There are adherents of all these and more theories, even that he claimed to be an illegitimate son of the Kaiser. Have a look at the very extensive Wikipedia article on him. It seems to me he was the German who was Ret Marut; the rest is even more unclear.
Traven as we shall now call him supposedly originally did this because he was a political refugee and didn’t want to risk repatriation to his native Germany from Mexico, where he washed up under unknown circumstances in the 1920s. An anarchist, he had written under the name of Ret Marut in the chaotic period after Germany’s defeat in WWI, was involved in a short-lived socialist government in Bavaria, and when it was overthrown was supposedly destined for the firing squad when he somehow escaped. If his first novel, The Death Ship, is to be believed, he ended up in Spain, and somehow from there made his way to Mexico.
The Death Ship was an international best-seller and must have enabled Traven just to write, though he must have travelled widely in Mexico before he made his breakthrough, and was among other things apparently, an orchid hunter. He fell in love with his adopted land, and with the inspiring upheaval of revolutionary activity that gripped the country from before WWI to the end of the 1920s, and that became the backdrop, if not the theme, of his work. Many of his novels dealt directly with the conditions of the Indians of southern Mexico who took part in the revolution, and they have acquired a cachet of their own as “The Jungle Novels” – March to the Monteria, Rebellion of the Hanged, The White Rose…in all seven as I recall. These overtly political thrillers stand out for their realistic, convincing portrayal of the conditions that led to revolt, and for their realistic assessment of the needs of revolution: Traven was no hand-wringing liberal (a Marxist I knew was thrilled by Traven’s attitude on this score: he was “staunch”).
Perhaps their dominant political nature kept the Jungle Novels in the background for a long time. The best-known of his works, Treasure of the Sierre Madre, is also political, but the politics is in this case in the background enough to allow this adventure story to succeed as an adventure story. Traven’s success was assured when the novel was made into a film starring Humphrey Bogart; the film was made in Mexico and Traven seems to have turned up on the set as “Croves” representing the author. When questions about his real identity got too close, “Croves” disappeared.
Treasure of the Sierre Madre is without doubt Traven’s most famous book, courtesy of the film I guess, but to me the one that resonates most strongly is The Bridge in the Jungle. Despite having “Jungle” in the title, it is not usually listed as among the Jungle Novels. It is the one that hit me strongest when I ripped through the corpus of Traven’s work in the 1960s and 1970s. Its latest reprint says it is regarded by many as Traven’s best book so I am not alone.
What this book did for me as a writer was to show me how to make larger points through the detail of narrative. Bridge concerns the death of a boy in a village in the jungle and whose brother has been working in the United States. The brother returns for a visit and gives the brother his first pair of shoes. The proud youth runs through the village to show everyone his wonderful gift, going back and forth across a wooden bridge. He disappears and his body is eventually found in the stream below the bridge after a local magician puts a candle on a piece of bark and floats it down the stream; the candle stops above where the body is found.
Traven’s account of this small event and the trauma surrounding it is a masterpiece of storytelling. But it is more: it is a sobering account of the impact of industrial civilisation on pre-industrial culture, all told through the simple fact of a boy’s death because he was wearing shoes for the first time in his life. Traven can’t help but draw out the message later on; he was too political a writer to resist the temptation. But he didn’t need to do it, and it taught me a lot that I stored carefully till I began to write fiction seriously decades later.
There was more to Traven’s effect on me too: his secretiveness appealed to my own nature, and his radical politics were attractive for their realism. Here was a man who had been in the firing line – indeed, almost in front of the firing squad, and who had not resiled. Like Celine, the anti-Semitic nasty of my previous post, he was an anarchist, but an anarchist of a different stripe altogether: he believed as the Spanish anarchists who fought in the civil war in that country in the 1930s, in collective action.
So as with Celine, this taught me something about bravery in literature. My work is largely though far from wholly about people who stand for the weak and dispossessed or isolated and alienated, and if my work might be called more a plea for tolerance than a rallying cry for action, the possible need for action is implicit in it. Traven’s politics would not be relevant today in the west, but his books instantly came to mind when a group of Indians in the south of Mexico briefly seized control of a town in the name of a revolutionary group espousing an ideology not a million miles removed from Traven’s. Traven saw redemption for the human race in the close-to-the-soil culture typified by Mexico’s Indian cultures, and Treasure of the Sierra Madre was a critique of the greed of western culture contrasted with the holistic appeal of pre-industrial Mexico, as Bridge in the Jungle was a heart-rending account of the effect of the one on the other, and for writers a guide for how to “show” while “telling”.
Five stars if you want them. Buy them in a novelty shop, peel them off the backing, and stick them onto your screen.