The Man who was B. Traven 
by Will Wyatt.
Cape, 326 pp., £8.50, June 1980, 0 224 01720 9
Show More
The Government 
by B. Traven.
Allison and Busby, 231 pp., £6.50, May 1980, 0 85031 356 2
Show More
The Cotton-Pickers 
by B. Traven.
Allison and Busby, 200 pp., £5.50, October 1979, 0 85031 284 1
Show More
The White Rose 
by B. Traven.
Allison and Busby, 209 pp., £6.50, May 1980, 0 85031 369 4
Show More
Show More

I am convinced, after reading his book, The Man who was B. Traven, that the BBC producer Will Wyatt has (with some notable assistance from others) finally solved one of the most tantalising literary mysteries of our age, and has established, as firmly as it ever will be, the identity of the novelist who called himself B. Traven. In the process, he has shown that Traven was perhaps the most multiply pseudonymous man in literary history: at various stages in his life he used no less than 27 aliases, not counting his nom-de-plume and his real name which, as Mr Wyatt persuasively demonstrates, was not Ret Marut – the first name under which he presented himself to public attention – but Hermann Albert Otto Max Fiege, that of a native of the East Prussian village of Schwiebus, now in the Polish province of Poznan.

For more than half a century, the identity of the writer who issued a series of darkly impressive novels from Mexico under the name of Traven, and never emerged to show himself, has puzzled the literary world. Articles have appeared with persistent regularity bearing titles like ‘Who is B. Traven?’, ‘The Great Traven Mystery’, and ‘Wer ist der Mann, der Traven heist?’ Traven has been identified with a surprising variety of known figures, including one President of Mexico, Adolfo Lopez Mateos, who felt obliged to issue a public disclaimer. Traven has been described, variously, as English, American, Swedish, Norwegian, Lithuanian and German. And even when figures have appeared who looked as though they might be the real man or men behind the name, they have merely deepened the mystery.

Until his novels became popular, of course, Traven’s identity was of interest only to fellow writers and fellow revolutionaries who speculated among themselves about the author of the books that came out of Mexico under his name in a steady stream from the mid-Twenties, when Das Totenschiff appeared, down to 1940, when Ein General kommt aus dem Dschungel marked the end of a decade and a half of productivity, which was to be followed by twenty years of silence, until in 1960 Aslan Norval was published, a novel so different from the rest that many of its readers thought it had been written by another hand – that a new invisible presence had taken over the name of B. Traven. In the English-speaking world, where The Death Ship and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre did not appear until the mid-Thirties, the interest in Traven started up about a decade later than in Germany. It did not move out of the literary world until the 1940s, when the filming of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre provided a wider audience and, simultaneously, the man who was Traven first moved tentatively out of the shadows.

When John Huston set about filming The Treasure of the Sierra Madre in 1946, he woke one morning to see a small man standing in his Mexican hotel room, offering a card which introduced him as Hal Croves, Traven’s trusted agent. Croves worked for Huston as an adviser, and Huston soon suspected that he was Traven, though Croves always denied it when this was suggested. Two years later, in Acapulco, a Mexican journalist named Luis Spota managed to spy on and open mail which Croves was receiving in Acapulco as Traven Torsvan; among the mail were royalty cheques from Traven’s Swiss agent. Spota tracked Torsvan down and accused him of being Traven. Torsvan denied it. He also denied being Croves. It was not until 1959 that, having gone to Berlin to see the premiere of the German film of Das Totenshiff, he admitted the latter identification by registering in a Berlin hotel as ‘Torsvan also called Croves’. To the end of his life, Torsvan-Croves never admitted to being Traven. Nevertheless, when he died, his widow, Rosa Elena Lujan, admitted it on his behalf, and the Mexican Government accepted the identification and publicly honoured the writer who had worked in Mexico so secretively yet with such open sympathy for the woes of the country’s people. In the state of Chiapas, where Traven had wandered long ago, they changed the name of a Lacandon Indian village from Ocosingo to Ocosingo de Traven to commemorate the fact that the ashes of Croves-Torsvan-Traven had that day been scattered from a small plane over the forests he had described so vividly in his anarchistic novels of peons in revolt like The Rebellion of the Hanged.

But who, if he was the Croves who appeared to John Huston in 1946, and the Torsvan to whom a Mexican immigration card was issued in 1930 (and who acquired Mexican citizenship in 1951), had Traven been in the years before? I had my first suggestion of who that earlier Traven might be when I went to Mexico City in 1953 and there encountered an Austrian anarchist named Augustin Souchy, who had fled Vienna in 1936, found his way to Civil War Spain, and, on Franco’s victory, had fled again, this time to Mexico. Souchy claimed that in 1923 he was the first person actually to see the name B. Traven. He was then editing Der Syndikalist in Berlin, and Traven wrote from Mexico asking him for advice on where to publish the stories and novels he was writing. Souchy suggested a Swedish publisher, who did eventually bring out Traven’s books in translation, and it was possibly because of his advice that Traven also submitted stories to the Social Democratic paper, Vorwärts, where his earliest works appeared. (In 1958, Souchy published these facts in a German paper, Geist und Tat.)

Souchy also told me that in 1926, when Das Totenschiff was published, his friend, the anarchist poet Erich Müsham, immediately asserted that the author must be Ret Marut, an anarchist actor and writer who had been one of his comrades in the short-lived Munich Soviet (Räterepublik) of 1919. From 1917, Marut had published an anarchist journal, Der Ziegelbrenner (The Tile-Maker), which he continued from hiding when he went on the run after the suppression of the Munich rebellion, and did not abandon until December 1921. Comparing the prose of Der Ziegelbrenner with that of Das Totenschiff, Muhsam convinced both Souchy and their common friend Rudolf Rocker that Traven and Marut must be the same person, and on the strength of his views he published an appeal, which was never answered, for the Tile-Maker to reestablish contact with his old comrades.

In later years, evidence in favour of identifying Traven with Marut built up, largely through the researches of the East German scholar Rolf Recknagel, whose B. Traven: Beiträge zur Biographie has become one of the indispensable source books relating to the life of Traven before he took the name of Traven. Torsvan-Croves denied having been Marut as stubbornly as he denied being Traven, but once again, at his death, Rosa Elena Lujan admitted that the four names all belonged to the same man. The two most recent books on Traven before Mr Wyatt’s The Man who was B. Traven – Michael Baumann’s scholarly B. Traven: An Introduction and Judy Stone’s journalistic The Mystery of B. Traven – agree that Marut and Traven were the same man. Moreover, Judy Stone, who questioned Torsvan-Croves remorselessly when she visited him, was convinced from the nature of the slips he made that he must have been Traven, and Baumann, though troubled by the lack of firm documentary proof, could find no reason to deny that the Traven who wrote in secret and the Croves who claimed to represent him in public were in fact one and the same.

The trail led clearly back to Marut, but there it seemed to be lost, for Marut also was a mystery man, about whose life before 1907, when he emerged into history as a small-part actor with anarchist inclinations, nothing has been known until now. It has been Mr Wyatt’s achievement to penetrate the mystifications which Marut, like Traven, created, and hence to establish the real origins and identity of the writer B. Traven.

Where Marut led Traven scholars on a long wild-goose chase was in his claims to be other than German, doubtless prompted by a fear of his real identity being discovered. We now know of his East Prussian birth, yet his German police registration card for 1908 described him as having been born in San Francisco in 1882. (Since the vital records of San Francisco were burned in the great fire of 1906, this was a safely uncheckable assertion.) In 1912 Marut described himself as a British citizen, in 1915 he went through the odd charade of applying for German citizenship as an alien and being turned down, and in 1916 he described himself as an American citizen. In London in 1924 he actually tried to persuade the United States Consul to provide him with American papers on the strength of his claim to be a San Franciscan.

Marut’s pose as an American tuned in with Traven’s persistent denial that he was German, and found an interesting variant in Torsvan’s claim to have been born in Chicago in 1890, the son of Burton and Dorothy Torsvan; later, in the Hal Croves phase, he amended this to suggest that he had actually been born as Traven Torsvan Croves! This weight of planted evidence led many inquirers to take at face value – even if they believed that Torsvan was a mask for Marut – the claim of American birth, even though the Chicago records, which had not been burnt in 1906, were silent about the birth in 1890 of a Traven Torsvan or a Traven Torsvan Croves. Some even tried to convince themselves that Traven wrote German like an American, and that the extraordinary English into which he translated his own books for American publication could possibly be explained away by long residence in Germany. It was perhaps most of all the lack of any clue to a German past before 1907 which made one accept rather gladly the possibility of a non-European origin that might help to explain such matters as Traven’s knowledge of the IWW (the International Workers of the World, or Wobblies). The poet Kenneth Rexroth, himself of German descent and an ex-Wobbly, suggested that Traven was in fact a German-American, brought up in a community where the mother tongue was spoken, and that at some period in his life before going to Mexico he had been a wandering member of the IWW. I was inclined – until Mr Wyatt’s discoveries – to accept this theory as the most plausible. It would explain why Traven’s English was so poor and his American slang so curious, why his German had at times an eccentric and provincial quality (something like Quebec French compared to Parisian French), and how he had acquired a knowledge of Wobblies and their ways.

In making the discoveries that changed all this, Mr Wyatt concentrated on the crucial period of Marut’s life after he had ceased to edit Der Ziegetbrenner in 1921. The Man who was B Traven actually takes the form of a narrative of discovery, in rather the same manner as A.J.A. Symons’s masterpiece of biographical detection, The Quest for Corvo. Wyatt tells how he built up the material for his script (obviously with funds that would make most producers green with envy), visiting Traven experts like Baumann and Judy Stone and people who had known Traven-Torsvan-Croves in various ways, like John Huston, Luis Spota and Rosa Elena Lujan, getting them to speak on tape and to establish what was already known and more or less accepted about Torsvan-Croves and Marut and their links with Traven. He collected as much as there was to gather about the Mexican period, and then turned back to Europe to try, as others had done, to crack the mystery of Marut.

The clues that in the end led to the beginning were in London. Nothing definite is known of what happened to Marut during 1922, after he gave up the clandestine publication of Der Ziegelbrenner, though he claimed to have been in Switzerland and Holland for some part of this time. But if Augustin Souchy’s memory of hearing from Traven in Mexico in 1923 – which Wyatt has curiously neglected – was correct, he must have made a first visit to that country in the early months of 1923, since we know that in July he was denied entry into Canada and immediately sailed for Britain. A visit to Mexico in the beginning of 1923 would help solve the problem that has disturbed so many Traven-watchers: how, if his first visit there corresponded with his arrival in the summer of 1924, he knew enough about the country to start publishing stories about it in mid-1925.

Marut arrived in London from Canada in August 1923, living there under various aliases. He was arrested in November for failing to register, and kept in Brixton Prison until February. Wyatt found Home Office documents concerning his case and also American State Department records relating to Marut’s application to the United States Consul in March 1924 for American citizenship, as well as an earlier application in 1917 in Munich; in each case Marut repeated his claim of having been born in San Francisco in 1882. The main interest of the English documents lay in their list of aliases, which included two names later to take on great significance – Albert Otto Max Wienecke and Adolf Rudolf Feige. The documents did not state what Wyatt found from the State Department dossier: that the Special Branch in London told Boylston A. Beal, an official of the American Embassy, that Marut had confessed to being Herman Otto Albert Max Feige, born at Schwiebus in Germany in 1882, the son of a potter and a mill-hand. It was perhaps this confession that induced the British to release Marut in February and allow him to make his own arrangements to leave England, which he did in April; from that point on, the name of Marut was not heard of again. Crossing the Atlantic, he merged into his other selves, Traven and Torsvan and Croves.

According to the information Beal transmitted from London to the State Department, the German political police had been asked to investigate, and had found in Schwiebus no trace of either Feige or Marut. Wyatt began to think that his programme, like every other effort to discover Traven’s original identity, would end about 1907 in a gigantic questionmark. But he had taken the precaution of making contact with the Polish authorities in Swiebodzin, as Schwiebus had now become, and just before he put the final touches to his programme a letter arrived from Poland which showed that the German police had been rather perfunctory in their inquiries in 1924. It contained the information that a Herman Albert Otto Max Feige had indeed been born in Schwiebus on 23 February 1882, two days off the date Marut had always given for his birth. Feige’s father was a potter, as Marut had confessed; his mother was an ‘unskilled worker’, a description that would include the occupation of mill-hand. His mother’s name, moreover, was Wienecke, one of the names he had used as an alias in London, and, indeed, his name had for a few months been the same, since he was born before his father and mother were married.

Wyatt hurried to Poland, inspected the registers, and confirmed the information that had been sent him. That a Feige born in 1882 in Schwiebus had existed was proved, and also that he had once been called Wienecke: but this was still not final proof that Feige-Weinecke was Marut. It was remotely conceivable that Marut might have acquired Feige’s papers and his identity. However, Wyatt found that a brother and a sister of Feige were still living in Wallensen in West Germany. He went there and with some difficulty managed to interview them. The results provided the missing clues that established Traven’s identity. Both remembered a brother Otto who had disappeared about 1906, shortly before Marut’s first appearance as an actor in Essen. They identified him in London mug-shots of Marut and in Mexican photographs of Torsvan. Even more convincing, they produced photographs of the young Feige that fitted perfectly into the Marut-Torsvan series. Marut was Feige, and so, therefore, was B. Traven.

I am sure there are Travenites who will hold out for their own theories despite the weight of evidence Wyatt presents, but I do not think any objective reader of his book will doubt that he has finally solved the question that has haunted so many of us so long: ‘Who was B. Traven?’ He, and Torsvan, and Croves, and Marut, all originated in the fertile mind of Otto Feige, the East Prussian potter’s son.

Now that we know who Traven was, we can perhaps look with a new eye at the books Feige’s fertile mind also created. Traven’s literary repute has grown in recent years mainly as a result of the mystery surrounding his identity. Was he really as great a writer as his aficionados have suggested? John Huston, questioned by Wyatt and his colleagues, summed up his significance as well as any of the critics have done: ‘Traven, he said, was above all a passionate defender of the victims of society, a man who hated injustice and had found a great battlefield in Mexico on which to join combat with it. His books were “marvellous affirmations of his faith in the beaten man”, and while he was no stylist, his stories were permeated with a great and single-minded vision.’

The best of Traven’s books are certainly those by which he is best-known and in which the vision is translated most convincingly into human action, The Death Ship, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and The Rebellion of the Hanged. His other books were slow to be translated into English, and of the three novels whose republication coincides with the appearance of The Man who was B. Traven, one – Government – first appeared in English in 1935, The Cotton-Pickers in 1956 (though in a different translation from the present) and The White Rose not until 1965. They represent the range of Traven’s interests. Government is the first of the serries of six novels he devoted to the forced-labour exploitation of Indian peasants in southern Mexico and their eventual uprising. The Cotton-Pickers concerns American migrant workers in Mexico and their role as IWW agitators. The White Rose shows the power of American oil companies in Mexico during the period before their expropriation.

These novels display Traven’s virtues of sincerity and anger at injustice. They show his penetrating anarchist’s vision of the structures of power, and his ability to evoke the Mexican scene with memorable vividness. But – even if one makes allowance for a certain battering in translation – it is obvious that Huston is right in saying that Traven was no stylist. More than that, he had little real power of transmuting his ideas and the situation he wished to portray into fiction, and his passion was too often diluted into didacticism. For long passages he tells and explains rather than shows, and always he teaches and preaches.

In most of Traven’s novels one is, in fact, the shocked observer and listener rather than the suffering participant. Perhaps a clue can be found in the first article in the first issue of Marut’s Der Ziegelbrenner, which Michael Baumann quotes in his B. Traven: An Introduction:

All of man’s deeds, good ones and bad ones, start with thinking. Think good and you are good. Think bad and you are bad. Think war and there is war.

Simplistically, Marut leaves out feeling; he speaks as an intellectual. And perhaps this is the major flaw in Traven’s novels. The novelist is always thinking and telling, and so his indignation is siphoned off into argument. The bad characters are always calculating and scheming, but what they feel we never know. The victims are always enduring; we admire their endurance and when they rebel we are on their side, but we are never taken into their hearts, we never experience their feelings – we only watch their reactions.

Traven’s novels are tributes to human endurance and courage and grand denunciations of human villainy; they are notable social documents; and whatever we may think of the biographical fallacy, their connection with the mystery of Traven will give them a lasting place in literary history. But are they the work of a major writer? I think not. Traven’s place is probably that which Somerset Maugham assigned to himself: in the first rank of the second-raters.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences