The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

I’ve been reading B. Traven for a while now (first stumbled across him after reading The Ship of Theseus, and reading The Death Ship and some short stories). Despite the mystery that surrounds his name, I’d found his writing slightly underwhelming.

But the Treasure of the Sierra Madre (you can download a copy) is one of his better books that I’ve read. It tells the story of Curtin and Dobbs, two characters looking for work. On the way they team up with Howard, an old timer who knows how to dig gold out of the hills.

From there, it’s a story about power. The power that comes from possessing gold, which other people will trade for, and the power that comes from pointing a gun at someone in a wilderness, when no-one else is around. Traven tells a good story, as his characters pursue their dreams of wealth and comfort, and discover along the way how dangerous and fragile relationships can be.

Worth a read.

Quotes [SPOILER ALERT: Some of these touch on plot points]

He worked his mind to answer the question: How can I get some money right now? If you already have some money, then it is easier to make more, because you can invest the little you have in some sort of business that looks promising. Without a cent to call yours, it is difficult to make any money at all. 

Anyone who is willing to work and is serious about it will certainly find a job. Only you must not go to the man who tells you this, for he has no job to offer and doesn’t know anyone who knows of a vacancy. This is exactly the reason why he gives you such generous advice, out of brotherly love, and to demonstrate how little he knows about the world. 

… gold is a very devilish sort of thing, believe me boys. In the first place, it changes your character entirely. When you have it your soul is no longer the same as it was before. No getting away from that. You may have so much piled up that you can’t carry it away; but, bet your blessed paradise, the more you have, the more you want to add, to make it just that much more. Like sitting at roulette. Just one more turn. So it goes on and on and on. You cease to distinguish between right and wrong. You can no longer see clearly what is good and what is bad. You lose your judgement. That’s what it is. 

It isn’t gold that changes man, it is the power which gold gives to man that changes the soul of man. This power, though, is only imaginary. If not recognized by other men, it does not exist. 

I’m sure that every man has acted differently from the way he had thought he would when face to face with a heap of money or with the opportunity to pocket a quarter of a million with only the move of one hand. 

With every ounce more of gold possessed by them they left the proletarian class and neared that of the property-holders, the well-to-do middle class. So far they had never had anything of value to protect against thieves … The world no longer looked to them as it had a few weeks ago. They had become members of the minority of mankind … As long as they had owned nothing of value, they had been salves of their hungry bellies, slaves to those who had the means to fill their bellies. All this was changed now. They had reached the first step by which man becomes the slave of his property. 

Gold is for thieves and swindlers. For this reason they own most of it. The rest is owned by those who do not care where the gold comes from or in what sort of hands it has been.

… a foolish woman who thought that nobility stands for honesty. 

Howard had no means and no words with which to explain to these simple men that business is the only real thing in life, that it is heave and paradise and all the happiness of a good Rotarian. 

He knew how the big oil-magnates, the big financiers, the presidents of great corporations, and the in particular the politicians, stole and robbed wherever there was an opportunity. Why should he, the little feller, the ordinary citizen, be honest if the big ones knew no scruples and no honesty, either in their business or in the affairs of the nation. 

There was only one way out of this danger. Curtin had to do to Dobbs what Dobbs had in mind against Curtin. There was no other way of escape. 

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