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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 676

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Almost every statement about B. Traven (TRAHV-uhn), the most famous international literary mystery of the twentieth century, must end with a question mark. In a comment on his life and work, Traven said, “Of an artist or writer, one should never ask an autobiography, because he is bound to lie. . . . If a writer, who he is and what he is, cannot be recognized by his work, either his books are worthless, or he himself is.” His readers should look for him, he said, along and between the lines of his works.{$S[A]Torsvan, Berick Traven;Traven, B.}{$S[A]Marut, Ret;Traven, B.}

From the beginning, he would not allow his life and personality to be exploited for publicity. In 1963 he refused a literary prize from Germany. His agents in Mexico City protected him from most of the numerous letters addressed to him, many from editors all over the world.

Although many scholars and writers have attempted to solve the mystery of B. Traven, few facts are known about his life; almost every bit of “information” about Traven’s background is currently challenged by at least one reputable source. Traven’s birthplace and date are not known for certain. Most scholars, however, agree that one of Traven’s earliest identities was as Ret Marut, a German actor and political activist who shunned the public spotlight. After leaving Europe, Marut appeared in Mexico around 1923 or 1924. Shortly after that, from Mexico, Traven offered his earliest books to publishers in Germany. In 1925 The Cotton-Pickers appeared in serial form in a German newspaper.

While he was living in Mexico, Traven adopted at least two other identities, T. Torsvan and Hal Croves, supposedly B. Traven’s agent. Croves worked with John Huston on the filming of Traven’s novel The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Throughout his lifetime, Traven is reported to have used at least twenty-seven different aliases. Many researchers are convinced that Traven is more than one person, as his writing shows such linguistic diversity. Apparently, Traven wrote and spoke German, French, Spanish, and English fluently; he also spoke two of the unwritten Indian languages of southeastern Mexico.

Interest in Traven’s life and writings increased dramatically after his death. By 1994 all his novels had been translated into English. His sixteen novels are concerned with the common man, laboring on ships and in the jungles of Mexico. His characters speak the slang of the early twentieth century with an immigrant accent. There is much description of landscapes and seascapes, and he has a special interest in depicting strong, courageous women, children, and the personalities of certain animals. The hard-core center of most of his realistic fiction is work. Among his books are sociological studies, documentaries, Mexican travel books (illustrated with his own photographs), and Mexican folktales. His outlook was that of the self-educated worker—sardonic and ironic; it was expressed, even in crawling misery, with wit and ribald humor. His novels depict people with a great appetite for life struggling to survive, always within the immediate vicinity of death.

One third of Traven’s novels were written in the first person. Whether told in the third person or in the first, his novels aggressively state his radical revolutionary sentiments. He is alienated not only from Western civilization in general but also from any formal creed or ideology in particular. In The Death Ship, Gerald Gales, who reappears in several of the novels, speaks of national and international bureaucracy as the irreconcilable enemy of individual freedom. Though one may be tempted, because of Traven’s radical thinking and adventurous life, to associate him with Jack London, he is more a philosophical revolutionary in the tradition of Henry David Thoreau, whose love of privacy he shared. Much of his work resembles American proletarian fiction, although most of it was written several years before novels in that genre began to appear. Moreover, because of the attitude toward life that he and his characters demonstrate in action and speech, Traven may be regarded as one of the finest of the “tough-guy” novelists.


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