Thursday, December 21, 2006

By B. Traven

B. Traven? We don’t got no B. Traven! We don’t need no stinkin’ B. Traven! Which is perhaps apt of a novel overshadowed by its film adaptation and a novelist whose very identity is questioned.

Though it is better known as one of John Huston’s many films, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is B. Traven’s masterpiece adventure novel. B. Traven was a true mystery man, though scholars have linked him with the pseudonymous Ret Marut, a German anarchist who published a left-wing literary and political magazine during WWI. While Traven’s identification with Marut is questionable, they both shared far-left politics. Anarchist politics certainly infuse Sierra Madre.

The story begins in the oil-boom district around Tampico. An unemployed roughneck named Dobbs is enjoying anything but a boom. He is reduced to begging. When he can find employment he sleeps at a sort of hotel/barracks where men find a bed with a ragged blanket and an abundance of filth. After slaving for weeks on an oilrig, Dobbs and his pal Curtin are cheated of their pay. They are so broke they are willing to try anything, even gold mining.

This is the basis for the events that follow, Dobbs and Curtin, the oil roughnecks follow Howard, an old prospector, on a quest for a lost gold mine. Howard is no Pied Piper, he tells the younger men that gold mining offers only an adequate return of wealth in exchange it demands backbreaking labor that is too harsh for slaves. It will also demand a man’s very soul when he finds himself alone with his conscience and a whole lot of gold.

In many ways the novel is a series of parables. Howard relates stories to illustrate the pitfalls of wealth, beginning with the Catholic priests who ruthlessly exploited the Indians as slaves in the gold mines until the Indians rebelled and filled in the mine. Each of Howard’s stories follow the same pattern, someone thinks they have found what they desire in gold, only to discover they have lost their souls. The narration follows a similar pattern as Traven savagely attacks capitalism and the Church. The cruelty and greed of the clergy finds its hideous twin in the gang of bandits, ostensibly fighting to preserve religion under the republic, who mercilessly burn train passengers alive while shouting “Viva el Cristo rey!” Traven punctuates the atrocity by explaining that the men had learned the true meaning of religion from the brutal stories of martyrdom that the priests used to underline the power of the Inquisition. In Traven’s view, the cross is a sign of what the Church does to those who challenge its power.

Though not an overly artful story, Sierra Madre is not a work of socialist realism. It is an idiosyncratic work of propaganda, but with a respect for the demands of art. The adventure novel genre tends not to spend too much time thinking about the world it exists in (hence reams of self-righteous post-modern literary criticism on Edgar Rice Burroughs and Rider Haggard). In fact some would say it is the fantasyland of imperialism. While Sierra Madre may not be as thrilling a yarn as Princess of Mars, anarchists can claim a very respectable adventure novelist in B. Traven.
-Dave Hardy

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