The first trace of Ret Marut under that name is in Essen in 1907. He was a twenty-five year old actor at the theatre there. Over the following years he acted in a number of German towns as a member of various local theatre companies. He was apparently no great success as an actor, for nearly all the parts that he played were small ones. But he travelled around Germany from Essen to Berlin, as far cast as Danzig, and back to Dusseldorf, playing his modest roles and taking an energetic part in branches of the actors’ union. In 1915 he arrived in Munich, where he was to stay for the next four years.
He had already begun writing stories and articles, and in Munich he set up his own publishing company and began a magazine called Der Ziegelbrenner (The Brick-Burner or The Brick-Maker). The magazine was, in format, the size, shape and colour of a brick. The bricks were fired by Ret Marut to comment upon the corrupt society in which he lived and to begin the rebuilding of a new and better world. Marut was aided in the publication of the magazine by his girlfriend, Irene Mermet, but he appears to have written most of it himself. The first issue came out on September 1, 1917. The targets at which these bricks were hurled were the war, then into its fourth year, and the capitalist society, which had brought the war about. Marut had a particular hatred for the press, which he considered to be utterly corrupt and to have misled the German people: ‘One has to beware of their editorials as of venereal disease.’ Der Ziegelbrenner’s subtitle was Criticism of Current Conditions and Disgusting Contemporaries, but this criticism was only occasional, for the magazine appeared at irregular intervals.
Marut (1882-1969), as revealed in Der Ziegelbrenner, was hectoring, romantic, capricious, full of exaggerations, obsessive, a man shot through with a desperate idealism. He was shouting angrily at society from a seat on the sidelines.
I cannot belong to any party because to be a member of any party would be a restriction of my personal freedom, because the obligation to follow a party programme would take away from me all possibility of developing into what I consider to be the highest and noblest goal on earth: to be a human being. I do not want to be anything but a human being, just a man.
This overriding belief that the single individual human being was paramount did not prevent Marut from remaining an anonymous figure himself. He would give no personal information to readers of Der Ziegelbrenner and in reply to one reader he wrote, “I shall always and at all times prefer to be pissed on by dogs, and it will appear to me to be a greater honour, than to be pissed on by readers of Der Ziegelbrenner with letters that attempt to sniff out holes in my garment in order to pin me down, for no one else has the opportunity of boring himself into my flesh. ”
For Marut, the message was everything: ‘I have not the slightest literary ambition. I am not a writer, I shout. I want to be nothing but – the word.’ On one occasion he organised a meeting under the auspices of the magazine, and when it came to his address, the lights had to be turned out so that he could not be seen.
Most of the stories in this volume date back from this period of Marut’s life. They were all published under the name of Marut, with the exception of ‘The the Honourable Miss S…’ which came out under the Der Ziegelbrenner imprint, but with the author’s name as Richard Maurhut.
By the end of 1918 Der Ziegelbrenner was sounding a euphoric note. The issue of November 9, 1918, was entitled ‘The Day is Dawning’, and the issue of January 30, 1919, was headed ‘The World Revolution Begins’. Munich was in turmoil. As the war dragged on, its unpopularity increased, particularly in Bavaria, where the Independent Socialists, implacable in their opposition to the war, began to flourish at the expense of the Majority Socialists. On November 7, 1918, a huge rally in Munich was addressed by a number of socialist speakers, one of whom, Kurt Eisner, urged the crowd, which included many soldiers, to occupy the military barracks and seize weapons and ammunition. The result took everyone by surprise. The following day, King Ludvig III fled, and Eisner was in charge of a government which had declared Bavaria a republic. Eisner’s idealistic, but eccentric and chaotic government lasted only a short time. In January he suffered a crushing defeat in elections for the Bavarian parliament and although he held on for a few more weeks, he had no choice but to throw in the sponge. He was assassinated on his way to tender his resignation to parliament.
Eisner’s death was followed by a period of havoc during which three factions competed for power. The Majority Socialists, who were forced out of Munich to set up a Bavarian government in exile in Bamberg; a Communist group; and a band of anarchist intellectuals by Gustav Landauer, Erich Mühsam, the poet and playwright, and another poet, Ernst Toller. When this group formed a Republic of Councils (Räterepublik) on April 6, 1919, Ret Marut joined them and took a seat on the committee set up to produce a revolutionary propaganda and censor the press. Not that Marut’s uncharacteristic move into prominence and action lasted very long; the Republic of Councils itself existed for only six days. But when soldiers from Berlin attacked Munich on May 1, 1919, in order to destroy the revolutionary government there, Ret Marut was one of those captured. According to an account which he published in a later edition of Der Ziegelbrenner, he was picked up and put with a group of prisoners who were being summarily tried and shot. Through the good agency of a sympathetic soldier he managed to escape shortly before his turn in front of the judge and succeeded in leaving Munich and going on the run.
Marut was accompanied on his flight by Irene Mermet. They were at various times in Vienna, Berlin, and finally Cologne, where they stayed with a group of artists, the Kalltallgemeinschaft, among whose members was Franz Wilhelm Seiwert. Seiwert completed several portrait drawings of Marut and illustrated the last issue of Der Ziegelbrenner, which was published from Cologne on December 21, 1921. Marut and Mermet crossed the German border into Holland and probably travelled together across the Atlantic to Canada, where Marut was refused entry. He recrossed the Atlantic and landed in England in August, 1923. At the end of that year he was arrested in London – he was an alien and had failed to register with the police. He served time in Brixton prison until he was released in February, 1924. He left London some time in April that year. One way or another he arrived in Tampico, Mexico, that summer. On his departure from Europe he abandoned the name of Ret Marut, never to use it again.
When he arrived in Mexico, he began calling himself T. Torsvan and also Traven Torsvan. He took odd jobs in the Tampico area and began sending back stories to Germany under the name of B. Traven. The first stories to be published there were ‘The Cotton Pickers’, which appeared in the leftist newspaper Vorwärts early in 1925. A book club of the left, the Büchergilde Gutenberg, liked the stories and got in touch with Traven through a post office box number in Mexico. Over the next eleven years the Büchergilde published The Cotton Pickers and nine other novels by Traven, as well as one non-fiction book about Mexico.
Two other novels followed from other publishers in later years, and throughout this time his books were translated into many languages, but there was never any certainty as to exactly who B. Traven was, for he would give none of his publishers any details about himself or his background. There were no publicity photographs available to inquirers, nor any biographical material.
He seems to have lived under the name of Torsvan in Mexico, at least until the early 1940s, when he began using the name Hal Croves. It was under this name that he introduced himself to the Hollywood film director John Huston, who was making a film of Traven’s book The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Croves was present throughout the filming, acting as technical adviser, but he passed himself off as Traven’s friend and agent, although there were some who guessed that he might he the author himself. He continued under the name of Croves until his death in Mexico City in 1969. Throughout this time he denied that he was the writer B. Traven. When some readers spotted a similarity between the spirited, anti-authoritarian books of B. Traven and revolutionary journalism of Der Ziegelbrenner, he denied also that he was Ret Marut.
It is clear now that Ret Marut, T. Torsvan, B. Traven and Hal Croves were one and the same person. Traven’s books chronicled the struggles of the poor and the dispossessed of the world, often with an allegorical and legendary quality. The Death Ship is the story of an American sailor who finds himself abandoned in Antwerp without papers to establish his identity. No one believes that he is who he says he is, nor even that he is an American as he claims. He travels through several European countries before finally hopping on board a broken down freighter, the Yorrike, a ship doomed to be sunk by its owners in order to realise the insurance money. He teams up with a Polish colleague, Stanislav, and they escape from the Yorrike only to board another ship, which suffers the same fate as that planned for their first boat. There is a jaunty and devil-may-care feel to much of the story, as well as a dark and vivid glimpse of the harsh life below decks on an ancient cargo boat. The book is a hymn of praise to those who work in such places and to their unquenchable spirit.
Traven’s most famous book, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, is an allegorical tale of men’s lust for gold. It is both a stirring adventure tale and a satire on greed. A later series of books, often called ‘The Jungle Books’, tell the story of a peasant uprising in Mexico, in which the poor workers of the mahogany forests challenge the harsh dictatorship of the time. It is clear on which side Traven’s sympathies lie in this conflict, but he never quite throws his hand in behind anyone’s solutions for the troubles of the world. He is simply on the side of the individual who searches for a decent way of living in a harsh and unjust world.
Recent discoveries have shown that Marut/Traven was not an American, as he always claimed, nor a Norwegian, nor a Swede, nor any of the other nationalities ascribed to him, but that he was, in fact, a German, born on February 23,1882 in what was then the far eastern corner of Germany and what is now Poland. The town of his birth was Schwiebus, now called Swiebodzin. What we have learned of his early life throws an interesting light upon some of the themes of his writing. His father was a potter, and at one time worked, interestingly enough, in a brickworks, possibly the source of Ret Marut’s inspiration for the name of his magazine, Der Ziegelbrenner.
His parents were unmarried when he was born, and the young Marut/Traven, whose real name was Otto Feige, was brought up for the first few years of his life by his grandparents. He seems to have retained a feeling that his grandparents were, in fact, his true parents and later developed this into the idea that he could choose who his parents were, that he could choose what his real identity was, that he could decide to be whoever he wanted to be. This doesn’t explain in any simple way his political notions or his psychological obsessions, but it does fit with Marut/Traven’s strong belief in the individual’s power and right to do and be what he wants and with his own refusal to give details of his birth and background, either when he was living as Ret Marut, or, later, when he was the admired author B. Traven. The young Otto Feige seems to have been a lonely, withdrawn child who kept to himself and felt apart from his family and those around him. He was deeply upset when he was taken from his grandparents and returned to his real parents. He was disappointed again when his parents prevented him from studying to become a priest, because they could not afford to support him while he did so. In his early twenties, soon after his national service in the German army, Otto left home and cut himself off from his family, never to see them again. In doing so, he re-invented himself as the actor, and later writer, Ret Marut, creating an identity of his own choosing, abandoning the accidents of birth and parentage. His family knew nothing of his later careers and travels, save for two letters that he wrote from London when he was in trouble with the police there. Even then Otto kept his new identity hidden from them, and they learned nothing of what he was doing or what he was calling himself.
The stories in this collection are all from the Ret Marut period of the man’s life. Deceivers is particularly interesting, in that it tells of a mother who protects her son so much that he is kept from games with his friends, kept from the profession he wishes to follow and kept from taking the political action that he thinks right. All three of these constrictions seem to chime with the life of Otto Feige. He had few friends as a child, he was prevented from studying for the priesthood and he did row with his family about his socialist politics. His sister Margarethe, who died in 1981, told me that the young Otto had practiced political speeches to himself in the family home and had collected pamphlets and placards with which he intended to hold political meetings in their small village in Lower Saxony. His mother had been angered and alarmed by her son’s socialism, and it was soon after a row about this that Otto left home never to return. Deceivers can be seen, perhaps, as a justification for a son’s breaking away from his family and his background. The man in the story is trapped by his mother’s possessiveness. In Mother Beleke, too, the power of a mother’s influence looms large. Otto Feige’s mother was from all accounts a powerful and domineering woman.
Several stories touch on a theme which clearly affected Marut strongly and which were certainly demonstrated by him in his Traven years. Many times in his correspondence with publishers, critics and readers he proclaimed that public taste was arbitrary and fickle and that the publishers’ taste was no better. Although he was bashful to the point of obsessive ness about himself and his identity, he was in no way modest about the value of his work and was ambitious for its recognition and success. He blamed the professionals – publishers, critics and librarians – for being too blind to promote his work widely enough; and the public for not preferring his work to that of his inferiors.
In the story Originality the actor only achieves fame, and more than that, an extraordinary triumph, when he does something really silly: performs the play in an utterly random order. Only then does he receive the unanimous acclaim of the critics, audience and fellow theatricals. Marut’s scathing view of their taste may not he unconnected with his own failure as an actor, and, perhaps, with his own irritation at the success of other writers before he himself achieved what he considered his due recognition.
Certainly, in his Traven days he liked to view himself as a single, clear, true voice rising above the babble of his confused times. In the story A Writer of Serpentine Shrewdness, he takes a similarly low view of the public’s literary taste. Fashion and pretension, he seems to be saying, are the arbiters of success for writers, rather than honesty and ability. Publishers have no worthwhile view of quality or even of commercial possibilities. In his early letters to the Büchergilde Gutenberg, Traven boasted often of the authenticity and honesty of his work and was highly sensitive to any suggestions that what he had written could be improved. He had a later altercation with his American publisher, Alfred Knopf, which concluded with his buying back the plates of his books.
The BLue-Speckled SParroW was the title story of a collection of many of these tales when they were published under the auspices of Der Ziegelbrenner in Munich in 1919. It has the same chirpy tone of some of Traven’s books from Mexico and in its theme – the humbling of a mighty decoration, which is made worthwhile, cleansed even, by being given some simple practical use in theatrical costumes – it mirrors the admiration for simple practical tasks which Traven displayed in his books about the Mexican Indians.
Marut’s belief in the fragile nature of power, the ridiculousness of setting one man in authority over another – a common view in both Der Ziegelbrenner and the Mexican books – shines clearly in the story The Actor and the King. In this, the simple suggestion that the King needs crowds of subjects to acknowledge him as King just as much as an actor needs to be surrounded by extras to imagine himself a king is enough to destroy the royal confidence. Marut, I think, often liked to see himself in the role of soothsayer. He relished the idea of bringing the whole house of cards tumbling to the ground with one simple and shattering insight.
When he arrived in Mexico and changed from Marut to Torsvan and took up the name of Traven for his writing, he became much influenced by the simplicity, charity and purity of the tales of the Mexican Indians. He used many Indian folk tales in his work, and The Silk Scarf in this volume appears as a forerunner of that kind of storytelling. It’s an extremely simple tale, but there is a splash of acid in the conclusion. Marut spits out the end of the story as if the sharp, bitter taste of injustice can be borne no longer. The cruel irony was to be used with even greater effect at the end of some of his books.
The stories here published for the first time in English provide an invaluable insight into the early work of a difficult, mysterious and suspicious man, but a man who never became used to the taste of injustice. Traven celebrated the brotherhood of all men and women and despaired, often with a sad smile, of the selfishness of rich and poor alike. In these stories he sings out with that clear and ringing voice which was often clumsy in expression but true in its note.
WILL WYATT, March 1981