Saturday, 19 July 2014

Oaxaca - The Bridge in the Jungle

Oaxaca is more famous for its painters, than its writers and it was difficult to find a book in English by a Oaxacan writer.  However, I did stumble across the mysterious B Traven, someone who wrote quite a few novels about Mexico and whose identity and life is shrouded in mystery.

The mysterious B Traven

B Traven was a pen name and the theories about his identity range from the most accepted version, that he was a German actor and anarchist named Ret Marut to the idea that he was actually from the US or may even have been the writer Jack London, who could have faked his death and moved to Mexico to continue writing!

What we do know is that his novels were originally published in German and that his writing influenced anarchist and leftist movements across the world, notably the anti-Nazi White Rose movement of Bavaria, which is believed to have been named after B Traven's novel Die weisse Rose (1929).  Probably his most famous book is The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1927), which was made into a Hollywood movie in 1948, starring Humphrey Bogart and directed by John Huston.

Trailer for The Treasure of the Sierra Madre:

Traven's knowledge of indigenous life in Mexico

I chose to read The Bridge in the Jungle also published in German in 1929 and later published in English in 1940.  Like B Traven's other books, The Bridge in the Jungle champions the lives of the native people of southern Mexico, los Pueblos Indígenas.  Whoever B Traven was, he certainly had a great insight into what life was like for Mexico's native peoples, living in poverty, far from the Mexican authorities.

The narrator of the novel is a US citizen, who has travelled to a remote region of southern Mexico (could be Oaxaca, although it seemed more like Chiapas to me, from what little I've learned about Mexico!)  When the narrator is describing his own homesickness and nostalgia for the forests and lakes of Wisconsin, it sounds genuine and I can't help wondering if B Traven wasn't really an American citizen on the run from the US government?

Theme: Loss of Innocence

The Bridge in the Jungle revolves around the disappearance of a young boy, Carlos, during a festivity in a remote 'Indian' village.  Carlos' mother notices something is up and alerts the other adults in the village who begin searching for the young boy in the dark jungle surrounding the village.  The village is connected to the place where the party is happening (at the Pumpmaster's house) by a rudimentary bridge built by US oil prospectors to enable water to be supplied to a rail depot servicing their oil field.

The Bridge in the Jungle by waywuwei
The bridge itself becomes a symbol of the transition from life to death, as it is the main culprit in the boy's death.  He loses his footing on the bridge and falls into the river, where he bashes his head on a rock and drowns.

The bridge was, in a way, responsible for his death.  It is a symbol of modern life and man-made construction, in an otherwise natural landscape.  When describing the water pump, the narrators says that it 'shrieked, howled, whistled, spat' - an unnatural monster which brings the outside world into the Garden of Eden.

The bridge is a symbol of Mexico itself.  When you look at a map of Central America, the regions from northern Mexico all the way to Panama form a kind of land bridge, uniting the bigger continents of North and South America. To the North Americans, Mexico is the bridge in the jungle and B Traven captures this potent symbol very well.

Theme: The Corruption of Wealth and US exploitation

The bridge isn't the only factor in the young boy's death, as his death is also caused by the fact that he lost his footing because of the new pair of shoes he was wearing.  The shoes were brought by his favourite older brother, Manuel, who has come down from Texas, where he is working as a immigrant labourer.  The shoes become a symbol of US imperialism in the sense that, if the boy had been in his bare feet, he would have felt the edge of the bridge and not fallen into the river.  The shoes are a symbol of vanity and the corruption of wealth - the boy wears them because he is proud and it is vanity and pride that lead to his death.

It's a complicated metaphor, but Traven makes his point subtly and with a good deal of sympathy for Carlos' family, who are one of the poorer families in the village and whose only wealth is the temporary capital of Manuel's labour.

Theme: A Light on the dark River

River snaking through the jungle in Oaxaca by waywuwei
The third element that caused the boy's death was the darkness of the jungle at night and the fact that he couldn't see where he was going.  Perhaps the darkness of the jungle symbolises the dark period of history that the native people have entered, where their traditional world has been turned upside down, their lives have lost meaning and their destinies are controlled by the Mexican government and the US oil prospectors.

In this darkness, the 'Indians' turn towards their faith, symbolised by the lighted candle floating on the river, which helps them recover the body of the dead boy.

Traven's views on religion are clearly expressed and the narrator of The Bridge in the Jungle finds it hard to believe that a candle floating on the water could find the boy's body, after hours of dragging the river had failed.  He is horrified by the superstitions that the Indians cling to and their fatalism when faced with the tragedy of the novel.

There is an interesting scene where the narrator is disgusted to learn he has been drinking coffee prepared from river water - not because of hygiene concerns (he's got used to this aspect of jungle life), but because the water in the coffee is the same water that the boy drowned in.  In a symbolic nod to the symbolism of Christian rituals, the villagers are literally consuming the body and blood of the dead child.

Other themes

Although it's a fairly short novel (just 176 pages in the edition I read), The Bridge in the Jungle is packed with symbolism and there were many other themes that Traven touched upon - I'd like to highlight a few more of these below:

Oaxacan jungle and the Pacific Ocean by waywuwei
Fear of Strangers
Solitude and the ghosts of the jungle
Going native
Fear of the night
The power of a mother's grief
Death as a quiet event that can go unnoticed
The guilt of an US citizen living in Mexico
The powers of white men to resurrect the dead
The value of water
The mysticism of foreign cultures/beliefs
The validity of miracles
Dissonance - the discordant music and the contradictory characters, e.g.the superstitious Communist and the drunken schoolteacher

I'll leave you with a quote from the novel, that I thought was particularly poignant:

The jungle was singing its eternal song of joy, love, sadness, pain, tragedy, hope, despair, victory, defeat.  What did the jungle or the bush care about the things that had happened here? To the jungle, men are of no account . . What is man to the jungle? He takes a few trees out, or a few shrubs, or he clears a patch to build a jacal and plant some corn and beans or a few coffee trees.  If man forgets that patch for but three months, it is no longer his; the jungle has taken it back.  Man comes, man goes, the jungle stays on.  If a man does not fight it daily, it devours him.

Image credits:

For this blog post I wanted to highlight the photography of Flickr member waywuwei a US-born photographer who lives in Mexico.  These images were taken on a trip waywuwei made to Oaxaca in February 2011.  Amazingly, he also managed to photograph a bridge in the Oaxacan jungle!  You can see more of waywuwei's photos on his blog.

Thanks for sharing these with us, using the Creative commons license!

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