The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
by Joshua Potter
This swashbuckling proletarian tale of materialism and morality employs both unpretentious prose and well-honed narration; it is as much a period piece about 1920s Mexico as it is a universal exploration of human greed.
B. Traven / German? Mexican? / 1927 / 308 pages
Not much is known about B. Traven, but I can tell you this: the man stood with the working class. The rhetoric of today’s so-called “class warfare” pales in comparison to the seedy depictions of the land-owning gentry that line the pages of his The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. And Traven isn’t only taking to task the oil and gold barons of the early 1900s; the Catholic Church, imperialist Spain, and American tourists are also made to suffer under his sharp prose. In a world he describes as “primitive” and “violent” the laws of material and the laws of politics are conflated, the will of God and the privations of priests are blurred into a moral morass where the lowest common denominator is, simply, money. The people who have money want even more money and are willing to kill, subjugate, trick, deceive, and manipulate to get it. Those who don’t have it are simply lost, relegated to cogs in a broader capitalist machinery from which they cannot escape.
To a certain extent, this is all low-hanging fruit. The geopolitical and socioeconomic development of Latin America — and of Mexico, in particular — is rife with other countries’ mistakes. The Spanish sent the Inquisition; the United States sent their extractive, gold-prospecting land-grabbers; and even France and Portugal played their dastardly roles. In any country around the world, you’re likely to find a smaller subset of the population with its undue portion of the wealth, regardless of its derivation. We can make no new hay from additional characterizations of the rich as ruthless, calculating cutthroats. We’ve heard it all before.
But the truly great and insightful observation in Traven’s novel is that we, the rest of humanity, are really at our cores no different from the wealthy. Give any of us a bit of money, lighten for any of us the day-to-day grind of survival, and our thoughts turn instinctively toward baser interests. He intelligently explores this dynamic through the seemingly random bestowal of wealth on truly impoverished characters in his novel. Using the historical reality of 1920s gold prospecting in the Sierra Madre, Traven chronicles in great detail what happens to us and to our relationships with others when, somewhat unexpectedly, there’s money up for grabs. His prognosis is dire: with a small taste of wealth, it is impossible to be satiated. Whereas before a good day’s wage was something to take to the bank, with the discovery of a bit of gold comes the unsubstantiated promise of limitless gain. Repeatedly in Treasure, we see characters lose all sense of perspective in the glint of gold. Repeatedly, we are instructed that material aspirations are diametrically opposed to moral goodness and dissatisfaction with our lot in life is a spiritual failing.
This gets heavy-handed. Traven doesn’t really let up on the gas and he seems to abjure entirely the idea that hard-working and honest people do, in fact, sometimes improve their station. I’m willing to forgive the oversight based on its historical context, however. I don’t imagine that prospecting for precious metals in the Sierra Madre was likely to bring one into contact with too many wholesome characters and we have to remember that, in Traven’s world, the people with the money and the guns rode roughshod over the rest of the population. Treasure reads like a fictionalized and slightly more entertaining Communist Manifesto for a new era and another continent. While hyperbolic by today’s standards, this was once the stuff of social reform. His writing does not exactly mirror, say, the muckraking vitriol of his contemporary, Upton Sinclair, but it is clear that somewhere in Traven’s background is a deep, compassionate, and almost journalistic engagement with the Mexican countryside. Treasure is populated with many asides and parables that would have emerged organically from an extended period of residency in the country. While Traven’s nationality is somewhat debated, this is clearly a Mexican novel.
Having made it this far into the review with only scant references to the plot, I would be remiss if I were to draw it to a close without first giving the reader at least a hint at its content. Three men meet one another in a boardinghouse and agree to go prospecting for gold. The book charts their journey to the mine, their time while there, and their eventual return. Along the way, they swap stories about bandits, corrupt politicians and priests, dangerous soldiers, and pretty women. They run into a number of interesting characters (of highly variable moral rectitude) and eventually meet rather distinct fates. Indeed, part of the joy of reading Treasure is its closing 30 pages where Traven wraps up the loose ends with such focused irony that it borders on the hilarious.
You’re not going to get your mind blown with this novel, but it’s well worth your time. Plus, you’ll get to ask yourself the great hypothetical question: what would you do if you were suddenly looking at a million dollars with the promise of more?
Rating: 7 / 10