RARA-AVIS: Who was B. Traven?

From: Moorich2@aol.com
Date: 01 Apr 2003

The identity of B. Traven was a mystery in the literary world for many years.
 Commonly, he was said to have been born in in Chicago and his full name was Bruno Traven. His early novels were first published in Germany, in German but the lead characters were often American and the setting Mexico. Once Knopf began to publish him in the U.S., questions and speculation increased and this reached a height when the wonderful Humphrey Bogart starring version of THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE was produced in 1948.

The truth seems to be that Traven was born Otto Wienecke in Schwiebus, Germany in 1882 which after the wars is now Swiebodzin, Poland. His birth was illigitimate although he is thought to be the son of Adolph Feige who married his mother with a few months of his birth. Under this theory he was raised Otto Feige and was apprenticed to a locksmith but after service in the Army he dropped from view of his family. He had become an actor under the name of Ret Marut at least as early as 1907.

Not everyone accepts Otto Feige as B. Traven although the family photographs are convincing and after Traven's death, the brothers and sisters of Otto identified his photograph as their brother.

There is no disagreement that the actor Ret Marut became B. Traven. During World War I he published a newspaper that criticised the war and the government. Although other opposition newspapers were quickly shut down,
"The Brickburner" or Der Ziegelbrenner survived. Rumors began that Marut was the illegitimate son of Kaiser Wilhelm II. This is almost certainly untrue but, as is the case with almost everything about Traven, it can't be completely dismissed as the Crown Prince did have a hunting lodge near where Traven was born and he was known to consort with locals. For what it is worth, Traven does resemble Wilhelm (about as much as he resembles Adolph Feige). Decades later, even before he was identified as Ret Marut, Traven would say it doesn't matter if I am a peasant or the son of the Crown Prince, all that matters is my writing.

Marut was in Munich when the German government fell and during the brief days of the Bavarian Republic in 1918 he served in that government. When it fell he was sentenced to death but managed to escape from captivity. From that point he began to live the life of the stateless person trying to make his way to safety without official documents. His anger at passports and governments is reflected often in his novels. There is a wonderful mugshot of him in British Home Office records as he attempted to enter England in 1923 claiming to be an American. In those days Traven commonly gave his birthplace as San Francisco. This was brilliant as all San Francisco birth records were destroyed in the earthquake and fire of 1906.

Eventually, Marut/Traven made his way to Mexico where he first publicly surfaced as a photographer in an expedition to Chiapas, Mexico, which became the location for many of his stories.

Late in life he lived in the suburbs of Mexico City and was confronted by various academics and now and then a reporter. Even though the death sentence was a relic of the past, he never revealed his secrets. I like that. I began reading Traven as a teenager and was very aware that despite his growing notoriety, he was still alive down in Mexico maintaining his secrets. It was a sad day when I read his obituary in the newspaper but while they had a picture of him in the coffin they didn't really have HIM. As the German magazine Der Stern noted in 1982, the only certain date in his life is the date of his death.

I think he likely was Otto Feige but perhaps he was the illegitimate son of the Kaiser. As he often said, what matters are the stories.

Let me list two books with more information on Traven. Will Wyatt was a BBC producer who first "solved" the mystery and discovered the family of Otto Fiege. The documentary is out there somewhere (I regret I've never seen it) and his book is THE MAN WHO WAS B. TRAVEN in the U.K. edition and in the U.S. THE SECRET OF THE SIERRA MADRE Doubleday 1980.

The second book is B. TRAVEN, THE LIFE BEHIND THE LEGENDS by Karl S. Guthke published in the U.S. by Lawrence Hill Books in 1991. This was a reprint of the original German edition published in 1987. Guthke does not buy Wyatt's theory that Traven was the peasant Otto Feige.

Whatever his background, he has given me as much enjoyment over 40 plus years of reading as any author I can recall. Don't expect the hard brightness of the polished artist. Traven is the man on the other side of the campfire, half-hidden by the moving shadows, who weaves a story that draws you in until the rest of the world melts away.

Richard Moore

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