Take your pick

Could the name in the title above just as well have been

  1. Ret Marut?
  2. Hermann Otto Albert Maximilian Feige?
  3. Traven Torsvan?
  4. B. Traven?
  5. Hal Croves?

Who knows.

Was the individual in question born on

  1. February 23, 1882 in Schwiebus, Germany?
  2. March 5, 1890 in Chicago, Ill.?
  3. February 25, 1882 in San Francisco, Cal.?

Who knows.

Ashes spread over the jungle

One who might possibly know, would be Traven Torsvan Croves himself, provided that an individual with that name actually existed. However, it appears that someone by the name of Traven Torsvan Croves (in the case that he existed) died on Wednesday, March 26, 1969. His death occurred reportedly in Mexico City and reportedly the body was cremated the following day.

We are additionally told that the ashes were subsequently strewn from an aeroplane. Not anywhere, though, but over Río Jataté in the jungle of Chiapas, the impoverished region of Southern Mexico which was to become famous a quarter of a century later through the Chiapas Indian Zapatista revolt and its mysterious, ski-masked leader "Subcomandante Marcos".

"B. Traven" and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

All of this would be idle, inconsequential speculation, were it not for one thing -- Traven Torsvan Croves has an enigmatic connection to the even more enigmatic novelist and writer "B. Traven".

The treasure of the Sierra Madre (filmed by John Huston and released in 1948, with Humphrey Bogart in the lead) is the most well-known of the dozen-odd literary works which appeared in the 1920’s and 1930’s under the pen name of "B. Traven". They were quite successful -- new editions are appearing even in the 2000’s. The works were originally published in Germany, in the German language.

Were they originally written in German as well? Or were they actually German translations of English originals? Who knows. Well, again Traven Torsvan Croves might know, but then he (if he actually existed) is back to ashes. After World War II "B. Traven" continued writing, publishing a novel, seven short stories and a long story, and finally ending his writer’s career in 1960. All of these later works were originally published in English.

(For literary details, which this writeup is not about, see B. Traven by Professor Pi).

Biographing an elusive existence

"B. Traven" succeeded in mystifying his existence to such a degree that the cobweb of puzzles around him has sprouted a whole jungle of serious research as well as over-imaginative speculation, with both activities very much alive and well today. There have appeared three different "biographies" of "B. Traven", each written in accordance with its own particular theory.

The first enigma concerning "B. Traven" is his nationality. Was he German or American, or possibly Scandinavian-American? In a letter to the American publisher Alfred A. Knopf, to whom he sent the manuscripts of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Death Ship, and Bridge in the Jungle, he writes that these are the English originals from which the German translations were made. However, the editor at Alfred A. Knopf maintains that the English text of these works was full of Germanisms and written in a most peculiar English. On the other hand, "B. Traven"’s German texts are said to be full of Americanisms. All of "B. Traven"’s correspondence to his German as well as American publishers was sent from a Mexican post office box.

German anarchist, American film adviser, or ... ?

Many of "B. Traven"’s works exhibit a marked passion for social justice and compassion for the oppressed. This has led some early researchers with leftist sympathies to believe that B. Traven is identical to the German socialist and anarchist Ret Marut, who edited a political pamphlet in Germany during and after World War I, Der Ziegelbrenner (= The Brickburner). In Germany Marut had managed to get himself sentenced to death for his political activities, but escaped and disappeared.

Later Ret Marut was arrested in London, where it turned out that his real name was Otto Feige, or Hermann Otto Albert Maximilian Feige, to be precise, and that he was born in Schweibus, Germany. However, when he was set free in 1924, Ret Marut (or was it Otto Feige?) applied for an American citizenship at the US London consulate. Here he claimed that he was actually born in San Francisco in 1882. Could it be that Ret Marut, alias Otto Feige, was identical to "B. Traven", a writer who also seemed to have both German and American roots? Who knows.

When John Huston started filming The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (a superb film, by the way), he wrote to "B. Traven" and invited him to act as an adviser. “B. Traven” agreed in a letter, but didn’t turn up. Instead, a person by the name Hal Croves turned up, saying that he was empowered to act as the representative of "B. Traven", bringing a letter from "B. Traven" to prove it. Was Hal Croves really "B. Traven"? Who knows.

Identity crisis

In spite of several "biographies", the identity of "B. Traven" has never been established to the satisfaction of all researchers. This is clearly mysterious. But perhaps the greatest mystery of all is why a popular author, with a well-established reputation in literary circles, would go to all this crazy, almost paranoid trouble of obfuscating his identity beyond all recognition. "B. Traven" has once written that his writing, not his person, is the sole matter of importance -- "my life belongs to me - only my books belong to the public".

This seems like a hollow, last-ditch truism, valid for most writers. It hardly serves as an explanation of the enormous energy that "B. Traven" spent for the sole purpose of mystifying his identity. The widow of Traven Torsvan Croves (who continued obfuscating the matter by making conflicting statements about T. T. Croves' identity) has cited fear of extradition (for his real or imaginary exploits as Ret Marut) as the reason. This also sounds improbable, after so many years -- particularly as the Germany against which he was supposed to have committed his crimes had long since ceased to exist.

It has additionally been proposed that "B. Traven"’s childhood background may indeed have been unclear, even to "B. Traven" himself. Perhaps this lack of clarity created a chronic identity crisis, a psychological state of mind that established a fluid, nebulous self-image. Nobody knows whether it is true, but this hypothesis appears like the indeed most titillating of all of the sensational hypotheses surrounding "B. Traven".



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