Magazine article New Internationalist

The Jungle Novels of B Traven

Magazine article New Internationalist

The Jungle Novels of B Traven

Article excerpt

Do authors matter? Does what we know of the personality and life history of the writer colour our reaction to the written word? B Traven, author of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, certainly thought so and throughout his life kept his identity and his past closely guarded secrets. Few writers have courted obscurity so obsessively as this strange, difficult man, who believed 'the creative person should have no other biography than his [sic] works'.

Yet Traven did assiduously cultivate the myths surrounding his identity, and the fictions he lived contributed as much to his enduring fame as the fictions he wrote. After briefly sketching his bafflingly complex life we will do as he advises and concentrate on the work -- in particular his sweeping panorama of Mexico, the six 'Jungle Novels'.

The writer's childhood and early life continue to resist the best efforts of Traven - hunters and, although there are many theories, hard fact is absent. The author we know as B Traven emerged in Germany -- in the first of his many aliases -- as Ret Marut, an actor and radical pamphleteer who published the anarchist paper Der Ziegelbrenner ('The Brickburner'). Active in the short - lived Bavarian Socialist Republic of 1918 - 1919, he narrowly escaped execution in the backlash that followed its collapse. He fled by a convoluted route to Mexico, where he lived for the rest of his life and where the bulk of his fiction is set.

Since then Traven's work has been translated into more than a dozen languages and his novels have sold over 30 million copies. Early books, such as The Death Ship, The Cottonpickers and The White Rose combine strong plots and action with didactic socialist messages and a wry sense of humour. Traven continued his shadow games to the end of his life, adopting various further aliases and even -- during the filming of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre -- having himself taken onto the payroll in the guise of his own agent, Hal Groves.

Good as they were, the earlier novels were primarily adventure yarns, with added social realism. Traven's true masterpiece -- the 'Jungle Novels' series -- was published between 1931 and 1940 and stands as one of literature's most sustained and impassioned pleas for justice. The books cover the first decade of the twentieth century -- the closing years of the rule of Mexican dictator Porfirio Diaz and a time of rampant corruption, exploitation and cruel repression. In simple, no - nonsense prose they set out to explore how the lives of ordinary people were changed by the momentous events of the Mexican Revolution. …

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