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The story of B. Traven is as fascinating as any of his novels.  A resident of Acapulco, Mexico, who wrote in English,  he carefully clouded the issue of his real background, so that for many years he was believed to be one Berick Traven Torsvan, from Chicago, IL, and some even believed him to be Ambrose Bierce.  It is still not possible to say with certainty who he actually was, but the best available evidence indicates that he was Ret Marut, a revolutionary anarchist who fled from Germany in the wake of the failure of the post-WWI revolution.   This supposition at least has the advantage of squaring with the radical-Left political tenor of his novels, the most famous of which is Treasure of the Sierra Madre.

This is one of those books which has become inseparable from its better known movie version--it's probably impossible to read the story without picturing Humphrey Bogart and Walter Huston.  As anyone whose ever seen the movie (which hopefully means everyone) will know, Dobbs is a down-at-the-heels American looking for work in the Mexican oil fields.  He and Curtin, another roustabout, have idle dreams of getting rich quick, but it's not until they join up with the aged gold prospector Howard that they actually head into the Sierra Madre mountain range to find their fortune.  It is Howard who enunciates Traven's political message and forecasts the plot of the tale :

    [G]old is a very devilish sort of thing, believe me, boys.  In the first place, it changes your
    character entirely.  When you have it your soul is no longer the same as it was before.  No getting
    away from that.  You may have so much piled up that you can't carry it away; but, bet your blessed
    paradise, the more you have, the more you want to add, to make it just that much more.  Like
    sitting at roulette.  Just one more turn.  So it goes on and on and on.  You cease to distinguish
    between right and wrong.  You can no longer see clearly what is good and what is bad.  You lose
    your judgment.  That's what it is.

Perhaps this too argues for Traven's Germanic origins, for sure enough, they do find gold, and within short order the men are acting like creatures out of the Brothers Grimm or the Ring of the Nibelungen, with predictably horrific and tragic results.

Traven's point here, though grounded in everything from Genesis to Teutonic myth to Marxism, is ridiculously utopian.  It is not gold (or materialism generally) that makes men act like animals; filthy lucre is merely one more thing to fight over; but food, land, mates, beliefs, skin color, language, etc., serve equally well to make men lose their judgment.  In this sense, the novel is horribly dated, obviously a product of a time before we'd seen just how evil socialism would turn out and the degree to which right and wrong would cease to be distinguishable to the practitioners of the anti-materialist ethos.

On the other hand, the awesome power which Traven confers upon gold, to corrupt the human soul, and the harkening back to ancient myth, somehow serve to give the novel a quality of timelessness.  Read simply as a meditation on greed, it's hard to see how Traven's core message could ever be out of date.  There's a whole lot of Dobbs in all of us; let's try to avoid his fate, eh?


Grade: (B+)


See also:

General Literature
Book-related and General Links:
    -B. Traven (1882?-1969) - used names Ret Marut, Hal Crovers, Bruno Traven, Traven (kirjasto)
    -PROFILE : His Widow Reveals Much Of Who B. Traven Really Was  (LARRY ROHTER, NY Times)
    -B. TRAVEN (Dream Garden)
    -B. Traven (River Art)
    -ESSAY : Writers and Rebels: In Southern Mexico, They Are Much the Same (Suzanne Ruta, NY Times Book Review)
    -ARCHIVES : "traven" (NY Review of Books)
    -REVIEW : of Death Ship by B. Traven TRAVEN'S 'DEATH SHIP' -- AUTHENTIC, HYPNOTIC AND MAYBE ALCHEMICAL  (John Anthony West, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of TURN-OF-THE-CENTURY MEXICO TROZAS By B. Traven (Suzanne Ruta, NY Times Book Review)

    -FILMOGRAPHY : "traven, b." (Imdb)
    -INFO : Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)(Imdb)
    -BUY IT : The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) VHS (
    -MOVIE LIST : #30) Treasure of the Sierra Madre (AFI Top 100 Movies)

    -ESSAY : Ferocious Differences : The Mexican devaluation apparently caught Wall Street and the Clinton Administration by surprise -- Mexico was opaque even to experts with a huge stake in knowing what was going on. The reason, writes the author, a Mexican intellectual, goes beyond finance to the Mexican national character and how enduringly different the country is from the United States (Jorge G. Castañeda, Atlantic Monthly)