The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

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.

When Treasure 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.

Meanwhile, the real action is playing out in each character's head. Should I kill my partners? Are they planning on knocking me off? Should I act in self-defense and fire the first shot? The camp becomes one big game theory in which every man has his own pistol.

Traven deftly plays the wide open, majestic setting of the Sierra Madre against the increasingly claustrophobic relationships. Early on, the Mexican bush seems impossibly expansive and limitless; by the time the partners dissemble their mine, reading the novel feels like being trapped in a phone booth with three well-armed maniacs. It's a nightmarishly uneasy scenario, and Traven executes it brilliantly.

What lies beneath this basic plot is what makes Treasure so revolutionary, even subversive. In addition to its suspense, he novel has something else that most Westerns lack: a subtext that scathingly rebukes capitalism and greed. In the standard romantic Western, striking gold is the best thing that can happen to a character; the payoff at the end of a long journey. In Traven's work, it's the worst imaginable outcome.

The prospectors don't just grow more paranoid as they get richer; they also begin to lose any recognizable traces of humanity. In the novel's early pages the destitute men are both the recipients and the sources of kindness, but any lingering altruism gives way to visceral, short-tempered reactions. Dobbs, Curtin, and Howard intermittently become scared, greedy animals whose only thoughts are of saving their gold.

But Traven never sacrifices the adventure for searing commentary. He still manages to sneak in traditional Western tropes (Bandits! Pistols! Burros!) as he throws punches at capitalism, Americans, the Roman Catholic Church, the Mexican government, and pretty much anyone else who wanders into his range.

Traven blasts Americans for coming to Mexico only to exploit the country's natural resources -without even paying taxes on the gold they find!- but he doesn't take pains to idealize Mexicans, either. If anything, the locals are even worse than the gringos. The roving gangs of bandits that terrorize the prospectors engage in the most nihilistic violence this side of Cormac McCarthy, and they do it all while claiming to have the Church's support. In Traven's world, everyone is out to get one another; the bandits are simply more open about it.

Traven's two previous novels, Das Totenschiff (The Death Ship) and Der Wobbly (The Cotton-Pickers) contain similarly pointed political messages, but neither boasts Treasure's nuances or engaging story. Treasure broke new ground -and sales records in Germany. But it took eight years for the translated novel to make it into U.S. bookstores. Traven had long refused to grant American rights to his books, purportedly because he felt publicity tactics would cheapen his works (and, no doubt, set more curious sleuths out looking for him). He finally relented, and Alfred A. Knopf published Treasure in 1935. But Traven insisted the book receive no advertising outside of trade publications. The combination of Treasure's anti-American message and lack of publicity meant that it landed with a thud on the U.S. market. Treasure sold barely 2,700 copies in its first three years in the United States.

While the American version of the book was initially a flop, Hollywood took notice. Warner Brothers bought the films rights to Treasure in 1941, and although World War II delayed production, director John Huston began filming in 1947 with Humphrey Bogart in the lead role of Dobbs. Every bit as dark and complex as the novel itself, the film even lifted large sections of its dialogue straight from the English translation of the book. When it premiered in 1948, the film was a commercial and critical triumph, winning Academy Awards for John Huston and his father, Walter, who played Howard.

The film's success helped Traven gain a strong foothold with American readers. By 1955, more than a million copies of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre had been sold. Traven had pulled off the neatest trick of his career: He got Americans to shell out to buy his criticism of their capitalistic lifestyle.


The article above, written by Ethan Trex, is reprinted with permission from the November-December 2011 issue of mental_floss magazine. Get a subscription to mental_floss and never miss an issue!

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Love the movie, never read the book, though I may have to check it out now. There was a story I heard about John Huston inviting the author to the set- the author declined, saying he'd send his assistant instead, but Huston suspected it was B. Travern himself in disguise.
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