The Man Who Wasn’t There
Life is inherently mysterious. Ultimately, we know nothing. In J.B.S. Haldane‘s formulation “…the universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.”
Mysteries abound. According to Proverbs 30:18, “There be three things which are too wonderful for me, yea, four which I know not: The way of an eagle in the air; the way of a serpent upon a rock; the way of a ship in the midst of the sea; and the way of a man with a maid.”
Mind you, the way of a man with a maid is, strictly speaking, only a mystery to celibate God-botherers; you know, the ones who will insist on giving the rest of us advice on sexual matters.
But there are deeper mysteries: like the career of Steven Seagal. How this fat-faced, pony-tailed cluck–so wooden that he’s one of the few actors to be consistently out-acted by the furniture–got into movies must forever remain an impenetrable conundrum, like the fate of Amelia Earhart or the meaning of the Pyramids.
And then there’s the life and career of B. Traven. I first came across Traven when I was about 17 and found a tatty paperback copy of The Treasure of The Sierra Madre in a second-hand book-shop. I already loved the film (watch the wonderfully craptastic original trailer HERE) and it was news to me that it was based on a novel.
I loved the book and sought out other works by Traven. I also tried to find out something about him. In the first case, the only book I could find was The Death Ship, which was a revelation: dark, cynical, angry, minutely observed, stirring and unforgettable. In the second case, I hit a brick wall (I can see younger readers looking baffled and wondering why I didn’t just google it–bless their pointy, little heads). Traven was a mystery then…and he still is (the photo that heads this post might or might not be Traven: we don’t know).
The many hypotheses regarding Traven’s identity include:
Traven was German; however, he did not come from Schwiebus but from northern Germany, the region between Hamburg and Lübeck. It is possible to conclude this on the basis of a preserved cassette, recorded by his stepdaughter Malú Montes de Oca (Rosa Luján’s daughter), on which he sings two songs in Low German, a dialect of the German language, with some language features which are typical of this region. Torsvan is a relatively common name in this area, through which also the River Trave runs. In the neighbourhood there are also such places as Traventhal, Travenhorst and Travemünde (Lübeck’s borough) – big ferry harbour on the Baltic Sea.
Traven was an illegitimate son the German Emperor Wilhelm II. Such a hypothesis was presented by Gerd Heidemann, a reporter from Stern magazine, who claimed that he had obtained this information from Rosa Luján, Hal Croves’ wife. Later, however, the journalist distanced himself from this hypothesis. Heidemann himself compromised himself through his complicity in the falsification of Hitler’s diaries in the 1980s.
Traven was, in fact, the American writer Jack London, who only faked his suicide and then moved to Mexico and continued writing his books (my personal favourite).
Traven was the pseudonym of the American writer Ambrose Bierce, who went to Mexico in 1913 to take part in the Mexican Revolution and disappeared there without a trace.
Traven was the pseudonym of Adolfo López Mateos, the President of Mexico in the years 1958-1964. The source of this rumour was probably the fact that Esperanza López Mateos, Adolfo’s sister, was Traven’s representative in his contacts with publishers and a translator of his books into Spanish. Some even claimed that the books published under the pen name B. Traven were written by Esperanza herself.
The pseudonym B. Traven was used by August Bibelje, a former customs officer from Hamburg, gold prospector and adventurer. This hypothesis was also presented – and rejected – by the journalist Gerd Heidemann. According to Heidemann, Ret Marut met Bibelje after his arrival in Mexico and used his experiences in such novels as The Cotton Pickers, The Death Ship and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. However, Bibelje himself returned to Europe later and died during the Spanish Civil War in 1937.
However, all that remains is the work…and the mystery (which is detailed in full HERE). One notes that every statement made about Traven is followed by a question mark. There is, I find, something immensely satisfying about all this. As Traven himself wrote, “The creative person should have no other biography than his works.” Well, exactly.
Let’s have poems about mystery, mysteries and the mysterious.