On the surface, B. Traven's 1927 novel The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
is a suspenseful, propulsive can't-put-it-down adventure story about three down-and-out Americans who trek deep into the Mexican mountains on a doomed search for gold. It's a terrific read. But it's more than just a page-turner; the work recasts the classic American adventure story as a mythic battle between reason and madness. It stands as one of the greatest novels about the United States ever written by a foreigner, right up there with Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita
. But above all else, Traven's masterpiece is the rare pop novel that had the heart of a thriller and the soul of a social commentary.
was published in Germany, it quickly became a sensation. So, too, did its up-and-coming author -a remarkable fact considering that no one had the slightest idea who he was. B. Traven was a nom de plum
, one of the most successful in literary history. The author's true identity, nationality, and background have been hotly contested from the start, a literary guessing game surpassed only by the who-wrote-Shakespeare controversy.
For decades, the tantalizing mystery, along with John Huston's extraordinary Hollywood adaptation in 1948, overshadowed the book itself. But in recent years, more and more scholars and everyday readers have rediscovered the original text.Treasure's
plot is deceptively simple. Dobbs and Curtin are two chronically unemployed laborers who are stuck in Mexico, staying in filthy rooming houses and begging for a few centavos
for food. When their job prospects dwindle from dismal to nonexistent, the pair join up with Howard, a grizzled old prospector, in the hope of striking gold in the Sierra Madre mountains.
The three men head to a remote area where they find a rich deposit of gold dust, and that's when the story really gets moving. As the bags of gold pile up, so do their suspicions of one another. In such deserted country, what's to stop one partner from bumping off the other two and keeping the whole haul for himself? It's a scenario that's been played out in scores of heist stories before and since, but Traven does a remarkable job of depicting the prospectors' collective slide into distrust and then outright paranoia.