B. Traven: The Life Behind the Legends Summary

Karl S. Guthke

B. Traven

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

B. Traven, the author, is known for such works as THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE and THE DEATH SHIP, but B. Traven, the man, is even better known for not being known. His true identity was not merely masked but multiply masked, for the elusive figure hid himself behind a baffling array of aliases, false identities, and possible ancestries. To date, accounts of Traven’s life have been mostly speculation and conjecture.

Into this murky arena comes Karl S. Guthke, with the first biography that draws on materials from Traven’s estate, the archives of his German publisher, and conversations with Traven’s widow. Using this valuable information, along with his own keen insights and literary perceptions, Guthke provides a lively and intriguing study that attunes its approach to the mysteries B. Traven created.

As Guthke’s subtitle indicates, the legends about Traven have largely obscured his life. There have been speculations that he was the illegitimate offspring of German royalty, perhaps even the son of Kaiser Wilhem II. Others have suspected him of being a criminal, most likely a murderer, whose layered persona were an attempt to evade and avoid the law. More prosaically, he could have been Traven Torsvan, a Chicago-born American of Norwegian parents.

Guthke lays to rest many, but not all, of the mysteries about Traven. His first documented appearance was as Ret Marut, a German revolutionary whose activities in the chaotic days of the Bavarian Republic at the end of World War I earned him a conviction on treason charges and a sentence of death.

The transformation of the man condemned as Ret Marut to the writer known as B. Traven was a long and complicated one. It stretched from Bavaria in 1919 to Mexico, where Marut/Traven took up residence in 1924, and lived until his death in 1969. At each step along the way, the confusions of identity were deliberately increased, with false clues and taunting hints adding spice to the deceptions.

Guthke’s book, first published in German in 1987, is a fit guide to readers who wish to retrace this journey. It illuminates much of Traven’s work as it reveals much about the author’s life. It does not clear up all the mysteries of the mysterious B. Traven; but then, would we really want it to?