Who is B. Traven?

B. Traven is the author of

The Death Ship, The Cotton Pickers, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The White Rose, The Bridge in the Jungle, Government, The Carreta, March to the Monteria, Trozas, The Rebellion of the Hanged, General from the Jungle.

All but the Death Ship are set in Mexico. The novels were published in Germany in German. Traven sent them from Mexico. He claimed to be an American who spoke, wrote and thought in English, and had translated or had them translated into German. Above all he said details of his life are nobody's business. Nobody was really ever sure who he was. Even today, while one theory tracing him back to his birthplace has emerged, there are many other stories and plenty of researchers who believe the many false trails and tall stories he told about himself have misled the experts.

The consensus is that Traven wrote a German political newsletter in the 1910's under the name Ret Marut. After a briefly successful political upheaval, he may have been captured, possibly was going to be executed, and possibly escaped. Some scholars may be more definite, but the only account I have seen was written by Marut himself, and the only thing that is certain is that Marut-Traven was a recreational liar.

Will Wyatt of the BBC believed he tracked Marut to his birthplace in present day Poland. No one else has brought forward a more credible story with as much evidence. Marut according to this version was born Otto Feige. He had a fairly ordinary childhood. It doesn't sound anything like Traven's own autobiographical writing (which might speak in its favor). It doesn't explain his love or knowledge of the sea, his preoccupation with being a bastard, his supposed facility with Americanisms, or his late entry into Mexico and nearly instantly sending novels back to Germany. So modern scholars, whether they just can't let go of the mystery, or their suspicions are valid, are skeptical of the Wyatt solution.

Nevertheless its fairly well accepted that after a brief imprisonment in England for being an undocumented alien, Marut, on the run from Germany, landed in Southern Mexico in 1924, and changed his name. Berick Traven Torsvan, and variations thereof, worked and lived in Tampico, visited Chiapas. He studied for a time at University in Mexico City, subjects like Mexican history, literature and archeology, which would serve him as a novelist. He made 3 known expeditions to Chiapas, at least one with a guide who was familiar with the lumber camps, which would form the basis for his series of novels referred to as the Mahogany novels. Traven wrote in detail of the brutal exploitative conditions native Mexican Indians endured, conditions which were largely gone by the time Traven arrived.

Traven's politics in Germany was largely an individualistic approach. His newsletter was mainly a one-person operation. He is usually referred to as an anarchist, someone who doesn't accept any authority. Once in Mexico he quickly became convinced that Indian society was more noble, sustainable and preferable to capitalism or communism, fascism or socialism. He didn't like church authority any better than government. He had nearly lost his life in Germany in a political battle, and appeared to distrust authority in general.

By 1940, he has written all the major novels he will write. Mexico entered into war with Germany, while at the same time there were many German nationals in Mexico. Mexico required them to register. Traven, maintaining he is American, born in San Francisco, did not surface. However Traven's books were well known to the German people in Mexico and they made many attempts to find him. Some journalists even wrote they believe him to be Ret Marut. They considered Traven a kind of forebear, a man they had a lot in common with. When the German publishing house that had published Traven was taken over by the Nazis in 1933, Traven emphatically withdrew publishing rights.

According to the official story, most of which came from Traven's self-promoting newsletter many years later, Esperanza Lopez Mateos read a Traven book, whether in English or more likely in pirated Spanish, and wrote asking about film rights. Turned down, she translated "Bridge in the Jungle" from English to Spanish (we don't really know her source) on her own time. Traven was so impressed that he gave her the job, met with her, and they were so taken by each other that she instantly became his business manager.

In spring 1941 appeared her first translation, the Bridge in the Jungle (Puente en la Selva). In addition to translation credit, she has a logo on the title page. In the introduction, Traven says that all previous Spanish editions of his work are fraudulent, poorly taken from European texts, which are themselves not as good as the originals, having been edited for the European public. The introduction decries the pirate Spanish versions. Specifically he calls out translators Pedro Rivas and Lya Kostakowsky, El Popular (Toledano's paper), Editorial Cima in Mexico City and Ediciones Imán in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Toledano has helped many of the German communists emigres into Mexico and has them in his employ. (Zogbaum - "Vicente Lombardo Toledano and the German Communist Exile in Mexico"). (Books on the Venona cables also say Toledano was instrumental in gaining entry visas for German communists.) Previous Spanish editions of Rebellion of the Hanged, White Rose, Ship of the Dead, and Bridge in the Jungle are pirated. He asks not to be judged by these inferior inaccurate texts. For instance in Rosa Blanca, he says he never referred to Mexico, but a Republic in the south. Traven explicitly disassociates himself from the "comunazis".

from the introduction (translated from Spanish)

B. TRAVEN, is native of the western United States of North America, son of native Americans descended from Norwegian and Scottish respectively. He has just turned forty years, and he writes all his books in English. His first name is not Bruno, name awarded him by the comuninazis to whom the generous governments of Mexico and Argentina have given refuge. The author has no connection at all with those people, does not share his ideas neither his credos and regrets that some details, not foreseen in the laws that aid the rights of authors, as much in Mexico as in Argentina, have made possible the lamentable presentation of his work that has been carried out.

If these Spanish pirate editions were troubling Traven, if they were popularizing his name in Mexico, making it harder for him to remain the anonymous American, even calling him the German Bruno, it was a fortunate accident that Esperanza provided him with an unasked for translation.

However Traven and Esperanza met, Traven not only grew close to Esperanza but also to her cousin Gabriel Figueroa, the very successful Mexican cameraman. Gabriel and Esperanza were raised if not in the same household, in close proximity. They live in the same house at 1106 Coyoacan at least from 1941 to 1951. Traven stayed with them in Mexico City, either at that address, or the 39 Zamora address that Figueroa acquired. Traven becomes the godfather to Figueroa's son.

 

The novel itself, Bridge in the Jungle, is a brilliant piece of writing. It has virtually no plot. An Indian boy slips from a bridge, is drowned, and buried. The narrator, Traven's stock American character Gales, is not involved except as bystander. The themes are death, a mother's love, and acquiescence to fate. Traven writes it sometime in 1925-1927. Much of Traven's appeal is in the soliloquys between action. Either they ring true for you or they don't. An Indian mother's love of her child is as deeply held as any other mother. The Indian village is so small as to have no name. The people have as little as possible to have and not have nothing. Traven sometimes describes every movement of people who are the same as millions of others. Death and grief are universal, and he makes civilized people feel for a poor Indian boy and his grief stricken mother in an anonymous jungle. Chankin, "Anonymity and Death- the Fiction of B. Traven", says the story loses its punch after the recovery of the body, and he is right, it occurs halfway thru the 200 page book, but it still makes its point, you are there in the village listening to the sounds of the jungle and seeing the faces. No one cares for these people except you and Traven.

from the dedication

TO THE MOTHERS:
Of each nation,
Of each town,
Of each color,
Of each race,
Of each credo,
Of all the animals and birds,
Of all the creatures that live in the earth.

 

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