Traven identified

George Woodcock

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

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.

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