No literary work is more identified with Mexico's Mother Range than The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, B. Traven's novel of greed and betrayal set in 1920s' northern Mexico. Although Traven published over a dozen novels and short story collections around the world before his death in 1969, Treasure has survived the vagaries of literary fashion via John Huston's hard-hitting 1948 motion picture version, which featured a grizzled Humphrey Bogart in the starring role. Huston won two Oscars for his direction and screenwriting of the film, which featured the often misquoted line "I don't have to show you any stinking badges!" spoken by a Mexican bandido leader--yet another of Hollywood's many contributions to the bandido stereotype.
Like the novel, the film tracks a trio of down-on-their-luck Americans from Tampico's waterfront boardinghouses to a moral, and politically allegorical, denouement in Durango's Sierra Madre Occidental. So real were Traven's geographical descriptions (and Huston's film, which was shot on location in northern Mexico) that fans of the novel continue to debate the location of the fictional mine.
No less mysterious was Traven's past, a story he concealed from his American publishers while he was alive and writing novels, short stories, essays, and movie scripts in English, German, and Spanish. His first novel, The Death Ship, appeared in Germany in 1926, and it wasn't until 1933--by which time his books were selling millions in Europe--that Alfred Knopf offered to publish a few titles in the United States. Called "one of the neglected geniuses of 20th-century American literature," Traven assiduously avoided all contact with the press and lived a secluded life in Mexico until his death in 1969.
A 1966 dust-jacket biography claimed that B. Traven had been born Traven Torsvan in Chicago in 1890, had shipped out of San Francisco as a cabin boy on a tramp freighter around 1900, and then had jumped ashore in Mazatlán in the 1920s. Following Traven's death, however, a painstakingly researched BBC documentary revealed a more intriguing past. According to information obtained from Scotland Yard and FBI files, Berick Traven Torsvan was born in a Polish district of Germany, where he spent part of his later youth as an actor. During WW I he wrote revolutionary literature under the pen name "Ret Marut"; when the war ended he accepted a government office in the short-lived Bavarian Socialist Republic.
After the BSR was overthrown, Traven was sentenced to death but managed to escape a roomful of condemned prisoners and join the disaffected legions drifting through postwar Europe. Somewhere in Europe he boarded a Norwegian freighter that ended up in 1920s' Tampico. Traven spent the rest of his life in Mexico, mostly in the state of Tamaulipas, where he took up his literary career.
Among Traven's other novels, The White Rose is perhaps the most ambitious. Set in turn-of-the-century northern Mexico, the compelling story follows the rise and decline of the hacienda system. It is especially notable for its clear-eyed interpretation of pre-WW II U.S.-Mexican relations, wherein both sides made long-range political errors still affecting North America today.
Excerpted from Moon Handbooks Northern Mexico (Joe Cummings, Avalon Travel Publishing)