Friday, December 26, 2014

B. Traven

"The creative person should have no other biography than his works."

There is a place of ephemeral legend in Mexico, known in Spanish as "El Camino", that doesn't exist on any map, save those written in the hearts of those who yearn.  It refers to the experience of outsiders who come to the southern states to find...well, either something or nothing, depending on their desire, and become lost within the quest.  It has claimed many people, men and women, through the years.  There have been explorers, of course, who have worked their way through the jungles and beaches of Mexico; there have been poets, artists, and any number of musicians.  J. Frank Dobie, Ambrose Bierce, William Cullen Bryant, William Burroughs, Jack London, Katherine Anne Porter, Edna Ferber, Jack Kerouac, Hart Crane, and Ken Kesey offhand come to mind as just a few of the gringos and gringas who have, one way or another, hiked the mythical El Camino.  Personally, I've known a number of surfers who have looked for oblivion in the Meso-American waves.

During the 1920's and 30's a series of riveting novels, set mostly in Mexico and mostly about the spiritual experience of El Camino, had been best-sellers in Europe.  Their author, known only as B. Traven, had remained aloof from any sort of publicity.  He lived somewhere in Mexico, no one really knew where, and wrote in German, with his publisher translating his works into the various languages of his continental audience.

In 1946, the filmmaker John Huston began his walk of El Camino.  Having spent several years as the ne'er do well son of a recognizable and bankable stage and movie actor, Huston had been a boxer, drinker, flunky, go-fer, writer, and general dogsbody in the film industry until, to quote from Steely Dan, "he crossed a diamond with a pearl" and wound up writing the screenplay for and directing "The Maltese Falcon", a critical and box office hit that earned serious money for his studio, made a leading man out of Humphrey Bogart, and created the entire genre of film noir.

The only problem with being a success in a world of transient fame was that one was only popular until the next big movie came along.  This is why Huston was sitting in a humid café in Mexico City waiting to meet a man who did not exist.

Having lived and traveled freely in Europe and familiar with the popularity of Traven's work, Huston was particularly interested in Traven's 1927 novel, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, especially as it was the first and only Traven book translated and marketed in the United States at that time. That the novel was an American best-seller and a terrific story convinced Huston that it should be translated to the screen.  Before he could begin to do so, however, the whole world was distracted with World War II.

When Huston returned to civilian life after directing documentaries for the War Department, he again returned to his Sierra Madre project.  His first item of business was receiving the author's permission to use his novel, something that was trickier than it ordinarily would have been since no one was really sure of Traven's whereabouts or true identity.  Still, Huston was not one to be daunted and he began a near Quixotic quest to contact the author and receive his permission.

So it was that Huston found himself waiting for Traven to join him for a drink or three.  However, instead of Traven, a man introducing himself as Hal Croves turned up, explaining that he was serving as Traven's representative and had the power of attorney necessary to complete their contractual negotiations.  While Huston initially suspected the Croves was Traven, he was willing to indulge him in order to complete the film.  The meeting went well and the two met again in Acupulco to finalize the deal and appoint Croves as a "technical adviser" to the film.  In 1947 the filming began on location in Mexico with Croves a familiar personality on the set.  Once filming was completed, Hal Croves disappeared.

Tim Holt, Humphrey Bogart, and Walter Huston; and maybe Traven in the tent, who knows?

Of course, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, starring Humphrey Bogart and Huston's father, Walter, was a huge success; nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture of 1948 and earning Oscars for Best Screenplay Adaptation and Best Director for John Huston.  With the popularity of the film and the reignited interest in the novels of Traven,  reporters became interested in the elusive author.

However, the only connection to Traven was Hal Croves, who had not been seen for over a year.  A particularly intrepid reporter for a Mexican newspaper began a search for Croves and, instead, found a fellow in Acapulco named Traven Torsvan, a recluse called "El Gringo" by his neighbors.  His interest piqued, the reporter discovered through immigration paperwork that Torsvan was born in Chicago and had come to Mexico in 1930, eventually establishing residency.  Using questionable techniques, mainly bribery and petty theft, the reporter established that El Gringo was receiving royalty checks in the name of "B. Traven" along with correspondence from other authors.  When confronted by reporters, Torsvan, like Croves, disappeared.

A decade later, after interest in Traven and his true identity had cooled, the mysterious Hal Croves, in absentia from the human race since 1947, reappeared to serve as Traven's official representative in negotiation with European filmmakers interested in emulating Huston's success with Treasure.  He would even attend film festivals in Europe, only to be peppered by reporters with questions about his true identity.

Croves would die in 1969.  His widow, who had also been his secretary, would then reveal the true story of B. Traven.  Senora Croves told the press that her late husband had, in fact, been a German anarchist named Ret Marut [aka Otto Feige].  In Germany, her husband published a successful novel, The Death Ship, and edited an anti-government magazine for which he was eventually arrested and sentenced to death.  He managed to escape to Mexico, altering his identity to that of an American émigré.

During his years south of the border, in addition to writing over a dozen novels and short story anthologies, Feige/Marut/Torsvan/Croves/Traven also managed to work as a photographer for some expeditions into the Mexican jungles [from which the above photo, maybe of Traven, comes], as a translator and guide, and as an inn-keeper.  It was a busy life for him, but since he may have been five or so people, perhaps not that unusual.

There is now an entire industry devoted to claiming to know Traven's real identity and disparaging other theories.  It's rather entertaining but largely meaningless.  As Traven noted, for a true artist it's about the work, not the biography.  His story is yet another tale of those, like his characters, who travel El Camino in search of something that they never entirely find and leave behind a life more full of questions than answers.

B. Traven's novels are now all available in English and most are still in print; some are even available in e-book format.

Traven.  Maybe.