The Bridge in the Jungle is a novel about the tragic death of Carlos, an 8 or 9 year old (no age is given) hyperactive Mexican boy, and the aftermath of his mother's overwhelming grief for him, sometime in the early 20th Century in a very poor village deep in the jungle. (The lack of specific details are intentional, as I shall discuss below.) The narrator is an American man staying in the village while looking for alligator skins and bird feathers to sell in the U.S.. He observes the little boy's brother, who works in the oil industry in Texas and has just returned for the weekend, give his little brother brand new shoes. Carlos is overjoyed to wear them since all the villagers but the pump master's wife wear threadbare rags for clothes. This is the little boy's first pair of shoes, much less shiny new American ones. While sitting outside in the village with his host, both waiting for an outdoor party, the narrator hears an ominous splash that is Carlos falling to his death off the treacherous bridge, a bridge that has no railings. The remainder of the novel depicts the grief of the young mother - a grief that reaches the suffocating proportions of Greek tragedy - and her villagers' genuine support.

Described in minute detail by the narrator, the villagers - who have turned over every stone in the woods, dived many times in the river, and ridden to nearby villages to find Carlos - turn to an old man who requests a perfectly flat piece of wood and a stout candle. He then meticulously fastens the candle to the wood and carefully launches this raft of mystical exploration and recovery on the river. Every villager watches this ceremony with rapt attention. It is truly a riveting passage, for the raft travels under its own power from the river bank against the current, meandering slowly towards the bridge where it finally stops, despite the current, under the bridge, the only place no diver has yet looked:
"The board in the meanwhile has wandered farther under the bridge, but always in a right angle to the fifth post. Now it is under the middle of the bridge. From here it sails towards the fourth post, though only for about a foot. And here it stops as if it were nailed to the water. It does not mind the current nor the light breeze that sweeps softly across the surface of the river. The manner in which the board has halted is entirely different from that in which it stopped before. Now and then it trembles slightly, as if something were breathing against it from below. But it no longer whirls. ... The board begins softly to dance as if impatient. It seems that it wants to be relieved of its torture. It wriggles, swings about itself, though it does not move as much as two inches. One might think it is trying to go down to the bottom."
(page 110-1)
A villager dives and retrieves Carlos and hands his body to his mother:
"With an indescribable nobility and solemnity, and in his eyes that pitiful sad look which only animals and primitive people possess, he steps slowly forward. And Perez, the man whose daily task it is to fell the hard trees of the jungle and convert them into charcoal, lays that little water-soaked body in the outstretched arms of the mother with a tenderness that makes one think of glass so thin and fragile that a single soft breath could break it."
(page 113)
The villagers, in a procession that is tragicomic, take Carlos' body to the graveyard where a well respected teacher, now drunk from all the mescal others have offered him, gives an eulogy that suggests Christ's Sermon on the Mount. However, with inverted symbolism, this sermon is for, not by, Jesus and is delivered by a drunken priest-figure who is so drunk he falls into the open grave. To Traven's credit he introduces this farcical moment to emphasize how none of the villagers, much less the author, and, consequently, the reader, laughs at a decent man trying his best to honor Carlos. It is truly a most moving finale to a most moving book.


B. Traven, the author, is best known for the book that inspired the movie, The Treasure of The Sierra Madre. An expatriate from Germany who spent much of his life in Mexico. Traven spent much of his life shrouded in mystery, in large part generated by his passion for privacy.

Like Gabriel Garcia Marquez's Chronicle of a Death Foretold, this novel does not hesitate to proffer a plot-spoiler early in the book that would in most novels occur much later as a dramatic climax. Both novels are, however, not interested in dramatic climaxes but rather the slow, almost microscopic unraveling of the contingencies, and their significance, anterior to and posterior to this climax. This unravelling becomes a poetic meditation on primitiveness, the corruption of "modern" society and civilization, and the nature of acute grief and its temporary identity with lunacy. At times it reads - not to its deficit - like an allegory, or a morality play with stage directions, like Steinbeck's  Of Mice and Men .

Traven's prose style in explicating these contingencies is one of an almost dreamlike vagueness and indeterminate universality. Although the mother has a name, Carmelita, she is called "the Garcia", or "the Garcia woman", after her husband's surname. Her son Carlos is simply called "the kid" by all, including the mother much of the time. The narrator also has a name, Gales, which occurs only once or twice in the novel. The village does not have a name and is never located precisely in Mexico. In fact a possible clue to its location, the mention of a nearby town of Tlalcozautitlan, is a false clue since Tlalocozautitlan was a place name from the 16th century, 120 miles south of Mexico City. Additionally, there is,  no sense of calendric or chronological time in the novel, other than an hourly progression of the death and funeral. This ambience of generalities and lack of specificity contribute to the surreal aura of the plot and everyman character of the players in this drama. Traven is adroit in creating a fictive world wherein real and unreal are indistinguishable, in large part because of his ability to create a textual mood wherein this simultaneity is possible. Its evocative mood is that of Bierce, Lovecraft and Saki. Traven re-inforces this mood with his diction and metaphors, e.g., using words like "ghost" and "mysteriously". One such passage describes the villagers at the time of the party which is already off to a bad start since the musicians have not shown up yet and Carlos' mother is just beginning to appreciate her child is missing:
"The farther away from the weak light of the two lanterns the men and women were, the more ghostly they appeared, Their deep bronze-brown faces blended with the surrounding darkness so perfectly that their faces vanished and only their hats and white clothes remained. One often got the impression that only clothes were walking about, over which hats were mysteriously hanging in mid-air."
(page 44)
Together with the narrator's suspicion that the splash he heard only a few pages earlier was ominous, this passages presages the tragedy and imbues the incipient search for Carlos and, eventually, the discovery of his body, with an air of the supernatural, which culminates with the means by which (see below) the villagers find Carlos' body in the river.

The novel that emerges from this confluence of Traven's diction, style and narration is an extended tone poem reminiscent of Woolf's  To the Lighthouse, or Proust's Remembrance of Things Past, or Mann's  Magic Mountain or, more recently, Harding's  Tinkers. It is the polar opposite of the type of book that Truman Capote wrote, In Cold Blood.
The Bridge in the Jungle is concerned not with cold, hard facts but with metaphors and symbols. Especially symbols, incorporated into the text with a light touch.

One such striking symbol is Carlos, who reminds this reader of Christ. He suffers a sacrificial death on the Cross of Modernity (his brand new shoes with shiny and slippery soles) superimposed on primitive civilization.Too, like Christ, Carlos rises from the dead when his body is recovered from the bottom of the river, but his is a resurrection of death, not life. When the diver who finds Carlos gently hands his body to his mother, it is a scene, like the Pietà, straight out of Michelangelo. It is Traven's perception of the religious symbolism of this event that allows him to temper it with observations of the indigenous mythic beliefs and rites of the villagers.

For, although the villagers keep candles burning for Mary in their huts and hack a cross into the bridge upon the occasion of Carlos' death, they observe such rites as perfunctory acts of Catholicism, with nowhere near the fervent belief they bring to pagan ceremonies. This apparently contradictory dichotomy is at the heart of this novel and exists in full display in every Roman Catholic church I have ever entered in Central and South America where one finds, often at the entrance, reliquaries with everything from desiccated fingers to can openers. In The Bridge in the Jungle, the scene that embodies the villagers' enthusiastic belief in the power of mythic rites is as literally as figuratively the dead center of the novel, a center of death, occurring midway through the book.

The Bridge in the Jungle is a neglected masterpiece. This was my second, but not the last, reading. It reads at times like an allegory, at times like a Greek tragedy, always incorporating the elements of myth: vague approximation of detail; a hazy distinction between reality and the supernatural; simple, apparently innocent, turning points that inexorably lead to tragedy; the power of spells and magic; tradition uniting past and present; ritual and ceremony at the heart of the social setting; and all powerful gods with human interpreters/priests, seers. Its exploration of the immiscible tension between civilization and primitive societies is masterful, using the ironic gift of new shoes as a symbol of civilization's lethal influence and the tainting corruption of a pristine sylvan community. 

Traven's superb granular dissection of a grief reaction would prove useful when comparing it to others in this database, e.g., Chekhov's "Misery" , Hill's  In the Springtime of the Year, and Bang's Elegy . It is of interest that Traven dedicates this book:

"To the mothers
                of every nation
                of every people
                of every race
                of every color
                of every creed
                of all animals and birds
                of all creatures alive
                            on earth"

A dedication that immediately brings to mind, in this reader, the work of Käthe Kollwitz.


Hill and Wang

Place Published

New York, New York



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