B. Traven: Mexico’s Mysterious Author

By Susan Page

San Miguel Literary Sala
Maria Eugenia Montes
De Oca de Heyman
Stepdaughter of the legendary Mexican writer B. Traven
Treasure of the Sierra Madre
Thu, Sep 24, 5pm-7pm
Hotel Posada de la Aldea
Ancha de San Antonio 15
100 pesos; 50 pesos for Literary Sala members
Complimentary wine reception

Film
Treasure of the Sierra Madre
Tue, Sep 22, 5pm
Teatro Santa Ana
La Biblioteca
Reloj 50A
60 pesos


B. Traven was the pen name of a presumably German novelist whose real name, nationality, date and place of birth, and details of biography are all the source of endless speculation. His books have sold over 30 million copies worldwide and are currently in publication in over 40 languages! Yet he remains an enigmatic figure in many ways. One of the few certainties about Traven’s life is that he lived for years in Mexico, where the majority of his fiction is also set—including The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1927), which was adapted for the Academy Award-winning film of the same name, produced and directed by John Huston.

María Eugenia Montes de Oca de Heyman

On Thursday, September 24, here in San Miguel, we will have the rare opportunity of meeting B. Traven’s stepdaughter and hearing firsthand what it was like to grow up with this prolific, brilliant writer. Maria Eugenia Montes de Oca de Heyman, or Malú, as she likes to be called, was educated in the US, studied architecture at UNAM and French civilization and art history at the Université de la Sorbonne, in Paris.

All her life she has been involved in the arts, both as a creator and also as an active member of boards in Mexican museums, such as the Museum of Modern Art in Mexico City and Museo de Arte Popular. For many years, she was the deputy director of the Festival Cervantino, one of Mexico’s premier arts festivals, and also the head of external production of the radio, television and movie department of the Interior Ministry. Among her many community activities, she has participated as a member of the board of the American British Cowdray Hospital. Currently, Malú manages Traven’s literary estate with titles that include The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Macario, and The Death Ship, among many others. Most literary critics consider the novel The Death Ship, first published in Germany in 1926, to be his masterpiece.

For her presentation at the Literary Sala, Malú will talk about Traven’s work, his life, his books, his movies, his life as a photographer, and then also about her life with him.

The Sala’s connection with B. Traven and his daughter

Malú has graciously agreed to address us in San Miguel through the good offices of the Sala’s own Frank Gaydos, who introduced her to us. His story includes a mystery of its own. I recently had the opportunity to interview Frank about his connection with Traven and his daughter. I asked him why he was interested in meeting B. Traven’s daughter.

Frank Gaydos

I became fascinated—even obsessed—with the enigmatic character when I was an undergraduate student in California. I had read most of his novels and short stories and watched the 1948 Oscar-winning film adaptation of his 1927 novel, The Treasure of Sierra Madre, numerous times. I never tired of the iconic line by Mexican actor, Alfonso Bedoya as Gold Hat, the bandido, when he says to the gold prospectors, “Badges? We ain’t got no badges. We don’t need no badges. I don’t have to show you no stinking badges!”

I was sufficiently taken with the man and his work that I traveled to Mexico City in 1968 to see if I could find and possibly even actually meet the mystery man. To search for B. Traven, I hit every bookstore in DF to see if I could find out where he lived. I finally hit pay dirt and was given an address, 61 Calle Rio Mississippi in Colonia Cuauhtémoc. With great anticipation I rang the outside doorbell. A beautiful woman, who I later learned was his wife, Rosa Elena Lujan, greeted me. I pleaded my case, but she said her husband was ill and turned me away. That was the summer of 1968. Traven died on March 26, 1969.

The obsession never left me, and, now that I live here, I had the idea of trying to track down his daughter. I was successful and recently spent a fascinating afternoon with her and her husband, Tim, in Mexico City. Her mother married B. Traven in 1957, so she was part of his life for 12 years, growing up from a child to a young woman. She showed me her father’s old Remington typewriter, on which he wrote many novels in the hot, steamy jungles of Chiapas. I stroked the keys, visualizing Traven in a primitive hut typing his manuscripts by candlelight as he fought off voracious mosquitos. In the 1930s, he wrote and published six novels about the Indians in Chiapas, called his Jungle or Mahogany series. These were epic novels, including Rebellion of the Hanged and The General from the Jungle, written about the oppression of the Indians clearing mahogany in the labor camps before and during the Mexican Revolution. Traven was always a champion of the underdog.

 

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