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B. Traven: Realist and Prophet

ISSUE:  Winter 1977

About B. Traven we know, or think we know:

That he had lived in Mexico for almost half a century.

That, before his arrival in Mexico in 1922 or 1923, he had been a fugitive from a firing squad—according to his own account of the matter under an earlier assumed name.

That his earlier assumed name was Ret Marut, and that, under this name, he acted in minor roles on the stages of various German cities between 1907 and 1915 and that he wrote a handful of stories and short novels between 1915 and 1919.

That he brought out a journal called Der Ziegelbrenner [The Brickburner] at irregular intervals between 1917 and 1921 and that it was brick red and had the length and the width of a small brick.

That he participated in the establishment of the Bavarian Räterepublik (“Soviet Republic”) in Munich in April 1919.

That, after the collapse of the Räterepublik— it lasted only a few weeks—he was arrested and would have been summarily courtmartialed and executed had he not been able to flee.

That he published Der Ziegelbrenner underground for another two years and then disappeared from Germany—and from Europe.

That, under the name of B. Traven, he sent manuscripts of stories and novels to German publishers and that, with the publication of Das Totenschiff (The Death Ship) in the spring of 1926, he became famous.

That his works were soon translated into many other languages.

That, in Mexico, he also called himself Berick Torsvan, Traven Torsvan, and Hal Croves, and that he became a Mexican citizen in 1951 and married a Mexican lady, Rosa Elena Luján, in 1957. That he died in Mexico City on March 26, 1969.


About B. Traven we do not know: who he had been before he became Ret Marut, early in the century. We are unable to confirm Traven’s own version of his origin, namely, that he was an American of Scandinavian descent, born in Chicago in 1890.Thus the real identity of Marut-Traven, alias Torsvan and Croves, remains a mystery to this day.

But even if we don’t know who Traven actually was, we can get to know him as a person by reading his books. And this is precisely what Traven always wanted us to do. He felt that if his works didn’t reveal him, an author wasn’t worth his salt, but that his life was his private affair. It is, in fact, fairly easy to get to know Traven, both for his ideas and for his temperament. He is one of those authors whose personalities positively drench their works, and it becomes a slightly maddening yet delightful experience to discover in Traven’s books a cantankerous lover of man and an oddly visionary realist. We get to know this author better, I think, in German than in English, for the language of the American editions of Traven’s novels and stories is faulty. But at least most of his novels and short stories are now available in the United States, and we can get acquainted with him.(British editions of the novels have, until recently, been official translations from the German; during the 1970’s, editions have appeared in England that are identical to editions put out by Hill and Wang in the United States.)

We get to know Traven best, however, not in his fiction, but in his only non-fiction work, Land des Frühlings [Land of Spring], a 429-page book containing more than 140 photographs of South-Mexican scenes and South-Mexican Indians taken by Traven himself. The book is not yet available in English, probably because Traven was against bringing out an English version. To Judy Stone, Traven said in 1966 that he did not wish Land to be published in America because it was out of date. If some of the historical views presented are “out” of date and certain opinions appear to belong to an earlier era, most of Traven’s concerns couldn’t be more “up” to date, and the humanism informing Land is timeless. What is more, Land is a Traven source book: here we find, in the form of theory, argument, and statements of fact, Traven’s principal ideas, as well as material similar to that which went into his novels and stories. Here we find Traven’s fierce indignation, his anger at the inequities of a world he did not make, and his intense involvement in the fate of the underdog. Here we meet Traven the idealist and impatient philosophical anarchist, the observer of nature, the humorist, the lyrical and sentimental 19th-century Romantic, and the 20th-century ironist. And we get to know a side of the man that Traven deliberately distorts in his novels and denied vis-a-vis the biography hounds who came to Mexico to ferret out the secret of his identity: the educated, voracious, and critical reader, the intellectual whose roots go down deep into the soil of both European and American history and culture.


Land des Frtthlings was first published in 1928 (a second, much abbreviated version came out in 1950). The book is divided into two parts. Ostensibly, they are, one, a lecture on the archeology, geography, anthropology, sociology, and history of the South-Mexican state of Chiapas (and of Mexico), and, two, a report of a trip through Chiapas taken by the author on foot, by car, and on mule-back, partly on his own and partly with an Indian guide. The book is specifically addressed to the German working-class reader, who cannot be expected to know much about Chiapas, or even about Mexico. Traven, a very methodical teacher, instructs this reader not only in the lore of Chiapas, but also in that of Mexico, the United States, Europe, and the world. And in so doing, he discusses literally hundreds of separate topics and ideas, from fleas, ticks, and mosquitoes to Porfirio Diaz, from the institution of marriage to British and American imperialism, and from the Spanish and Mexican bullfight to the individualism of Chinese philosophers and (Asian) Indian poets. But Traven does not stop there. He weaves a number of arguments into his text and concludes them with prophecies and visions. In this way Land des Frtthlings becomes a book about the fate of man. If Chiapas, as Traven tells us at the beginning of the book, has a climate “similar to the late spring of Central Europe,” we understand, towards the end, that all of Mexico is, in Traven’s eyes, the land of a new beginning for man— Traven calls it “Newland”—and that, for him, the entire North American continent is the real land of spring.

Traven gives the title of his book another dimension when he suggests that the ruins of man’s first civilization may be found, not in Mesopotamia or Africa, but underneath the jungles of Chiapas and under the rubble caused by earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. He proposes, furthermore, that Chiapas may, indeed, be the cradle of mankind, that man may have originated in Chiapas and spread to the other continents from that South-Mexican state. This would make Chiapas the “land of spring” for us all. It would also make the Indian race the Urrasse, the primordial race of mankind. Traven says that the Indian race “carries in its individuals the traits of all of the other human races on earth,” and he attempts to document his case with archaeological evidence. Such a speculation was more radical in 1928 than it appears to be today: recent digs in various parts of the United States (e.g., Kampsville, 111.and Avela, Pa.) and new dating methods have shown that human societies existed on this continent as long ago as 8,000 and 14,225 B.C.Skeletons found in the San Diego area are even said to be 48,000 years old. The theory that man crossed the land bridge joining Siberia and Alaska 20,000 to 30,000 years ago may thus have to be revised: Traven speculated in 1928 on the possibility of that crossing having been made the other way around: by American Indians to Asia—and thence to Europe.


A good part of Land deals with South-Mexican Indian

nations, particularly with the Tsotsils, among whom Traven had spent some time and whose customs and language he had studied. Traven discovered that accumulation of material goods was unknown among these peoples. In fact, when Traven compares them to whites, the comparisons always end up being invidious, Traven finds that Europeans (and North Americans) have never heeded Christ’s injunctions to love their neighbors as they love themselves or to love their enemies. These notions, Traven says, “do not have their roots in the European character, nor can they ever take hold there,” Individual ambition, greed, and lust for power—these are the motives that drive white men to action, and it is this triad of vices that makes whites exploit, enslave, and kill other human beings. Reflecting on the high integrity of Mexican Indians and the low integrity of whites, Traven arrives at one of his principal theses. It is that man’s salvation, particularly the white man’s, lies with the Mexican Indians.

Traven argues as follows. The Mexican Indians are a young race because, as a race, they have slept for 400 years—those four centuries during which they lived under Spanish domination. The white race, on the other hand, is old and tired. But more important is the fact that the Indians are motivated by a communal sense, something the members of the white race cannot even begin to understand, given their total immersion in individual ambition, greed, and lust for power. Traven himself, of course, prizes the Indians’ communal sense above all other virtues, In his eyes, the Indians are the only genuine Christians on earth, though he does not call them that.”The interests of the Indian,” he says, “never deviate from the interests of the community. His interests are identical with the interests of all, without his even being aware of the fact.”

In an up-beat mood, Traven then identifies rhetorically with the Mexican people.

We are still so young here . . . we are full of the elasticity, the joy of enterprise and the indestructible, the shining faith of youth. We have the unshakable faith of youth that everything is possible, that nothing under the sun is impossible. We are the people of the future [Wir sind die Kommenden}. The destiny of the next thousand years will be decided on our continent. Our continent is the cradle of a new culture. And Mexico is its childbed, for it is Mexico that is having to suffer the labor pains.

Traven’s hope lies in the willingness, indeed, the eagerness of Mexico’s white people to mix racially with the Indians.

The Mexicans have the same desire all young peoples have. They want to create a pure Mexican people. . . . They have the instinctive feeling that a genuine Mexican race will result from an intimate union with the original inhabitants of their country. Their own feelings convince them that it will be a particularly good race, a race that will adapt itself quite naturally to the character of their country, to the climate and to the land, so that it will be a new and genuinely American race which will eventually populate the whole continent.

Even if, as Traven says, the new civilization “won’t be a pure Indian civilization because the European influences will have to be dragged along for a long time to come,” what counts is that it will be essentially non-European. For

with every pure-blooded Indian who enters the growing sphere of the new civilization, the influence of the Indian world of feeling and thought will become greater. Since the Spaniards are not nearly as autocratic and self-righteous as the North-Europeans, and since they let all men live according to their own ways, the Indians will be much less subject to European influence than is generally assumed.

Traven says that it would be a good thing for the white race generally to mix with the Indians, since both races are essentially active and creative races. Traven goes on to hope that the new American race will create a new culture—and bury the European.”Why,” he asks, “should a new culture not sprout from this virgin land and ripen at last?”

If speculation about races—in print—is taboo among us, that is, among educated liberal white Americans, it is not taboo in Mexico, where, in 1928, as Traven observes, two thirds of the population is still Indian. The reason, Traven tells his reader, is that the Spaniards never systematically exterminated their Indians, nor moved the survivors of campaigns of extermination to arid reservations, as the Anglo-Americans to the north had done. Since the Mexican Revolution was seeking to solve the Indian problem as well as the problem of the workers, since the Indian problem, according to Traven, was the problem of the workers, it seems understandable that Traven should indulge in speculation about the Indian and white races.(Ideas similar to Traven’s were expressed in print 20 years later, in 1948, by Jose Vasconcelos in La Raza Cosmica. ) There is an odd historical timeliness in this kind of speculation which we had perhaps best try to understand, for the Chicano in the United States is today attempting to define himself precisely in terms of “La Raza.”

The difference between the two types of ethos, the white man’s and the Mexican Indian’s, is dramatically illustrated in Traven’s fiction. It is touched upon in the story, “Assembly Line,” in which an Indian basket weaver, who has no notion of profit or mass production, simply cannot understand why he should reduce the price for the baskets he makes when he is given an order for thousands, and in which the North American “industrialist” who hopes to give that order cannot understand why, on the contrary, the Indian feels he should receive more for each of several thousand baskets, even though the Indian explains to him that he will have to expend much more imagination in thinking up new, individual designs, which are a part of his soul. It is touched upon again in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre when Howard, the least greedy and the wisest of the three white men who have been hunting for gold in the Mexican mountains, returns to an Indian commune where he had earlier “doctored” a drowned child back to life. Howard knows both ways of life, the white man’s and the Indian’s, and he also knows that when he turns his back on the white man’s he will not be a loser. In The White Rose, the difference between the two types of ethos becomes the theme of the novel itself, for the white man’s greed simply destroys the Indian way of life in an entire community, and the man who represents that way of life, Hacinto Yanez, is murdered by the white Americans who want his land. In the six caoba-cycle novels, whites and mestizos enslave Indians and work them to death in mahogany forests—for gain. And in all of these works Traven makes every effort to have his white readers understand the Mexican Indians’ simple demands, their human dignity—and their communal sense.

Although Traven finds it difficult to describe that communal sense, he returns to the notion of the communal sense again and again and sets it off against European and American individualism. The phrase “communal sense” becomes an almost chiliastic invocation in Land. Communal life, life organized in communes and made possible by people who are rational and generous enough not to be constantly in each other’s hair, or, worse, at each other’s throats, has been the dream of most philosophical anarchists, including Traven. A note of nostalgia for the communes of the past is sounded in Land, a longing for the way Traven believes the Indians on the North American continent used to live before the white man came and brought with him the institution of the state. Traven adds a word of warning, however, lest his readers be tempted to join an Indian commune:

To live in an Indian commune and to feel happy there pre-supposes that one is an Indian, born and raised in such a commune. . . . The primitive life of an Indian commune may sound idyllic when one hears about it. When one has to live it, that life becomes so impoverished, sober, dry and colorless that a civilized man would not deem it worth living. . . . The work an Indian does in his commune, that he must do in order to remain alive and keep his family alive, is heavier by far than the work of a hard-working industrial worker. . . . The Indian has to work from sunrise to sunset. His life appears free and independent only outwardly, and the Indian himself believes he is free and independent. . . . Yet he is a slave, a slave of the work he has to do all of his life long, with not one free hour.


In Land, Traven violates one of the principles of anarchist thinking by breaking the sometimes spoken but more often unspoken commandment not to formulate blueprints for a better society.(In his fiction, Traven keeps this commandment almost from the first to last; he breaks it only in his very last novel in 1960, in the visionary Asian Norval, which formulates an economic project—the building of a canal across the United States—designed to save America and the American way of life.) In Land, Traven suggests countless measures for Mexico to cure its ills, and some of his suggestions come close to being blueprints for a better society. Thus Traven develops an elaborate plan to make Mexico economically independent and, by utilizing Mexico’s mineral resources, Mexico’s varying climates, and the abilities and the good will of the Mexican people, to create a modern industrial nation. Similarly, Traven’s racial speculations, though not blueprints, are really another example of this tendency to prescribe. But in addition to the economic and racial prescriptions, Traven also formulates a political prescription in Land that involves the United States.

Traven feels that the United States will do everything in its power to prevent Mexico from making itself independent. The reasons are economic and expansionist, and they include the necessity for the United States to be nearer to the Panama Canal, as well as the instinct of Americans to move with the sun, that is, to migrate south. Hence a clash between the two countries seems inevitable. Traven, whose dearest hopes for the future of mankind depend on Mexico’s physical survival, does not wish that clash to take place. Consequently, he suggests that Mexico do whatever it can to become the United States’ economic equal, that it join with the Central American states in the creation of a Latin American league, and that this Latin American league unite with the United States in forming “a federation without borders.” He expects the United States to cooperate, since, as Traven explains, the United States and Mexico not only need each other but love one another, Traven, the adoptive Mexican, here, of course, speaks for himself, for he exhibits throughout Land the same ambivalence, the same love-hate for the United States that he attributes to the two nations:

The hostility between the U.S. and Mexico and the Central American states and their eternal quarrels are similar to the hostility and the quarrels between married people and lovers. Both parties know that one cannot live without the other. This is what makes them quarrel.

It is a fact that the U.S. and Mexico are dependent on one another. And in the depth of their hearts these two countries really like each other because they complement one another so well. Nothing should stand in the way of such a federation.

This political prescription forms the climax of Traven’s hopes for the future of the Americas. It may seem Utopian to us and, like Traven’s racial prescription, no more than fervently wishful thinking. Yet it is real enough for Traven the dreamer, the Shelleyite idealist who is always seeking to topple Traven the realist. That realist had said earlier in Land: “To this day, man has learned nothing from history; he still commits the same stupidities.” At the end of the book, the reader may have a hard time deciding which Traven, the idealist or the realist, is more persuasive, but whatever his decision, he will admire, and perhaps even love, the idealist.


There are other Travens in Land des Frühlings that should be mentioned, and among them is the observer of nature, continually awed by what he sees, (He appears in the novels, too, most prominently, perhaps, in The Cotton Pickers.) This Traven is a true follower of Thoreau. He describes the flora and fauna of Chiapas, marvels at the sea of orchids in the jungle, and watches the behavior of insects, I shall cite, that is, translate into English, a rather long passage written by this Traven because it illustrates the kind of mood Traven is able to create, as well as the range of his interests and of his feelings.

The path that I now rode on is one of the most beautiful and romantic paths in Chiapas, To my left flows a wild mountain stream with hundreds upon hundreds of falls. Across this jungle stream lie gigantic tree trunks in the process of decaying and filling the earth with new creative substance, To my right stretches a wall of rock so steep and high that I cannot see its upper edge. The entire wall of rock is thickly over-grown with bushes and trees. Only the tropics are able to produce such an abundance of plant life. Rarely is the sky visible, for the path is overgrown along its entire length. A green roof of branches and leaves forms above my head, often a hundred meters high. Sometimes the wild stream is next to me; sometimes it is below me in a deep gorge that falls away steeply for some twenty meters; sometimes it is above me in the form of a waterfall. Whenever I take a rest and remain quiet, fantastic animals of the oddest species flit across the path or run along the banks of the stream. Butterflies as big as hats, lizards in iridescent majesty with unbelievably long and thin tails, fill the picture with never-ending life. Some of the lizards look like forest gnomes, particularly those with the big, angular heads. When they sit, they raise their bodies up high on their thin little legs and stick their heads in the air. Every time this happens, I have the impression that I am seeing jungle dwarfs of pre-historic times, creatures that might have been the progenitors of man. Ferns and horsetails obscure and grow across the small area of the stream. They are of such gigantic dimensions and of such dream-like shapes that I seem to see them in my deepest subconscious when I try to imagine the landscape of the Carboniferous. The bank on the other side of the stream is likewise a wall of rock, still more thickly overgrown with wild, tropical vegetation than the wall of rock along the path. The air is oppressive, hot, and humid. It has the effect of a weighty silence. The silence is deepened by the rushing, splashing, boiling and foaming waters of the stream. Neither the singing of certain birds nor the fiddling and chirping of a billion insects can penetrate this peculiar silence, which, on closer examination, turns out not to be silence at all, but tumultuous life. Only the clear sound that we unconsciously associate with life when we think of it is absent. Surely, it can only be that satiated plenitude which is pressing in on me so powerfully from all sides, so that I can no longer keep its components apart, and which is awakening in me that singular sensation, as if everything were deep silence, the silence of those landscapes that we see in dreams, that we feel certain we have seen somewhere, sometime, though we don’t know where or when. In some cell of our brain, a breath has remained in us of those of our progenitors who lived ten million years ago. And now I seem to see the picture that had remained forgotten in a cell of my brain for millions of years and that only occasionally tried to penetrate into my consciousness in a dream, here, clear and distinct, and yet I do not forget that a thousand kilometers to the north trains are speeding across the land, planes are whizzing over cities, and newspapers are flying out of rotation presses with dizzying rapidity. I cannot absorb and digest all of this plenitude that surrounds me. I see the oppressive wealth of the tropical landscape on the banks of a jungle stream, and in order not to be overwhelmed, not to have the windings of my brain get lost in a mad coil out of which I shall no longer be able to find my way back into consciousness, I instinctively shut my ears. I hear nothing because my eyes and my mind are over-burdened. Thus I ride along in a strange, weighty silence.., . I ride along as in a dream. I stop feeling anything. I even stop seeing. It is only when, of a sudden, an extraordinarily colorful parrot, or some other bird, or a butterfly appears before my eyes, or when I see, over there, in the branches of the trees, monkeys chasing each other, and when I hear their loud screams, that I am reminded that my eyes are actually open, that I am riding a mule, and that I have a destination to reach.

Naturalist Traven also makes his own personal discoveries: he observes how birds of prey communicate with one another over long distances and how five species of ants manage to live together in one symbiotic community. His contact with animals leads him to formulate conclusions about animal behavior that rival Konrad Lorenz’s. Thus Traven tells his reader that, though the mule may be smarter than the horse, the donkey is smarter than either. In fact, the donkey is never really stubborn; it merely won’t perform tasks it considers stupid—and it is usually right. Sometimes Traven the humorist will play tricks on Traven the naturalist, and then we get stories like the following:

It may be of interest that on a rancho where I once lived there was a dog that had a sow for a lover. It lived with the sow on intimate terms because it had so few other opportunities. The pigs that this sow gave birth to, however, were not affected by the romance, at least not outwardly.

Land des Frühlings is obviously basic Traven. Whatever we may be looking for, intimate contact with the author, adventures in Chiapas, the history of Mexico and of its people, an outline of hope, not only for Mexico, but for the United States and mankind, the vision of a poetic sensibility, at once European and American, or the themes of the novels and stories, we will find it in this classic Traven work. Fascinating in its own right, but useful also as a key to his fiction and personality, Land des Frtthlings is, surely, the most important book Traven wrote.


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