By Randy Jackson
I was first introduced to the works of the Mexican writer B. Traven in a Spanish class. We were assigned a short story by Traven, titled “Dos Burros.” I found the story compelling. There was something about both the story itself and the style of narration that appealed to me. So, of course, I googled B. Traven, and immediately plummeted down a curiosity rabbit hole about this strange and enigmatic writer.
In 1952, the Mexican government granted citizenship to Berick Traven Torsvan, a person who, by then, was a well-established writer, living in Mexico and writing under the pen name of B. Traven. How Mexican citizenship was granted to a person as fictitious as a character in one of Traven’s own novels is a mystery in itself.
To confuse his identity further, in Mexico Traven never appeared as Traven, but represented himself as Hal Croves, a supposed friend and agent of B. Traven. When the Hollywood producer John Huston paid for the movie rights to The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, he handed the cheque to a person claiming to be Hal Croves, a person with Power of Attorney for B. Traven. Both Huston and the main actor in the film, Humphrey Bogart, later claimed they always thought Hal Croves was B. Traven himself.
But why all this subterfuge? There are many reclusive writers, J.D. Salinger, author of The Catcher In The Rye, for one, and Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird, for another – there are many more. But Traven wasn’t the reclusive type. He actively sought to deceive others about his true identity. After his death (March 26, 1969, in Mexico City), we learned the identity Traven was trying to hide was that of Ret Marut, a wanted man with a death sentence on his head.
The Hidden Past of B. Traven
The early days of the Weimar Republic in German (following World War I) were tumultuous, especially in the state of Bavaria (later leading to the rise of Hitler). In April of 1919, a Bavarian Socialist Republic was proclaimed following a communist uprising. Ret Marut became a committee member of that new Socialist Republic. He was arrested just one month later by a Berlin-based militia, which crushed the upstart socialist republic. Ret Marut was put in with a group of prisoners who were being summarily tried and shot. Before his name was called, a sympathetic guard allowed Marut to escape. Marut found his way to London where he was imprisoned for a time for not registering as a foreigner. Eventually Marut found work shovelling coal on decrepit steam ships destined to be scuttled for insurance proceeds. That work brought him to Mexico in 1924.
In Mexico, Murat began using the name Traven Torsvan, writing stories under the name B Traven. Within about a year his stories began to be published in Germany, starting with the serialised The Cotton-Pickers (Die Baumwollpflücker, 1925, published as a novel called The Wobbly [Der Wobbly, the short name for Industrial Workers of the World union] in 1926).
The Writing Career of B. Traven
The stories of B. Traven quickly became popular in Germany (almost all his published works were written in German and published in Germany). He was seen as an adventure story writer. His writing was reminiscent of the very popular works of the American writer Jack London (1896-1916). Traven’s first major success as a novelist was in 1926 with the publication, in Germany, of Death Ship (Das Totenschiff). As a testament to this book’s enduring popularity, years later Albert Einstein is reported to have said it was the book he would take with him to a desert island. Death Ship is seen as autobiographical for Traven. It portrays the life of an international undocumented seamen who is treated like a slave, no doubt derived from Traven’s own experiences in getting to Mexico in 1924.
In 1927, Traven published his most famous novel, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (Der Schatz der Sierra Madre). This was the first of Traven’s novels to be published in Mexico (1931). Later it was also the first Traven novel to be published in English (1934). This story was made into the award-winning film of the same name, now considered a classic, by John Huston in 1948. The story of two down-on-their-luck Americans in Mexico who follow a prospector in the search for gold is well-known, especially for an inaccurate version of the lines delivered by the Mexican bandit Gold Hat, “Badges? We don’t need no stinking badges!”
Through the 1930’s Traven published a series of six novels that are generally referred to as The Jungle Novels. These books tell stories of repressed Mexican indigenous people, and their ill-fated attempts to push back against the harsh dictatorship of President Porfirio Díaz, leading up to the Mexican Revolution. It is for these Jungle Novels that the Peruvian novelist Luis Alberto Sánchez (1900-94) labelled B. Traven the author of the Mexican Revolution.
The last of the Jungle Novels, General from the Jungle (Ein General kommt aus dem Dschungel) was published in 1940, seemingly marking the end of Traven’s most productive period. His final four novels before his death in 1969 were Aslan Norval (1960; rediscovered after Traven’s death and translated to English in 2020), Stories by the Man Nobody Knows (published in Mexico as Cuentos de B. Traven, 1969), The Creation of the Sun and the Moon (published in English in New York, 1968), and The Kidnapped Saint and Other Stories (published posthumously, in English in New York, 1975).
Macmillan Publishers now reports that books by B. Traven have sold over 30 million copies and have been translated into 30 languages.
The Stories of B. Traven
As mentioned, my introduction to the writings of B. Traven was the short story “Dos Burros.” What I found compelling was his clear, down-to-earth narrative about a time and place in rural Mexico that were unfamiliar to me. I later read a number of his other short stories, the novel The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, and I re-watched the movie made from the novel. I wish I had the skills to properly articulate what it was that attracted me to Traven stories. However, when I came across this description of Traven’s prose in the Encyclopaedia Britannica, I thought this nailed it:
Traven’s works are harsh, filled with descriptions of danger, cruelty, and physical and emotional suffering, but his lean, direct prose has a hypnotic immediacy, and the narratives and themes are clear and compelling.
In the world of literary criticism, there is a perennial unresolved question: Do we need to know anything about a writer to bring more meaning to the works of that writer? Traven, who so desperately wanted to distance himself from his past, certainly had an opinion on this issue: “The creative person should have no other biography than his works.” I wonder whether Traven was aware of how his past and his world view so clearly impacted the stories he told. Probably the best example of this is his novel The Death Ship, which emerged from Traven’s own experiences. Traven (Ret Marut) was an anarchist with clear political leanings towards the underclass and social injustices, and against capitalist exploitation and greed. The Jungle Novels in particular clearly demonstrate these sentiments.
There are no happy endings in Traven’s stories. Of my readings of B. Traven, all the stories ended with my feeling as if things were left up in the air. Nobody ever seemed to come out ahead. A good example? The ending of the novel and movie The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, when the main character Dobbs (played by Humphrey Bogart) is killed and the gold dust blows away in the wind.
It is characteristic of Traven to never come down on anyone’s side, there are no winners in his stories. In “Dos Burros,” for example, a landless peasant is befriended by a wild donkey so ugly and unruly that nobody wanted him. But once people saw that the donkey was working for this peasant, two different people claimed the same donkey (dos burros), and the peasant ended up with no donkey at all.
No matter his up-in-the-air endings, or characters that never come out on top, B. Traven is read for the content of his stories, the adventure of his tales, the richness of his hapless characters, and his compelling narrative voice. B. Traven is a Mexican writer well deserving of his literary popularity.