B. Traven, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre


Published by Diogenes, 1982


The quest for gold, the lives of the gold diggers and the gold rush are topics that have always enthralled and fascinated the readers of Western and adventure books. Written by B. Traven, “Der Schatz der Sierra Madre” (English “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre”) is no exception. Published in 1927, it is one of Traven’s most known works, together with “Das Totenschiff” (“The Death Ship”) and “Caoba Zyklus” (“Caoba Cycle”).

The Sierra Madre in Mexico constitutes the setting of his adventure novel. It is a mountain range with a height of more than 3,000 meters, extending from the south-west of the U.S. to the west of Mexico, very sparsely populated and rich in minerals.

It is precisely these rugged mountains with their gold deposits that B. Traven chose as a setting of his 1920s novel. Dobbs, an utterly destitute U.S. American who can’t find himself a job in Tampico despite the booming oil business, gets to know Curtin, a fellow countryman living in similarly precarious conditions. Together, they are heading south and start to work on an oil rig. As a consequence of conflicts revolving around due payment, they lose this job again and return to Tampico.
There they meet the old gold seeker Howard. Fascinated by his gold digging stories, the three of them embark to find gold in the Sierra Madre. They make a strike in no time – soon, however, greed, envy, and mistrust cast a cloud over the happiness resulting from the newly-found riches. The group of three is deeply divided and head for a disaster.

At this point of the novel, the author’s criticism of capitalism becomes apparent, giving his work a special depth which distinguishes it from the mere Wild West adventure stories. Traven explicitly unveils the down side of this new wealth: The greed for gold brings out the worst in a man. This is especially clear to see with the character of Dobbs, who becomes more and more suspicious of his two comrades. His avarice gets the better of him and makes him turn to violence to defend “his” gold.

At least as adventurous as the novel is the life of its author, for B. Traven is only the pen name of a German writer whose life has long been a mystery to researchers and may never be fully explored. Numerous fantastic myths grow around his true identity; some people even think that B. Traven was in fact the Mexican president or the son of German Emperor William II.

There is considerably less doubt that B. Traven was born as the working-class child Otto Feige in the German city of Schwiebus in 1882. He lived as a trained machinist in the Ruhr area and disappeared in 1907 for the first time. Shortly thereafter, he is said to have reappeared as Marut, an actor from San Francisco, and, after his stage career in Düsseldorf flopped, moved to Munich, where he later actively supported the soviet republic (German “Räterepublik”). After its demise, he fled to London, and then headed for Mexico in 1924 where he probably took on a new identity as an American. Using the name Traven Torsvan, he started to write books.

He did this with great success. His works were translated into a total of 24 languages, with a total print run of 30 million copies. From 1933 onwards, his books were also released in the U.S. and soon aroused the film industry’s interest. The novel was made into a film in 1948, allegedly in the presence of B. Traven. But this, too, is only a legend.


Julia Knechtle

Translated by Annika Backe


Signet Sunflower Foundation