: An Unauthorized Biography) rambles around the world in search of relic species, including onychophorans, gingko trees, lampreys, tuataras, chambered nautiluses, lungfish, ferrerets, horsetails, and echidnas. In his own home in England, he finds an ancient survivor known to everyone — the cockroach. Elegantly written and often very funny, this book provides an excellent complement to Piotr Naskrecki’s primarily photographic work Relics.