Forty-seven years ago, in the spring of 1969, reports came out of Mexico that an eccentric loner named Traven Torsvan had died, having arrived in the country way back in 1924 and pretty much kept to himself ever since.
Torsvan was not born with that name, nor with the name that he had adopted as both literary pseudonym and alias: B. Traven. Biographers have guessed—so careful was he in disguising his identity and tracks that guessing is as good as it gets—that Torsvan/Traven was born Otto Feige in 1882, in Germany. Somehow, before the age of 25, he got himself into trouble with the law, for at that quarter-century mark he disappeared, only to re-emerge as an anarchist and journalist named Ret Marut. Radical to the bone, Marut slipped away from a proto-Nazi assassination squad that was gunning for him in Bavaria, and a couple of years later he re-emerged once again in Mexico.
What was he doing in the years between? To trust The Death Ship, the thinly veiled novel that appeared in 1926, not long after he landed in Tampico, he had shipped out without papers on a tramp freighter, plying the world’s waters in the company of other men who had no wish to have their true identities known. “I was just a plain deck-hand,” his protagonist, one step ahead of the law, proclaims in a call-me-Ishmael moment. “What you might call a handy man aboard. I had to do every kind of work that came my way or that was pushed my way. In short, I was just a painter and brass-polisher. The deck-hands have to be kept busy all day long. Otherwise they might fall for some dangerous ideas about Russia.”
Torsvan kept busy, all right, turning up here in Antwerp, there in Rio de Janeiro, there in Shanghai, mistrustful of any sort of authority—and for good reason, since, like that protagonist, he did not carry papers. Stateless, an ancient mariner at a young age, he suffered from homesickness and despair, but none of that cut into his essential defiance. As he proclaims in midnarrative, “Whom do passports do any good? None but the bureaucrats.”
Somehow the bureaucrats in Mexico overlooked his lack of documents, and Marut made a home there, changing his identity a few more times before and after taking up his best-known pen name. In 1927, a year after The Death Ship appeared in German, he followed up with a grim story of what happens when greed overwhelms us. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre would become Traven’s best-known book, thanks mostly to John Huston’s film adaptation, of “We don’t need no stinking badges” fame.
Traven always insisted that his identity was not important. What mattered were his words, which, he also insisted, were intended to speak for the voiceless and powerless. It was they who mattered, he wrote: “I have learned that it is not the mountains that make destiny, but the grains of sand and the little pebbles.” A book of sand, The Death Ship retains all its contrarian powers, nine decades on.
Gregory McNamee is a contributing editor.