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The Man with the Most Pseudonyms

Written by Eli Katz on Wednesday, July 20 2011 and posted in Columns

Eli Katz discusses and links to some of the best short fiction available for free on the Web. This week's pick: B. Traven's "Assembly Line."

Authors have used multiple names for a variety of reasons. From 1977 to 1984, Stephen King used the pseudonym Richard Bachmann, because his publisher did not want to release more than one novel by the same author in a single year. Around the same time, Doris Lessing used the pen name Jane Somers to see if her novels would receive the same praise and enjoy the same sales if they were seemingly written by an unknown author. Under Somers, her novels received mixed reviews and sold poorly. Lessing thus concluded that "in book publishing nothing succeeds like success." Today, Irish writer John Banville uses his real name for serious novels and uses the pseudonym Benjamin Black for his crime novels. He wants to distinguish between the two sets of books, so that fans of his literary work aren't duped into buying his mystery fiction and vice versa.

The author who used more pseudonyms than any other is probably the mysterious B. Traven, a German novelist who moved to Mexico in about 1924 and lived there until his death in 1969. The "B" may have stood for Bruno or Berick or maybe for nothing at all. Traven may have been his middle name, his mother's maiden name, or possibly a complete fabrication. He may have been the American Hal Croves, who assisted John Houston in adapting Traven's most famous novel to the big screen, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Or he may have been Ret Marut, a German actor-turned-anarchist who broke out of a Bavarian prison in 1919 to escape a death sentence. Or he may have been the East German tramp Otto Fiege, who landed in a British prison in 1923 for trying to sneak into Canada without proper identification. Or, very likely, he may have been all of these men, plus many others. Some scholars believe that B. Traven, whoever he was, used over 30 pseudonyms in his lifetime.

Traven wrote a dozen novels, a book of fables, a travelogue on Chiapas, and two collections of short stories. His most famous works, The Death Ship and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, were published in Germany in the mid-1920s and received instant praise. In fact, Albert Einstein said that The Death Ship was the one novel he would take with him on a desert island.

Both it and Treasure feature "trial by toil" stories, in which protagonists work relentlessly in miserable conditions until they die or come to terms with the unending brutality of life. In The Death Ship, a penniless American sailor loses his passport and ends up shoveling coal on a leaky, gunrunning steamer. In Treasure, three penniless Americans dig for gold in the Mexican wilderness and slowly go mad with greed. Both novels are fun adventure stories, set in exotic locations and populated with memorable characters. They are also literary masterpieces, filled with long political digressions and unusual anti-capitalist diatribes.

Soon after the publication of these two novels, journalists from around the world traveled to Mexico to interview Traven. But no one was able to track him down. Traven -- who believed an artist should be known for his art, not his life -- hid in the country's many remote villages to avoid the spotlight. Paradoxically, his determination to keep his identity secret intensified people's interest in him and his work, and journalists continued to hunt for him all over Mexico. Traven eluded them for decades. Even his editors and publishers in Germany never met him.

A staunch anarchist, Traven believed that community and human collaboration should be valued above the individual. He explored and developed this view most thoroughly in his Jungle Novels, an epic six-part series that chronicles the hardships endured by peasants in Chiapas just before the Mexican Revolution in 1910. The fifth novel, The Rebellion of the Hanged, is perhaps the most intense. It depicts a common torture used in the jungle labor camps to discipline peasants: whipping a man bloody and stringing him naked to a tree, so that mosquitoes could feast on his open wounds through the night.

Traven's short stories cover the same territory and themes as his novels. The story I have selected this week, "Assembly Line," is one of Traven's most famous. First published in 1930 in German, it describes a series of business negotiations between a rich American tourist and a local Mexican basket maker. The story is straightforward and rather basic, yet it tackles a series of epic conflicts: the clash between Mexico and the United States, the clash between artistic originality and lucrative mass production, and the clash between rural and urban life. While some readers may ultimately dismiss Traven's assessment of capitalism as naive, even dangerously utopian, one thing is clear: he is a master storyteller who, in a few short pages, can tackle incredibly complex issues.

"It's not good to be too happy," Traven once observed. "It's like having too much money. And if you have too much money, it's because you have taken it from someone else." You can certainly see this viewpoint articulated in most of Traven's work, including "Assembly Line."

(Below is a possible photo of B. Traven.)

Written or Contributed by: Eli Katz

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