B. Traven’s Mexican Enigma
By Bill Mesusan
Movie director John Huston awoke in his Mexico City hotel room to discover a shadowy figure standing at the foot of his bed. Huston switched on the light to get a closer look at the mysterious stranger.
The man handed Huston a business card.
It read: “Hal Croves. Translator. Acapulco and San Antonio.”
The year was 1947. Huston had journeyed to Mexico to work with B. Traven, enigmatic author of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. The diminutive Croves handed Huston a letter from Traven. The author was unable to meet with him. “Old and intimate” friend Croves was well qualified to advise about Mexico and locations.
The director suspected Croves and Traven were the same man.
Huston, who’d seen his fair share of human nature, including eccentric characters in film and real life, went along with the author’s game. He hired Croves as Technical Advisor for Treasure.
Later, unable to reconcile the author’s powerful voice and emotional depth with Croves’ “Casper Milktoast” personality, Huston changed his mind. Actor Humphrey Bogart had no doubts. When shown a photograph of Traven from the 1920s, “Bogie” immediately recognized him as impersonator Croves.
Who was this mystery man?
If novelist B. Traven had a history nobody knew the details. He appeared in Mexico out of nowhere. Among two dozen people B. Traven was said to be: Jack London, Ambrose Bierce, Mexican President Adolfo Lopez Mateos, a leper, and the illegitimate son of Kaiser Wilhelm II.
Traven used three dozen names during his lifetime. He worked hard creating a tangle of aliases, false trails, and forged documents. His life became a series of lies and fabrications.
There was one uncontroversial fact. B. Traven wrote compelling, hypnotic prose and was a masterful storyteller. Between 1925 and 1940, Traven’s literary output was enormous. The Death Ship, published in Germany, in 1926, provoked comparisons to Melville and Conrad. This compelling novel of life in the stokehold of a ship became an overnight success. It was followed by The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.
Traven quickly became a best selling author in Germany and Russia. His “proletarian adventure stories,” bringing to life the turmoil of his adopted Mexico, sold in the millions and were translated into fifteen languages.
Under the alias Traven Torsvan, the immigrant joined an archeological expedition into Chiapas as team photographer. He stayed on to research the hard-wood industry when befriended by Montería (lumber camp) owners.
During the1930s, Traven wrote an epic treatment of the birth of the Mexican Revolution. These six “Jungle Novels”—Government, The Carreta, March to the Montería, Trozas, The Rebellion of the Hanged, and The General from the Jungle—chronicled suffering by Indios in the mahogany plantations of Chiapas.
There were problems. European readers believed his documentary-like stories were based on first-hand experiences--a fiction the author encouraged—but, Traven failed to grasp many details of the mahogany trade. This led to criticism on technical grounds, especially his errors concerning ox-cart drivers: work hours, log weight, ox-team size, and status as the best-paid, most respected montería workers.
The indigenous people of Chiapas had inspired Traven with their communal spirit and love of the land. He envisioned a new world, based on anti-capitalistic values, taking shape in post-revolutionary Mexico. He mistook a microcosm—unique conditions at work in Chiapas—for the multitudinous nature of Mexico as a whole.
Traven portrayed the most oppressive mahogany plantation as symbolic of all montería operations; but, workers at San Quintín, where physical punishment was nonexistent, returned voluntarily every year. This inaccuracy alienated people who’d befriended Traven. The author suddenly wasn’t welcome in Chiapas.
On the plus side, Traven was one of the few outsiders of his times writing with compassion about the lives of Third World inhabitants. His genuine caring for the underdog shines through in every novel.
Traven’s immense productivity ended in 1940.
Disillusionment over results of Mexico’s Revolution eroded Traven’s enthusiasm. The radical Traven was even disappointed by the progressive efforts of Lázaro Cárdenas—nationalization of Mexico’s oil industry and railroads—because they were initiated by a central government, not individuals and trade unions. The vision sparking his imagination conflicted with the rock-hard reality of modern politics.
In 1948, release of the film The Treasure of the Sierra Madre thrust Traven back onto the world stage. The Traven/Croves mystery created a cottage industry among journalists and scholars attempting to decipher his true identity.
Down through the decades the Traven enigma continued.
Biographers, forced to resort to chronology in reverse, worked from the present backwards. Two schools emerged: Traven was an American born in Chicago (as he always claimed), or he was German anarchist Ret Marut.
BBC documentary filmmaker Will Wyatt spent the late 1970s investigating records, documents, and people’s memories. In London, Wyatt caught a break while researching Marut’s incarceration in Brixton Prison, in 1924. A name emerged and was linked to a Polish birth certificate.
Hermann Albert Otto Macksymilian Feige was born on February 23, 1882. His birthplace was Schwiebus, Germany (Swiebodzin, Poland after WWII). Otto, left with his maternal grandparents by poverty-stricken parents, became the object of their adoration. At age six, his parents broke his heart by separating him from his grandparents. This repatriation scarred Otto for life. He detached himself from parents and siblings and became a loner. Otto’s parents added insult to injury by refusing his scholarship to Theological School. They apprenticed the village’s star pupil to a locksmith.
Conscripted into the German army at age twenty, Otto served the mandatory two years. Upon discharge, the now ardent socialist returned to the family home and initiated a political campaign in his village. His parents thought he’d stir up trouble. There was a fight. Otto left home never to return.
A new identity, Ret Marut the actor, emerged. Failed actor Marut evolved into the successful anarchist editor/writer of Der Ziegelbrenner, a politically provocative magazine. In 1919, he joined the failed Munich Rebellion. Facing execution, Ret went underground fleeing for his life.
Marut turned up in London. Fearing deportation to Germany, anarchist Marut confessed his identity to London police. For once he’d given his true name, but German police came up empty-handed. Otto’s mother, afraid his radical politics would bring trouble, lied to police.
Marut landed in Tampico where he began as engineer/photographer Traven Torsvan and morphed into novelist B. Traven.
During the 1930s the rising Nazi Party banned and burned his books. This left Traven fearful another German regime was out to get him. If Traven’s paranoia seems obsessive, his history gave him cause for concern. The world-famous author now had three potential enemies: agents of the former Berlin Government, disgruntled Montería owners, and Nazis.
The brilliant, eccentric Traven promoted a potent mystery concerning his identity. Perhaps Traven created his enigma as a smoke screen, a marketing ploy to keep his books before the reading public long after he’d ceased writing novels.
Traven once wrote “. . . the biography of a creative person is absolutely unimportant.” The numinous aura surrounding his biography created the opposite effect. The sad irony: questions about his identity eclipsed interest in his novels. He’d miscalculated.
B. Traven’s Mexican enigma continued. In 1951, Traven was granted Mexican citizenship under the name Traven Torsvan. He’d reverted back to the identity he’d devised in Tampico. Then, as Hal Croves, he wrote screenplays for films adapted from B.Traven books. Most were filmed in Mexico during the 1950s and 60s.
Croves was present at the filming of Rebellion of the Hanged (1954) as B.Traven’s “authorized representative.” The tales are similar to the filming of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. On location, it was a public secret that Croves was B.Traven. Croves was given credit as screenwriter. In reality the script was written by American screenwriter John Bright who was blacklisted in the US and lived in exile in Mexico. Croves’s name was a front for Bright. Credit for the script has since been restored.
Macario (1959) is after Treasure the best-known B.Traven film. It was nominated for an Oscar as best foreign film and for the Palme d’Or in Cannes (1961). According to filmographies, the screenwriter was Mexican author Emilio Carballido who won awards for the screenplay.
During this period personal friends called him Hal Croves. Most knew he was Traven. Hal Croves died in Mexico City, in 1969. Croves was eulogized in a ceremony in Chiapas as writer B. Traven. His ashes were scattered by plane over the jungles of southern Mexico, giving life to the land that nurtured his creative spirit.
In his will, Mexican citizen Traven Torsvan admitted he used the names B. Traven and Hal Croves as pseudonyms. The schism between Traven’s life on the surface and the depths he plumbed in his novels was never reconciled.
It fell to film director John Huston to immortalize Traven’s legacy.
Awakening at dawn to discover a mysterious stranger in his Mexico City hotel room, John Huston probably never imagined he was encountering one of the most enigmatic figures of the 20th century.