Tuesday, August 3, 2010

B. Traven and Fred C. Dobbs

There are many reasons to read. Passing the time is one. Learning is another. And of course there is always the sheer enjoyment of being transported to a different time or place, real or imagined. There are also times when you come across a nugget of information that spurs you on to find out more about something. That is what happened to me when I read "Rain Gods" by James Lee Burke, which I reviewed here a couple of days ago.

In the book one of the characters signs into a hotel as F.C.Dobbs, which happens to be the name of Humphrey Bogarts' character in "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre." This also happens to be one of my all time favorite movies, so needless to say I was intriqued. The character in "Rain Gods" was using an alias, not an unusual thing to do in a mystery novel. But when the name B. Traven came up, and was identified as being the mysterious writer of "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre", I had to know more about him. Turns out there is not that much more to be known. The man was a veritable mystery.

"The Treasure of the Sierra Madre", a novel about two down on their luck Americans in Mexico, was Written in 1927 by a bi-lingual German-English author named B. Traven. It was in German and translated to English in 1935. John Huston made the film in 1948, with his father, screen legend Walter Huston, playing the part of the old man.

The book is one of 7 which Mr. Traven wrote between 1926 ("The Death Ship")and 1929. Most of his books were set in Mexico with the Mexicans as the bad guys, while some were set in Mexico with the Americans as the bad guys. There was also a volume of short stories which all take place in Mexico. They were well written and dealt with a very popular subject in late 1920's - Mexico. There had been a Revolution in Mexico just after the turn of the century. The attendant violence of the "banditos" was just dying down when Mr. Traven was writing "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre."

But the stories are irrelevant to this. What really fascinates me is that this guy was a true to life mystery. A man of intrique, he claimed to have been born in America, but no proof of this has ever been uncovered. He claims to have written most of his works in German and then had them translated into English. And that does appear to be the case. He later submitted several things to American publishers that were written in a curious mixture of German and English, which required heavy revision and editing prior to publication.

His birthdate is listed as February 23rd, or 25th of 1882, or May 3rd, 1890. His place of birth shows up as being either San Francisco, Chicago or Schwiebus in Germany. He is sometimes identified as the German actor and political activist Ret Marut who left Germany in 1924 bound for, you guessed it, Mexico. That Ret Marut is sometimes said to really be a Polish immigrant named Otto Feige should come as no surprise. Even the town where he was born changed countries over the years. It was German before becoming modern day Swiebodzin in Poland.

Not much to add to all this information. Whoever he was, he left us a with several decent works of fiction and short stories. And along the way he gave us Fred C. Dobbs, the flawed and ill fated prospector in "The Treaure of the Sierra Madres." That, in itself, is enough of an accomplishment.

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