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Who was B. Traven?

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Ret Marut, Traven Torsvan, and Hal Croves are the three names most associated with the literary mystery, B. Traven. Ambitious investigative journalists sought after the millionaire writer for years. Was he German? Polish? North American? Mexican? Detectives, lawyers, journalists and academics all furiously dispute who it was that first discovered the true identity of this eccentric storyteller. Even today, 40 years after his presumed death (1969), doubts remain about who B. Traven really was.

Less complicated that Malcolm Lowry and more fun than Grallam Greene and D.H. Lawrence put together, Traven's stories are powerfully addictive, vigorous infusions of adrenaline. These books--which have sold more than 25 million copies and been translated into 30 languages--are the only tangible testaments that B. Traven existed at all.

His most well known work, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, was made into a movie by John Huston starring Humphrey Bogart. It won three Oscars in 1948 (for best director, script, and supporting actor), and Stanley Kubrick identified it as one of the ten films he would like to have if he was stranded on a desert island (a desert island with electricity and a movie projector, of course). Director Paul Thomas Anderson (Magnolia and Boogie Nights), confessed that he was watching The Treasure of the Sierra Madre as he was drafting his last film, There Will be Blood.

Mexican journalist Luis Suarez is one of those who believes that he was the only one to actually interview Traven. According to Suarez, Traven met Humphrey Bogart at a pool resort in San Jose Purua, Michoacan where they were both working on editing the movie, which was filmed entirely in Mexico. He appeared on the set, however, as Hal Croves, Traven's literary agent. Once the work was concluded, Croves disappeared from the resort and Bogart never saw him again.

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In the same year that The Treasure of the Sierra Madre was filmed (1948), Mexican novelist Luis Spota took it upon himself to find out who B. Traven was. Spota discovered that the novelist lived almost year-round in a guesthouse in Acapulco and that he received his mail at a post office box located just a few blocks away. Luis Spota then travelled to Acapulco with his camera and, playing the role of today's hated paparazzi, managed to snap a good picture of him when he went to pick up his mail. He discovered that the person in the photo was none other than Hal Croves, the author's literary agent.

The mystery was apparently solved, and the result of Spota's investigation was published in the zinc Manana. A short time after the discovery had been made and celebrated, however, Life published a letter written by Croves in which he absolutely and categorically denied being B. Traven. Luis Suarez says that Traven's identity was so zealously sought after that his official Spanish translator, the beautiful Esperanza Lopez Mateos (sister of Mexican president Adolfo Lopez Mateos), was constantly besieged by journalists arguing that she must be B. Traven. When she committed suicide, some said that B. Traven had died. It caused such an uproar that President Lopez Mateos himself was forced to make a statement to the press that neither he, nor his departed sister, were B. Traven.

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Why so much mystery and so much effort to keep his identity secret? Some say that Traven was a German and that he escaped his country under the name of Ret Marut, an actor, novelist, and critic of the fierce German nationalism of the time and of the war. Marut was also one of the many people who participated in the brief Bavarian revolution in Germany (1918-1919). After a terrible clash, soldiers apprehended most of the sympathizers of the socialist government, including Marut. Accused of crimes of high treason, his death sentence was almost guaranteed, but the writer was able to escape from his captors and live clandestinely inside the country for a time. Finally, he was able to leave Germany secretly by boat and begin a life as an eternal fugitive from the German state.

Traven's first novel The Boat of the Dead is a story that bears some resemblance to Ret Marut's experience in Germany. Some say that Marut worked in Mexico as a laborer and was given the nickname Gringo because of his blue eyes and blond hair. Nothing was ever heard from him again. Later, a man with physical characteristics resembling those of Marut, who claimed to be a US citizen from Chicago, appeared before authorities in Mexico under the name Traven Torsvan and requested Mexican nationality.

In 1962, Gerd Heidemann, a reporter from the German newspaper Stern, was ordered to do a report that would clear up Traven's identity once and for all. Heidemann filled 42 file folders with 2,500 pages of information aimed at linking the identities of Ret Marut and B. Traven. He travelled to Spain, the Netherlands, Brazil, and the United States and even went to 58 churches in Chicago trying to find a civil record of a Traven Torsvan or any variation of his name. He was not able to find it. What he did find was a photograph of Marut in a play in which he performed in Berlin in 1914 as well as some photos taken of Traven Torsvan in Chiapas in 1954 and in Hamburg in 1959. The likenesses in the photos are remarkably similar, but the passage of so much time made it impossible to say for sure whether the two men were the same person.

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The Boat of the Dead was first published in Germany and met with great success. Some critics say it is his best work. His translator, Esperanza Lopez Mateos, discovered it in a bookstore and devoured it. She was working as a literary agent at the time, so she spent some time looking for more books by B. Traven and then decided to contact him. She wrote to the Alfred A. Knopf publishing house in New York to acquire the rights and to make two movies based on two of his novels: The Bridge in the Jungle and The Rebellion of the Hanged. She also asked for permission to contact the author. Shortly thereafter, Traven Torsvan contacted her by phone and met her in a small town in Michoacam. According to Suarez, the two probably travelled on the same train without knowing it. Their meeting must have had a big impact on both of them because shortly thereafter, she took charge of all of his literary affairs. Lopez Mateos translated all of his books into Spanish and promised him that she would never reveal B. Traven's true identity to anyone. When B. Traven had to relate to the glamorous world of Hollywood, Hal Croves appeared as his literary agent. Croves was the one present on the sets when The Treasure of the Sierra Madre was filmed, but he always denied that he himself was B. Traven.

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During the last few years of B. Traven's life, Mexican journalist Luis Suarez contacted Croves and obtained an interview. The October 1966 issue of the Mexican magazine Siempre included a report titled "Finally, Siempre reveals the most burning literary mystery of the century and introduces the world to B. Traven. Who is he? What is he like? What is his life like? And what does this extraordinary and legendary novelist think?" On November 20 of that same year, The New York Times commented on the Siempre article, noting that Traven had given his first interview with the press in his more than 40 years of fame, monastic reclusion, and anonymity (though he did not allow Suarez to use a tape recorder or take photographs).

Luis Suarez asked him the question on everyone's minds: "Why, Mr. Traven, are you cloaked in so much mystery?" The answer was the following: "There is no mystery to Traven. Dozens of German journalists have built their careers around the mystery man, the mystery of Traven. They are the ones who have created the mystery, keeping it going to feed their journalism careers. I will never contribute either to increasing or diminishing the mystery. The important thing about a writer is his books, not his life."

Suarez says that Traven was 78 years old at the time of the interview and that he was a man of medium height. His eyes were tired from years of writing, and he used a magnifying glass to see things better. He also had a hearing aid device connected over his right ear. Suarez mentions Traven's peculiar habit of constantly using both the first and third persons when he spoke of himself. It was as if B. Traven was sometimes seen as a friend or an acquaintance. When asked whether his books denigrated Mexico, Traven answered: "You have to love Mexico as it is, with its virtues and its defects. I love Mexico. So as an author, I feel like a Mexican and I write about things the way they are. That's why I always take a Mexican point of view. What other perspective could I have since I feel I am part of Mexico. That's what Traven is like."

B. Traven died on Wednesday March 26, 1969 in Mexico City at 78 years of age. One person who read the death notice wrote to The New York Times the following day expressing his doubts: "With so much mystery around the person of B. Traven, how do you know that he actually died?" A valid question, indeed.

In 1990, Larry Rother, also from the Times, interviewed Traven Torsvan's widow Rosa Elena Lujan and asked her if her husband had been the legendary B. Traven. Sitting next to the old Remington machine that Traven had used to shield himself from the world and project his fictions, she answered that indeed he had been. "He told me that I could reveal that he was Ret Marut (the revolutionary who had lived in Germany) when he died and not before," she said. The fundamental reason for this, according to Lujan, was that Traven was afraid of being deported lf the German government discovered his true identity. Karl Siegfried Guthke, author of the book B. Traven: The Life Behind the Legends, also concluded that Ret Marut and B. Traven were the same person. He said, however, that Marut's life could only be traced back to 1907. His life before that date is still an enigma because he lived in San Francisco at that time and all of his papers were destroyed in the 1906 earthquake.

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Meanwhile, a BBC television documentary called The Man Who Was B. Traven concluded that B. Traven's real name was Hermann Alberto Otto Maximilian Beige and that he was born in 1882 in Swiebodzin county in what is now Poland, a hypothesis that Lujan and Guthke do not find convincing. Mrs. Lujan recalled that Traven used to tell her, "I am the freest person in the world. I can choose the parents I want, the country I want, and the age I want." But Lujan did say that Traven never knew exactly when or where he was born and that he had never had a birth certificate. Some other last names that Traven used to identify himself were: Arnold, Bardker, Feige, Krans, Lainger, Wienecke, and Ziegelbrenner.

Another rumor holds that B. Traven never existed at all, that he was a collective hallucination, a mirage, or that perhaps he was simply the invention of a North American writer Jack London.

Jaime Perales Contreras, a regular contributor to Americas, has a doctorate in Latin American literature from Georgetown University.
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Title Annotation:LITERATURE
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2010
Words:2156
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