Twenty Writers: Dashiell Hammett, The Flitcraft Parable (from The Maltese Falcon)

See my Introduction for more information about the “Twenty Writers, Twenty Books” project. The current list of reviews and essays may be found at the “Twenty Writers” home page.

Another interpretation of “The Flitcraft Parable”

The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell HammettDashiell Hammett was a prodigious writer, but in the most lopsided kind of way. He wrote north of a hundred short stories in less than five years, grinding out stories every month for an insatiable readership thanks to a plow horse work ethic the pulp magazines of the 1920s and 30s demanded of their writers. In 2011, a researcher going through Hammett’s papers discovered fifteen short stories that had been overlooked, all but lost. There are big-name published authors who’ve not written fifteen short stories in their career. For Dashiell Hammett and his peers in the world of pulps, fifteen short stories was getting your foot in the door.

It’s striking, then, that after all this output, Hammett was later unable to produce more than five novels, and after those did not produce anything publishable for twenty-five more years, until his death in 1961.

Like his short stories, Hammett’s five novels are of mixed quality and yet all impressive in their staying power. In Red Harvest Hammett created the “man in the middle” genre that directors Kurosawa, Sergio Leone, Walter Hill, and many others would borrow for their own uses. The man-in-the-middle story is a structure Hammett seemingly cut from whole cloth, as no one seems able to point to a true antecedent. Hammett’s genteel, Fitzgeraldean The Thin Man spawned a slew of successful Hollywood pictures. Its form—a fashionable society couple solving murders between martinis and canapés—may sound dated, but judging from the success of Downton Abbey, I bet it could stage a comeback at a moment’s notice. The Glass Key‘s story of a political boss’ right-hand man smashing down rivals rings familiar to any fan of the Coen Brothers’ Miller’s Crossing (although Coen Brothers’ fans should also read James Cain’s mostly-overlooked Love’s Lovely Counterfeit for another important influence). Hammett’s books echo in all manner of 20th century entertainment, here and abroad.

Then there’s The Maltese Falcon, the most widely-known novel in the bunch. Like The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, its title alone is a signifier: fog-soaked San Francisco, the statuette of a solemn stiff-winged black bird, back-alley shootings and mysterious packages arriving by ship from Hong Kong—John Huston knew a great novel when he read it, and he knew better than to monkey with a winning story. If you view the movie immediately after reading the novel, you’ll wonder if there was even a shooting script. Huston’s adaptation hews that closely to the book.

One omission in Huston’s adaptation of The Maltese Falcon is a brief story Sam Spade tells to Brigid O’Shaughnessy, the femme fatale. Spade’s story has nothing to do with finding the Falcon, nothing to do with the motley assortment of characters searching for it up and down the streets of San Francisco, nothing really to do with anything in the novel. The story is a mystery all right, but not in its elements of detection, which it has none of, but what the story means and why Spade is telling it to O’Shaughnessy.

The Maltese Falcon is a model of brisk pacing and efficient writing, a novel of sensation and suspense, and so the digression stands out all the more for it. Spade’s brief tale, two and a half pages long, is one of the most mysterious and puzzling aspects of The Maltese Falcon. Although never referred to as such in the book, it has become known as The Flitcraft Parable.

The parable

Spade tells Brigid O’Shaughnessy of a well-to-do family man in Tacoma, Washington named Flitcraft. In 1922 Flitcraft left his office for lunch and never returned, missing the four o’clock tee-off he’d reserved a mere half-hour before. He also abandoned a good family and $200,000 in the bank, leaving behind no indication of another woman in his life, or any kind of double-life at all. As Spade says about Flitcraft’s disappearance, in what may be the absolute best of Hammett’s prose:

“He went like that,” Spade said, “like a fist when you open your hand.”

Five years after Flitcraft had vanished, Spade was working for one of the larger detective agencies in Seattle when

Mrs. Flitcraft came in and told us somebody had seen a man in Spokane who looked a lot like her husband. I went over there. It was Flitcraft all right. He had been living in Spokane for a couple of years as Charles—that was his first name—Pierce. He had an automobile business…a wife, a baby son, owned his home in a Spokane suburb, and usually got away to play golf after four in the afternoon during the season.

Although not told in-scene, it’s easy to envision Spade’s visit to Flitcraft not so much as a confrontation but a tense social visit. For a tough-guy book, there are no threats or intimidation in The Flitcraft Parable, no car chase or running down dark streets with revolvers unholstered. The parable reads like Flitcraft and Spade were drinking coffee while discussing the situation. But it is tense, as Flitcraft must attempt to explain the logic behind his actions, if any.

After all, what has really changed for Flitcraft? Once again he holds an office job, has a wife and child, a house, even that four o’clock tee-off, all in Spokane, a mere three hundred miles away from a near-identical life in Tacoma.

What precipitated his flight? While going to lunch that day in 1922, Flitcraft passed a high-rise construction site:

“A beam or something fell eight or ten stories down and smacked the sidewalk alongside him. It brushed pretty close to him, but didn’t touch him, though a piece of the sidewalk was chipped off and flew up and hit his cheek. … He felt like somebody has taken the lid off life and let him look at the works.”

Realizing that his life had been randomly spared, Flitcraft decides to randomly upend his life. Like the prince Buddha shedding his family and power and worldly possessions, Flitcraft abandoned his comforts to wander the world. He drifted until he wound up in Spokane, a four-hour drive from his family, and settled into a situation indiscernible from his original:

“He wasn’t sorry for what he had done. It seemed reasonable enough to him. I don’t think he even knew he had settled back naturally into the same groove had jumped out of in Tacoma. But that’s the part of it I always liked. He adjusted himself to beams falling, and then no more of them fell, and he adjusted himself to them not falling.”

The story ends there. Unimpressed, Brigid O’Shaughnessy shrugs off the parable and changes the subject. To the casual reader it appears as a digression from the thrilling search for the Falcon, and not a particularly relevant digression at that. What’s more, Flitcraft’s explanation does not satisfy. There must be more to his story, but Flitcraft is not mentioned again in the novel.

One cannot imagine The Flitcraft Parable finding a place in pulps like Black Mask, magazines that instructed their writers “When in doubt, throw a dead body at ’em.” No gun is leveled, no whiskey is poured, no dame is saved. In The Maltese Falcon Dashiell Hammett crafted the most iconic private detective novel ever, the singular representation of an entire form, and yet in it he wrote the most unorthodox story of detection ever.

Charles Flitcraft

Dashiell Hammett

Dashiell Hammett

It can be overemphasized that Hammett was, prior to taking up the pen, a private detective. Too often his experience as a Pinkerton agent is treated as a trump card by his proponents, proof that Hammett’s work is authentic compared to the detective fiction of “amateur” hardboiled writers.

It’s important to state: The Maltese Falcon is not a work of hard realism. Hammett understood how to give people what they wanted to read, hence his success in the pages of Black Mask. He also had a preternatural gift of vivid and bold writing. Raymond Chandler asserted Hammett did “over and over again what only the best writers can ever do at all. He wrote scenes that seemed never to have been written before.” That’s why, unlike most of his peers at Black Mask, Hammett is still studied and marveled over today.

But Hammett was a private eye and he knew the ins and outs of that profession. He knew that such work did not always involve reaching for one’s revolver to get answers. He knew sitting down and talking frankly will sometimes get all the information one requires. No hot lights, no pounding on the desk, no good-cop/bad-cop.

Look again at the subdued language when Spade is hired by Flitcraft’s wife:

Mrs. Flitcraft came in and told us somebody had seen a man in Spokane who looked a lot like her husband. I went over there. It was Flitcraft, all right.

No leggy femme fatale arriving at the detective’s office wearing a mourning veil with a slit up her dress. Mrs. Flitcraft’s entrance has all the dramatic effect going to the phone company to request a change in service. The weary acknowledgement—”It was Flitcraft, all right”—indicates Spade knew all along it would be the same man, although his reaction later tells us he’d never seen a man skip town for quite the same reasons as Flitcraft’s. The subdued language is echoed in Flitcraft’s tepid attempt to explain those reasons to Spade: “He had never told anybody his story before…He tried now.” This is not a parable of a man making a considered choice. Flitcraft up and left with little self-examination at all, compelled, it seems, by cosmic forces beyond our ken.

Passivity is the standard in The Flitcraft Parable. Even Mrs. Flitcraft shrugs and lets it go when told by Spade of Flitcraft’s bigamy:

“She didn’t want any scandal, and, after the trick he had played on her—the way she looked at it—she didn’t want him. So they were divorced on the quiet and everything was swell all around.”

The parable is built from the elements of scandal and recklessness and infidelity, but like tightening your grip on bread dough, Hammett lets the gooey salaciousness squeeze out and fall away. The three characters—Spade, Flitcraft, and his wife—simply give in to what has happened without complaint or fuss.

It’s not just an usual detective story, it’s an unusual story, no qualifier required. Hammett offers no hero or victim to identify with, no epiphanic moment, and no moral at the end, as most parables would conclude with. The tale has all the trappings of a Cheever story, but it never sneers down on the suburban way of life Flitcraft abandons and returns to. (Keep in mind that Hammett was an urban sophisticate in this period and sympathetic to the Communist Party and socialist movements; he would maintain strong leftist beliefs the rest of his life.) Flitcraft’s escape from domesticity to male freedom also sounds like the setup for an Updike novel, but again, the escape is not truly escape for Flitcraft, just as his return to Spokane is not a return to domestic imprisonment.

For a writer whose stock-and-trade is hot lead and wisecracking gangsters, Hammett tells The Flitcraft Parable with light, oblique touches. One is left with a sense that the falling construction beam shook up the cosmos and dislodged something vital, propelling Flitcraft out into the world. By the time Flitcraft’s orbit returned to domesticity in Spokane, that dislodged piece had slipped back into place and was wedged in tight. The dust settles and little has changed.

Charles Peirce

An important detail in the parable is Flitcraft’s assumed name when he settles in Spokane: Charles Pierce. This is most likely a reference to the American philosopher and polymath Charles Sanders Peirce (pronounced “purse”), the father of Pragmatism and one of the great thinkers of the 19th century. There is indirect evidence that Hammett knew well of Peirce’s work. In a letter to his publisher, Hammett describes The Maltese Falcon as the most “philosophical” work he’d produced to date. Peirce’s essays were published in popular magazines and his books were widely read and studied. The question then is why Hammett would namedrop one of the most important philosophers of the prior 100 years into a detective story about locating an old statuette.

Charles Sanders Peirce

Charles Sanders Peirce

A clue may lie in Peirce’s work in philosophy. Peirce’s Pragmatism was multifaceted, but one of its concerns was the relationship between doubt, belief, and truth. Peirce was also fascinated with randomness and how it shaped history.

Peirce argued that the universe is not entirely deterministic, that an element of chaos exists, and that this chaos is necessary for variations to form and evolve. He dubbed his theory Tychism. Peirce saw Darwinism as just one example of Tychism at work. Peirce didn’t say that the universe is pure randomness, just that by the injection of a small amount of uncertainty—call it a seed of chaos—variations and change sprung forth, and from there true growth.

Regarding doubt, belief, and truth, Peirce expressed the role of imagination on the search for truth in an 1878 essay he wrote for Popular Science, “How to Make Our Ideas Clear”:

…[Doubt] stimulates the mind to an activity which may be slight or energetic, calm or turbulent. Images pass rapidly through consciousness, one incessantly melting into another, until at last, when all is over—it may be in a fraction of a second, in an hour, or after long years—we find ourselves decided as to how we should act under such circumstances as those which occasioned our hesitation. In other words, we have attained belief.

According the Peirce, doubt is the key component to fruitful inquiry. Not just garden-variety doubt (as in “I doubt I can make the party in time”) but the kind of doubt that “stimulates the mind to an activity.” The stimulating doubt forces the mind to engage with the question and come up with an alternative that we believe is the truth. Our decision on how one would act is, in effect, how one did act—”in other words, we have attained belief.”

Putting it all together, the sound of the steel beam hitting the sidewalk, the fleck of concrete striking Flitcraft in the check and scarring him there (“He rubbed it with his finger—well, affectionately—when he told me about it”), the sudden question of why he had not been killed: This random accident and chance survival introduced a seed of doubt to Flitcraft’s ordered, static life. It caused him to consider an alternate reality—a reality without his family or fortune. When he could see his life without them, it was just a few more steps to actualize that belief.

Flitcraft’s snap decision seems monumental from our external viewpoint, but for him it was nothing more than a slight shift: “Life could be ended for him at random by a falling beam: he would change his life at random by simply going away.” Flitcraft goes out of his way to point out to Spade the “reasonableness” of this decision. Stepping back, maybe it does seem reasonable. It was also unsustainable—but no matter.

The reason for the telling

While Spade tells the parable, he and O’Shaughnessy are waiting for Joel Cairo to join them. Brigid O’Shaugnessy has had dealings with Cairo in the past and has come to Spade for protection. But O’Shaughnessy has lied to Spade already (her first words to him were lies) and he expects her to lie again. This is the commonly offered reason for Spade telling her the parable: Spade is indirectly informing O’Shaughnessy that he does not expect her deceit to end. Like Flitcraft, the thinking goes, she too will not change.

It seems too straightforward a decode for me. Sam Spade is not one for long-winded oratories. It would be much more in character for him to say, “You’ve lied to me before and you’ll lie to me again.” Done and done. In fact, he does tell that to her elsewhere in the book. There’s no reason for him to cloak it in a parable about a man in Spokane.

It’s worth noting that Hammett wrote The Maltese Falcon in the third-person objective. Although Sam Spade is in every scene and the narrator stays close to him, we as readers are never privy to Spade’s internal thoughts. We can only guess what Spade is thinking at any moment. That’s the true mystery of The Maltese Falcon, not whodunnit, but What does Sam Spade know, and when does he know it? When it comes to Brigid O’Shaughnessy, I think Sam Spade has her pretty well figured out, much like he knew he would find Flitcraft when he traveled to Spokane. (“It was Flitcraft all right.”) Spade will work with O’Shaughnessy, but only to find the Falcon and to dig out the truth about her…even if that truth confirms what he already suspects.

I also refuse to believe that The Flitcraft Parable is about a man who does not change. Flitcraft’s beliefs are challenged by the chance accident of the falling beam. His travels—his search for some sort of truth—lead him back to his original beliefs. That does not mean his travels were wasted. Flitcraft has no regrets for what he did. His travels—his inquiry—made him a different man, even if he seems to be the same man as before, which he is not.

Spade uses The Flitcraft Parable to issue a statement, a personal credo. He’s saying there is a truth out there and it’s worth looking for it, even if you wind up confirming what you already knew. What’s more, randomness and chance stir the pot, make things happen, creates possibilities. Spade is not Sherlock Holmes. He does not see the world as orderly deductions, one fact leading unquestionably to another. Spade gambles, he take risks, he bluffs. (He’s named after a suit of cards, after all.) Later in the novel an adversary compliments Spade: “There’s never telling what you’ll do or say next, except that it’s bound to be something astonishing.” It’s as concise observation as any written about Sam Spade.

Peirce wrote “Do not block the way of inquiry.” Is there a more concise statement of the worldview of Sam Spade? Or, for that matter, the detective novel?

Or of Dashiell Hammett, a man whose left-wing beliefs led to his imprisonment at the age of 55, assigned the duty of cleaning toilets, all for believing that doubt and inquiry could lead to a better society?

November 13, 2015: Check out “Another interpretation of ‘The Flitcraft Parable'”

Twenty Writers: Haruki Murakami, Underground & Studs Terkel, Working

See my Introduction for more information about the “Twenty Writers, Twenty Books” project. The current list of reviews and essays may be found at the “Twenty Writers” home page.

On sale now! My short story collection
A Concordance of One’s Life and novella Everywhere Man

UndergroundHaruki Murakami is the enviable writer who, in certain circles, has become a canon unto himself. Murakami is often compared to many different authors—Kafka, Carver, Brautigan—but the list is so diverse it’s difficult to pigeonhole his body of work as one style or another. Just about everyone I know has a favorite Murakami book, usually Kafka on the Shore or The Wind-up Bird Chronicles.

I’ve read only two of his fictions. The first, Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, was not nearly as hardboiled the title suggests and not nearly as cyberpunk as the book blurbs led me to believe. The other was After the Quake, a short story collection I consumed in ryokan and on various train trips between Osaka, Kyoto, and Hiroshima. It too left me cool. It was After the Quake that led me to understand why Murakami is so often compared to Raymond Carver. His stories were of “average” people in modest circumstances pushing back ever-so-lightly on pressure applied, all told in unadventurous language. Quiet conversations around beach campfires and characters wandering city parks recalling painful memories are the norm in After the Quake. It’s hardly fair for me judge his work as a whole from these two books, but they left me scratching my head wondering about his glowing reputation.

Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche changed that. The book is brilliant in its foundation: give the victims of the 1995 Tokyo subway sarin attacks an opportunity to tell their stories of that crazed rush-hour morning. Murakami the novelist takes his hand off the rudder and lets those victimized assume control of the conversation, and the results are gripping. Thirty-two victims, mostly commuters and subway workers, discuss the morning’s events and the aftereffects of exposure to the nerve agent. More importantly, they reveal (sometimes subconsciously) their attitudes toward work, career, family, friends, and country.

It’s a backhanded compliment to tell a fiction writer that his best work is a collection of interviews, but as any journalist knows, an interview is not merely recording what was said, it’s shaping what was said. Murakami may be the best writer imaginable to shape these stories and present them internationally: a Japanese native conversant in Western-style writing who’d lived abroad for nine years before returning home to interview the sarin gas victims. From studying Murakami’s biography and reading his comments in Underground as the interviews unfold, Murakami was obviously attempting to come to grips with the mentality of his countrymen as well as the attackers, the Aum Shinrikyo, a Japanese cult led by self-described Christ-figure with political ambitions.

It’s one of the real strengths of Underground that the author finds himself questioning his cultural and social affinities with his subjects when by all rights he should in a comfort zone no non-Japanese could claim. Murakami speaks the language, he was educated in the same educational system, he was raised on the same cultural and media diet. Murakami knows the unwritten norms of Japan, yet he is as amazed as any gaijin about the interviewees daily schedules, perceptions, and reactions to the attacks—and the way they’re isolated from their social circles after the attacks. Books about foreign lands tend to enjoy a boost from the exoticism of it all: different food, misunderstood customs, language troubles, the country’s history as backstory. The exoticism in Underground is different. It’s like humanistic science-fiction or Borges, where alien norms and mores are treated as everyday and commonplace by the characters and the narrator, leaving the reader to tease out the logic of an alternate universe. It’s the tingle of decoding what’s really being said, of detecting what’s being eluded to and what has been elided, that makes Underground an open rather than a closed text.

“A grumble under the breath”

In Underground‘s Preface, Murakami relates that some time after the attacks he was flipping through a Japanese popular magazine when his attention was caught by a letter on the letters-to-the-editor page:

It was from a woman whose husband had lost his job because of the Tokyo gas attack. A subway commuter, he had been unfortunate enough to be on his way to work in one of the cars in which the sarin gas was released. He passed out and was taken to hospital [sic]. But even after several days’ recuperation, the aftereffects lingered on, and he couldn’t get himself back into the working routine. At first, he was tolerated, but as time went on his boss and colleagues began to make snide remarks. Unable to bear the icy atmosphere any longer, feeling almost forced out, he resigned.

…As far as I can recall, there was nothing particularly plaintive about [the letter], nor was it any angry rant. If anything, it was barely audible, a grumble under the breath.

Like a well-crafted novel, this opening grumble (and Murakami’s reaction to it) foreshadows almost everything that is to follow.

First, it’s difficult to imagine this work situation being tolerated in the United States—it sounds like grounds for a lawsuit, one that many tort-minded Americans would be happy to pursue. There’s not a hint here of such thinking. Then there’s the letter-writer herself, the wife now emotionally shredded by the double-blow of a bizarre physical assault on her husband followed by the isolation by her husband’s work unit. If the perception of Japan is one of efficient and cohesive group dynamics, how did this family wind up in this situation?

And then there’s Murakami’s reaction: equal parts confusion, despair, and frustration. As a Japanese native speaker, he detected the grumble from language nuances I suspect an outsider might not have noticed. But that’s as far as his insider status allows him inside. Like Valentine in Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, Murakami is the alien who returns to his birthplace unable to recognize the land from which he sprung.

This barely audible grumble was the impetus for Murakami to interview the victims of the Tokyo subway attacks, and so Underground is as much a way for Murakami to understand his own country as it is to explain it to those outside of Japan, us gaijin. Murakami also designed Underground as a mirror for him to hold up to his countrymen and ask them to consider fully the way of life they’d carved out for themselves. How successful that enterprise has been, I do not know, but I am not optimistic.


There was one other element of the Preface that captured my attention. It’s in a footnote that’s literally attached to the word “Preface” at the top of the page:

I would like to make clear that I borrowed useful ideas toward the composition of this book from the works of Studs Terkel and Bob Greene.

Studs Terkel, WorkingI’m unfamiliar with the work of Bob Greene but I’m very much a fan of Studs Terkel, in particular a book he wrote in the early 1970s called Working. Unlike Underground, where Murakami’s subjects are intertwined by a single defining event, Terkel’s subjects in Working have only the barest of commonalities: they live in America and they are employed (and for some, not even formally employed). Studs Terkel interviewed more than one hundred people of all walks with the old-fashioned joy of a sportswriter in the baseball bleachers alongside dockworkers and plumbers gathering their expert opinions of the game for his next column. Terkel’s ability to capture natural language and paint it on the page is legendary, and Working is his masterpiece toward that end.

Terkel documented the travails and mundanity of employment as a hotel doorman, a strip miner, a receptionist, a cabbie. Pauline Kael is interviewed here, as is Rip Torn, jazz musician Bud Freeman, and a handful of sports figures. Otherwise, the remaining 130-odd people are not those who would be called “of note” although they are now immortalized in this classic of American journalism, even if their immortality is near-anonymous. (Fortuitously, as I was writing this post Longform reprinted a selection from Working on their web site.)

For me, a fiction writer, Working is a kind of master class on capturing attitude and character through voice, of revealing psyche and spinning out personality on the page in a flowing, natural manner. Any class on first-person narrative should be reading from this book. Terkel records so much more than the words of his interview subjects, he preserves their essence in a way that captivates rather than categorizes, much like Quincy Troupe’s masterful preservation of Miles Davis and his voice.

Terkel is beautifully invisible in Working. In the interviews themselves he’s barely present. Whole pages of confessions and revelations emerge from his subjects without a single question or prompt from Terkel himself. Of course this is not how interviews pan out—people rarely talk openly and cogently about a single subject, unprepared, for two hours. Given free reign, most people will talk themselves into mundane subject matter and personal minutia, like water seeking the path of least resistance. Terkel stitched together what must’ve been numerous false starts and meandering discussions into pitch-perfect exegeses on the nature of life as a farm worker, a desk receptionist, a realtor, an auditor, and so on.

Studs Terkel proves the American language as practiced is unique, controlled but not stiff, and perhaps most vital of all, so very tied to our professions. In other parts of the world people identify with their family and their family name, the town they came from, the place they were born, the religion they were raised in. In America, people identify by their jobs. It’s why when Americans first meet we ask each other what we do. Working is almost encyclopedic on the subject, categorizing subjects by their fields (“Working the Land”, “Communications”, “Brokers”, “Bureaucracy”) as well as their positions in society (“In Charge”, “Cradle to Grave”, and perhaps reflective of the rise of feminism at the time, “Just a Housewife”, a section featuring two women who are so much more than housewives). The book’s organization is democratic and pluralistic, just like the society Studs Terkel himself strove to see America progress toward.

Working is the kind of book you can dip into randomly, just flip to a page and start reading. Here’s Terry Mason, an airline stewardess:

We had to go to stew school for five weeks. We’d go through a whole week of make-up and poise. I didn’t like this. They make you feel like you’ve never been out in public. They showed you how to smoke a cigarette, when to smoke a cigarette, how to look at a man’s eyes. Our teacher, she had this idea we had to be sexy. One day in class she was showing us how to accept a light for a cigarette from a man and never blow it out. When he lights it, just look in his eyes. It was really funny, all the girls laughed.

…The idea is not to be too obvious about it. They don’t want you to look too forward. That’s the whole thing, being a lady but still giving out that womanly appeal, like the body movement and the lips and the eyes. The guy’s supposed to look in your eyes. You could be a real mean woman. You’re a lady and doing all these evil things with your eyes.

This is why I react with suspicion when I read a contemporary American short story or novel of literary ambition that is praised for capturing the voice of the “average” American. Terry Mason is about as down-to-earth as I can imagine, but as the above selection reveals, she’s not dim or easily impressed by authority. That’s often what I find in contemporary American fiction when the setting takes place outside of urban centers. A character watching an Olive Garden commercial in their McMansion arise from their barcalounger like a Manchurian Candidate, jump into their SUVs or minivans, and then drive to the nearest Olive Garden (flanked, as the author can’t resist, by a Chili’s and a Fresh Choice). They flatulantly squeeze their overweight body into the booth and order an absurdly large meal. Studs Terkel doesn’t need to supply his interview subjects with dignity, they already possessed it, if only someone would listen. Terkel did just that.

The discussions often turn wonderfully philosophical. Vincent Maher, a police officer:

When I worked as a bartender, I felt like a non-person. I was actually nothing. I was a nobody going nowhere. I was in a state of limbo. I had no hopes, no dreams, no ups, no downs, nothing. Being a policeman gives me the challenge in life that I want. … I don’t think it’s necessary for a man to prove himself over and over and over again. I’m a policemen, win, lose, or draw.

This trifecta of occupation, identity, and one’s future is a core preoccupation with Terkel’s subjects. Barbara Terwilliger:

I really feel work is gorgeous. It’s the only thing you can depend upon in life. You can’t depend on love. Oh, love is quite ephemeral. Work has a dignity you can count on.

Terry Mason again:

A lot of stewardesses wanted to be models. The Tanya girl used to be a stewardess on our airline. A stewardess is what they could get and a model is what they couldn’t get. They weren’t the type of person, they weren’t that beautiful, they weren’t that thin. So their second choice would be stewardess.

What did you want to be?

I wanted to get out of Broken Bow, Nebraska. (Laughs.)

That’s the Midwestern honest-speaking that I’m familiar with. I’ll never forget a Minnesota cousin of mine working at the movie theater food concession one summer. Reflecting the exorbitant food prices, she called it the “chump counter.” It’s too bad Studs Terkel didn’t get a chance to interview her.


As joyful as I find Terkel’s Working, he makes it clear in his introduction that he does not view what follows as a celebration:

Something unreal. For me, it was a feeling that persisted throughout this adventure. (How else can I describe this undertaking? It was the daily experience of others, their private hurts, real and fancied, that I was probing. In lancing an especially obstinate boil, it is not the doctor who experiences the pain.)

Something similar is echoed by Murakami in his epilogue:

Eventually I stopped making judgments altogether. “Right” or “wrong,” “sane” or “sick,” “responsible” or “irresponsible”—these questions no longer mattered. At least, the final judgment was not mine to make, which made things easier. I could relax and simply take in people’s stories verbatim. … Especially after conducting interviews with the family of Mr. Eiji Wada—who died in Kodemmacho Station—and with Ms. “Shizuko Akashi”—who lost her memory and speech and is still in the hospital undergoing therapy—I had to seriously reconsider the value of my own writing.

What Working does not have that Underground has in spades is a nucleus of violence, sacrifice, and above all, lingering confusion. It’s why Underground at times reads like a suspense thriller, although one that twists your stomach rather than elevates the senses. There is no pleasure in reading about the station workers who, resolute that the subway trains spend no more than sixty seconds unloading and loading passengers, get on their hands and knees to mop up the liquid sarin thinking it was some kind of spilled oil or paraffin.

The crime blotter details of the attack go like this: On the morning of Monday, March 20, 1995, five teams from the Aum Shinrikyo cult boarded separate Tokyo subway trains during rush hour. Each carried plastic bags of sarin, a nerve agent developed during World War II that is usually aerosolized and deployed in gas form. (Aum Shinrikyo had failed to perform this final step.) While in transit they punctured the bags and exited the trains, leaving the liquid sarin to spread on the floors and evaporate into inhalable vapor. Some 6,000 people were wounded, many permanently. Thirteen people died.

I recall the day of the sarin attacks; my first reaction was What—Tokyo? Japan’s culture of security and safety is legendary to the point of absurdity. That these attacks could be orchestrated by a charismatic cult leader with grandiose political ambition, a man who’d attracted not only the poor and the depressive but also academics and business leaders, sounded straight from the California playbook circa 1969 to 1979—Charles Manson, The Source Family, and Jim Jones all wrapped up in one. Even with my limited understand of Japanese culture, nothing of the attack’s reports in the American media sounded likely, and when I spotted Murakami’s book I picked it up to satisfy this long-standing itch. I now feel like Murakami gave me so much more.

Unlike Working, Underground is not designed to be dipped into randomly. It’s important for the interviews to be read sequentially, evidence of Murakami’s hand guiding the narrative, if only loosely. The overall organization of the material does reflect Terkel’s strategy to some degree. Instead of consolidating interviews by jobs, Murkami groups the interviews by train lines and stations. Since the release of the sarin gas was more-or-less simultaneous across Tokyo, this might seem counterproductive to a writer attempting to shape a narrative out of these interviews, but Murakami sets the right stories in the right places to achieve some devastating effects.

Beyond Murakami, the one work of Japanese literature most Americans are familiar with is Ryunosuke Akutagawa’s “Rashomon”, although that’s mostly due to Kurosawa’s film and not the story itself. What’s lesser-known is that the film is a commingling of two Akutagawa stories, “Rashomon” and “In a Grove”. The Rashomon effect is a partial misnomer; it’s “In a Grove” that regards the contradictions in multiple attestations of the same event. (There’s a kind of irony that the Rashomon effect’s misnaming is due to people hearing the story secondhand.)

So it’s interesting to me that this misnamed effect is in play in Underground as well. The first interviewee, Kiyoka Izumi, offers in her story a broad on-the-ground retelling of the attack on the Chiyoda line and the resulting chaos. Izumi discovers difficulty breathing while en route to her job. When she emerges from the Kasumigaseki station she walks into the chaos of commuters passed out, gasping, blind and staggering for the exits—”‘hell’ describes it perfectly.” She leverages her prior experience as a Japan Railways (JR) employee to offer assistance with the trains and the sick. (By doing so she increased her exposure to the sarin gas.) Her opening interview is perhaps the perfect choice in terms of giving a matter-of-fact account of how the attack turned the station, and all of Tokyo, upside-down. She is also one of the more frank storytellers in the book, a Japanese who is acutely aware of her culture’s nuances and curiosities.

The Rashomon effect comes to play in the interviews which follow, as the very JR workers Izumi saw and coordinated with now tell their stories. Unlike “In a Grove”, where the conflicting accounts are unworkable toward puzzling together some kind of truth, these stories complement Izumi’s and flesh out further the morning’s events. To read four separate accounts of station attendant Takahashi’s death is particularly heartrending. Perhaps it’s a kind of rebuttal to Akutagawa that when four stories offer strong agreement, not just the truth but a greater truth begins to emerge.

With the basics laid down in these initial interviews, Murakami opens the book up to the other victims. Here Underground begins to feel more like Working in that we meet individuals from various backgrounds and livelihoods, not just the JR workers and TV crews who descended on the spectacle. Often those interviewed in Underground sound as American as anyone in Working:

…we must make every effort to ensure that this prosperous and peaceful nation, built on the labors of previous generations, is preserved and passed on for generations to come. … I can’t see any future for Japan if we blindly persist with today’s materialistic pursuits.

Here Kozo Ishino is joining a broader discussion in modern Japan, a caution that has been expressed from as diverse figures as the Heisei royal family to Hiroo Onoda, the World War II army officer who lived in the Philippine bush for thirty years fighting a war that was over. And then Ishino admits:

I’ve just turned 40 and up to now I’ve been living carelessly. It’s about time I took control of myself, gave some deep thought to my own life. … I’ve been concentrating on my career all these years, so I’ve never known real fear.

These words would have found in a comfortable home in Terkel’s Working, where so many of his interviewees are surprisingly philosophical about their lot in life.

“To the spirit as well as to the body”

Murakami admits (bravely I think) that at first he was not terribly affected by the Tokyo gas attacks. That morning in 1995, lacking a television or radio, a friend phoned him with the news and advised him to stay out of Tokyo for a while. “I went back to sorting [my bookshelves] as if nothing had happened.” I’ve read and seen too many recollections of 9/11 where the author or TV host manages to crowbar into the narrative their personal experiences of that day. They are gripped by what they see on television; they weep; they phone loved ones; they are moved; they are beside themselves; they must control their rage. Murakami acknowledges that innumerable tragedies pass by us every day, and that his cup of humanity is no larger or smaller than our own.

Photo from the morning of the sarin attacks on the Tokyo subway.

Photo from the morning of the sarin attacks on the Tokyo subway.

Much has been made of one commonality Murakami highlights in his Japanese subjects, namely the way so many of the workers were going to work an hour or two early to look good for the boss—”brownie points,” as Kiyoka Izumi calls it. Then, blinded and lungs scorched by the sarin gas, they fervently attempt to reach work on time rather than lose face among their coworkers. Like other Western images of Japan (the stark rock gardens, the anime stocked with cute magical creatures), this image of obedient workers putting job and company over their own well-being locks comfortably into Western views of the Japanese people as a cohesive unit.

I think it’s unfortunate, perhaps even racist, to box up these accounts as traditionalistic reactions to a modern kind of violence—as though insular Eastern Japan is still catching up to the gritty, authentic Western world Americans are so accustomed to. Murakami offered the victims of the gas attacks a chance to speak out and they delivered up something not enclosed by borders or defined by nationality or hemisphere. Kozo Ishino’s reflections on turning forty and needing to take control of his life are surprising considering he’s an air commander in the Japanese Self-Defense Forces, hardly the kind of career Americans (including myself) associate with deep inner soul-searching.

I wish I could say there was a similar kind of soul-searching in America after the Oklahoma City bombing or 9/11, but such introspection is hard to locate. When the Murrah Building was bombed in Oklahoma City one month after the Tokyo subway attacks, it did not take any time at all for Americans to suspect terrorism—the surprise for us was that it was homegrown and not from abroad. Some compare the Tokyo gas attacks to 9/11, but I suspect psychically for the Japanese it was closer to the Oklahoma City bombing, that is, the kind of event thought to happen in other countries, certainly not here, and not by their (or our) own.

In contrast to many Americans’ reactions to 9/11 (and even to the Oklahoma City bombing), of the Japanese Murakami interviewed, few expressed anger at Aum Shinrikyo. Kiyoka Izumi confesses,

As to the criminals who actually planted the sarin, I honestly can’t say I feel much anger or hatred. I suppose I just don’t make the connection, and I can’t seem to find those emotions in me. … The fact that someone from Aum brought sarin onto the subway…that’s not the point. I don’t think about Aum’s role in the gas attack.

Some reason it out (“I don’t feel especially angry toward the individual culprits. It seems to me they were used by their organization”) while others confess to rage and a desire for violence against the perpetrators. Most admit that they’ve shut out Aum Shinrikyo from their lives, even turning off the television when any news about the group comes on. These rather human and revealing inner tensions stand as a rebuttal to the predominant image received by Western reviewers: the Japanese dedicated worker-ant I mentioned before, an unfortunate and flattening stereotype perpetuated by people who should know better.

But this “shutting out” of the attackers also plays into one of Murakami’s questions in his epilogue essay, “Why did I look away from the Aum cult?” Unlike the Hare Krishnas, Murakami writes, he found himself actively turning his gaze away from the Aum cultists when they paraded on the streets of Tokyo or campaigned for election. Murakami’s reason for looking away is that the Aum cultists were a “distorted image of ourselves.” I think the word Murakami is looking for is uncanny. It would be helpful if he could’ve pinpointed what was overly familiar about the Aum cultists rather than tiptoe around the presence of some unnamed familiarity. Aum Shinrikyo is never really explained satisfactorily, merely eluded to as an organization of promises for those Japanese in need of promises. (Murakami admits as much in his introduction to part two, calling Aum the “black box” of Underground.) It’s unfortunate that the cult’s allure couldn’t have been enumerated for foreign readers, no matter how phony it may have been.

As a book, Underground wound up having a life of its own. The Japanese edition included sixty interviews, but that number was whittled down to thirty-two for the English edition. Murakami also received substantial criticism—unfair in my eyes—for not interviewing members of the Aum cult, although he never claimed Underground was a work of objective journalism. Interviews with eight cult members are included in the English edition; I did not find them particularly edifying. For that matter, I’ve never found any explanation for Jim Jones’ hold over his church members to be all that educational either. In both cases the cultists seem unable to verbalize what drew them in, no more than a shipwrecked passenger can explain the lunar forces that washed him up on an island.

The Japanese media’s insistence to characterize—as Murakami puts it—the “moral principles at stake in the gas attack” as good versus evil, right versus wrong, pure versus impure, sounds like the framework for every debate in contemporary America. Murakami frets that the sarin attacks have been packed away by his countrymen and left to gather dust, and that Japan needs “another narrative to purify this narrative.” I question the word purify. Purification usually means subtracting from the original substance but leaving it largely the same. The word I would suggest is distill: to reduce the substance to its base essence, removing not merely impurities but benign additions as well. I’m not certain Underground is that narrative. It’s not a distillation of the issues, and I don’t even think it’s a purified form of the narrative Murakami objects to. Perhaps it will be the impetus or grist for another more distilled narrative for Japan to ponder over, the raw data for someone else to mine and develop into that alternate narrative which I’m sure is sorely needed.

Let that new narrative open with these lines from Studs Terkel’s remarkable introduction to Working:

This book, being about work, is, by its very nature, about violence—to the spirit as well as to the body. … It is, above all (or beneath all), about daily humiliations. To survive the day is triumph enough for the walking wounded among the great many of us.

Twenty Writers: B. Traven, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

See my Introduction for more information about the “Twenty Writers, Twenty Books” project. The current list of reviews and essays may be found at the “Twenty Writers” home page.

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

My hunch is that “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” is more famous than its writer, the movie, even the novel itself. By that I mean the swashbuckling title has become a kind of meme evoking high adventure in the Sonoran desert, the kind of tale serialized in Boys’ Life and later adapted into a 1960s Disney live-action movie starring Dean Jones. In fact, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is a superb and weighty novel of Social Realism and human nature. It’s about labor and management, price versus worth, the cost of sweat and the value of human life. It could easily be placed on a reading list beside The Grapes of Wrath as a prime example of Depression-era literature. I doubt it ever will, though, as long as its dominant image is one of high adventure. That’s unfortunate. Yet the book remains in print and remains read, and so it must be doing something right.

To discuss Treasure you must discuss its author, B. Traven. Unlike writers like Hemingway and Twain, whose personas impose themselves onto the readers’ receipt of the work itself, Traven is a shadow, an outline, a jigsaw puzzle barely out of the box and still being sorted by literary sleuths. Even the biographical notes Traven wrote for his own books are questioned. Researching B. Traven, you begin to suspect he never really existed.

The most definitive attempt I’ve located at digging out B. Traven’s identity is Michael L. Baumann’s B. Traven: An Introduction (University of New Mexico Press, 1976). It opens with these rather direct and unambiguous statements:

[B. Traven] wrote principally in German; he claimed to be American; he lived in Mexico. For inspiration he drew most heavily on the people and literatures of Germany, the United States, and Mexico.

These assertions don’t abut well with the particulars of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, a novel written in 1920s American vernacular about three American prospectors in Mexico. Where, in all of that, does Germany come into play? How could this book, an American classic, be written by a German who wrote principally in German?

Hal Croves (1947, LIFE magazine)

Hal Croves, 1947. Taken while on the set of John Huston’s adaptation of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.

Traven was notoriously private and shunned publicity. He dealt with his publishers entirely through correspondence addressed from post office boxes in Mexico. Throughout his career figures have appeared and disappeared claiming to be his literary representative. In 1946 a man named Hal Croves introduced himself to John Huston in Mexico City while the director was preparing to film the movie adaptation of Treasure. Croves arrived with Traven’s power of attorney, but speculation abounded that the man was Traven himself. Around this time Hal Croves met screen actress Ruth Ford and began wooing her through correspondence. Ford believed Croves was B. Traven. John Huston initially did as well, but later retracted it in his autobiography. When Humphrey Bogart was shown one of the few extant photos of B. Traven taken in 1926, the actor remarked, “I’d know him anywhere. I worked with him for ten weeks in Mexico. He just looks a little younger, that’s all.”

For some time Hal Croves and B. Traven were assumed to be one and the same. Then a Mexican reporter claimed to have confirmed Traven’s real identity as one Berick Traven Torsvan, but this time the reporter had documentation that supposedly sealed the connection. The matter was thought put to rest, leading Time-Life to write in their 1963 introduction to Treasure:

After four years of investigation [the reporter] tracked Traven down, dug up his American passport and other documents, and proved beyond all reasonable doubt that he was Berick Traven Torsvan, a native of Chicago, the son of Norwegian immigrants. Torsvan had moved to Mexico as a young man and had worked in the oilfields and at various other odd jobs, traveling all over the republic. For obscure reasons of his own, in the 1930s, he retreated to Acapulco and anonymity to write his stories.

Unfortunately, the Torsvan theory has its own holes, leading Traven authority Baumann in 1976 to shatter Time-Life’s tidy summation:

About B. Traven’s identity we know—nothing. All statements and reports to the contrary notwithstanding, the question of who B. Traven really was remains unanswered.

B. Traven

The dominant barebones theory of B. Traven’s identity goes something like this:

A German-speaking native of a Germanic region, the man later known as B. Traven fled Europe between the wars, taking various transient professions (ones that conveniently required little documentation) as he crossed the Atlantic and resettled in the New World. In the process he assumed a variety of pseudonyms (including “B. Traven”) before reaching Mexico. While residing there he gathered further experiences that he harvested into novels suffused with pointed and absurdist criticisms of nationalism, institutional power, capitalism, imperialism, and the human condition.

There’s a dozen variants of the above paragraph, each taking issue with every clause: his native tongue, his nationality, his politics, his pseudonyms. Even Traven’s bibliography is under debate. His 1960 novel Aslan Norval (published only in German) is regarded as oddly un-Travenian with a plot redolent of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. It’s almost as if Traven was publishing entire books to throw literary detectives off his trail.

Everyone seems to agree B. Traven lived in Mexico for an extended time. That may be the only point of agreement in the debate over his identity. JFK assassination theories are elegant and robust in comparison.

Ret Marut (London, 1923). This arrest photo was taken when Marut attempted to exit Europe via London after the Bavarian Soviet Republic collapsed.

Early on, Travenphiles descended upon Ret Marut as the prime candidate for authorship. A German actor, anarchist, publisher, and revolutionary, Marut participated in the bloodless Communist revolution that led to the creation of the brief Bavarian Soviet Republic. When the fledgling state collapsed under the boot of the German Freikorps, Marut fled his homeland. Traven appeared in Mexico soon after. So did Berick Traven Torsvan, an engineer and photographer who accompanied an expedition in the south of Mexico. Hal Croves would only appear in the 1940s to monitor Huston’s filming.

The identities don’t end there. In 1978, two years after Baumann declared “about B. Traven’s identity we know—nothing”, two BBC journalists announced evidence Ret Marut was a pseudonym for Otto Feige, a German national born in what is today Poland. An extension of the Feige theory has Feige/Marut as an illegitimate son of Kaiser Wilhelm II, hence the need to flee Germany.

And then there’s the Gales/Gale connection. A recurring protagonist in Traven’s work is Gerard (or Gerald) Gales, a pseudonym Marut is suspected of using while travelling to the New World. The name has been noted as similar to Linn A. E. Gale, an American leader in the Mexican Communist Party and publisher of Gale’s Journal (also referenced as Gale’s Magazine, Gale’s Weekly, and Gale’s International Monthly for Revolutionary Communism). The glaring problem with this potential connection is that Gale was deported to the United States in 1921, well before Traven’s first book was published, well before Marut left Europe. While in American custody on desertion charges, Gale renounced his radicalism and gave state’s evidence against other American socialists and anarchists in exchange for clemency. If Gerard Gales was named after Linn Gale, I have to wonder if Traven meant it as some kind of satire or warning to readers.

There are even more names. Casual speculation of B. Traven’s identity includes Ambrose Bierce and Jack London. One obscure theory is that Swiss performance artist Arthur Cravan did not die off the coast of Mexico in 1918, but survived the boating accident (or faked it) and transformed himself into B. Traven. Cravan’s self-involved Surrealist and Dada performances centered on crafting new identities for himself, which seems in character with what we know of Traven, but they also bartered in the kind of shameless publicity that Traven carefully avoided.

As if this dizzying list of names, pseudonyms, and origins was not enough, it all came full circle in 1990 when Traven’s wife announced he was, after all, Ret Marut. He’d sworn her to secrecy out of fear of being deported back to Germany, only allowing her to reveal his secret posthumously. (Traven died in 1969.) She also explained the origin of the Torsvan and Croves identities as his own constructs.

Twenty-five years after this revelation, B. Traven’s identity remains stamped Unknown by most academics, amateurs, and references, although the Marut theory clearly holds the most sway. It’s funny. It’s almost as if we don’t want to know the answer. Perhaps the author and his books seem so much more vital and timeless with an empty history and a question mark hovering over his face.

Carrier of the Experiences

B. Traven (Mexico, 1926). The most famous photo of Traven, “T. Torsvan” was documented as a Norwegian engineer and photographer for an archaeological expedition in Chiapas, Mexico. This photo was snapped during that trip without his knowledge and surfaced later.

Although discovering Traven’s identity may seem like a parlor game, the research has led to some interesting speculation of more literary concerns. For example, how did Traven, almost certainly a German native, come to write so intimately and with so much authority about the country he is most identified with, Mexico?

In 1964, Swiss writer Max Schmid posited Traven obtained the knowledge he would need to write some (or all) of his books from another person, a willing or unwilling transference of stories from an “authentic” source. Known as the Erlebnisträger hypothesis (“carrier of the experiences”), this theory attempts to explain how Traven could have written as expertly as he did about itinerant life in Mexico within his first year in the country.

The carrier hypothesis gives the Traven authorship question a rugged mystique. Envision Traven in a Mexican desert town encountering a grizzled American prospector. Over glasses of tequila the American regales Traven with wild tales of gold, grit, and the Sonoran sun. How well could these orally transmitted stories translate to the page where Traven’s expertise on a variety of details—technical (mining, Mexican law) and cultural (Native Mexican society and language)—seems absolute? Thus the Erlebnisträger theory has been expanded to Traven accepting (or stealing) manuscripts from the experience-carrier, and perhaps events more sinister. (Baumann suggested in 1997 that Croves/Torsvan was the experience-carrier, cooperating with Marut as a contributor rather than the rooked tramp Schmid proposed.)

This is one of the oddest aspects of researching B. Traven’s past, and in particular the Marut theory. To entertain the possibility that a man who survived World War I, fomented a Communist revolution and became a member of its Soviet, survived a bloody dissolution of that state, stood charged with treason and marked for execution, eluded arrest and prison, made an Atlantic crossing by ship under various assumed names, then completely reestablished his identity on a separate continent—that such a man would have to rely on another for experiences to write a novel. If it’s true.

The carrier theory also explains one of the more puzzling aspects of B. Traven’s writing which is easily lost on readers (and I include myself): The German versions of Traven’s work are in a distinct German argot infused with clunky translations of Americanisms, while his English versions are written in an American style with translations of Germanisms peculiar to Bavaria, that is, language tics a German-American would probably not possess. (Traven insisted he translated his own work, claiming to be an American who’d lived in Germany at points in his life as way of explanation.)

Some of his novels were even published in German first, although he maintained he always penned his novels in English and translated from there. Some of his books are only published in German, although there was certainly a market in America for them. It simply seems incredible that Traven could be an American, but it also seems incredible that a German living in Mexico for less than a year could have acquired enough American slang and knowledge of Mexico to publish a novel (Der Wobbly, 1926) featuring both. If Traven worked alone, then—barring additional revelations—it’s unlikely Traven was Ret Marut, or any Germanic émigré.

An American academic fluent in German, Baumann makes a strong case that Traven’s so-called American vernacular is actually a German-speaker’s poor attempts to make his characters “sound” American, fooling American readers who assume the coarse and butchered language is authentic of the lower classes. Traven’s characters order “another cock well iced” at a bar. They tell someone to “shut your grub-hold.” Baumann theorizes these came from German approximations of American slang clumsily translated back to English, much like the unintentional hilarity provided by English As She Is Spoke. As Baumann says, “Whatever the final explanation may be, the Erlebnisträger hypothesis would appear to force itself on us as soon as we reflect upon Traven’s particular use of the English language.”

In correspondence with a German editor, B. Traven seemed to predict the fascination with uncovering his identity:

I would like to state very clearly: the biography of a creative person is absolutely unimportant. If that person is not recognizable in his works, than either he is worth nothing, or the works are worth nothing. The creative person should therefore have no other biography than his works.

(Emphasis mine.) On one hand, Traven is warning against this entire endeavor, that is, the search for his identity. And yet he’s also advising in favor of finding his identity in the work itself. Contradictions and dead-ends are everywhere when searching for B. Traven, but he does seem to be encouraging us to look in his novels to understand him.

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

Maybe it’s criminal to include a book in a “Top Twenty” where the dominant theory of its authorship is bolstered by the writer’s poor grasp of street English and stealing his source material from an unsuspecting itinerant laborer. Don’t let that (or high-brow critical analysis) overwhelm the plain truth that The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is a powerful, well-rounded, and carefully constructed novel. It’s a big book in terms of its explications on value and money, but at its core is a tale of adventure, back-breaking work, and greed. Published in America in 1935 (in Germany, 1927), its language choices are as much products of its time as the author’s native language, and it shows right from the first paragraph:

The bench on which Dobbs was sitting was not so good. One of the slats was broken; the one next to it was bent so that to have to sit on it was a sort of punishment. If Dobbs deserved punishment, or if this punishment was being inflicted upon him unjustly, as most punishments are, such a thought did not enter his head at this moment. He would have noticed that he was sitting uncomfortably only if somebody had asked him if he was comfortable. Nobody, of course, bothered to question him.

The paragraph after the next describes Dobb’s financial situation. It jumps to the heart of the novel’s material matters:

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 money at all.

Neither of these passages are sterling prose, but they are efficient in conveying Dobbs’ situation as well as foreshadowing much to come. The malapropisms Baumann identifies are not present here, although “The bench on which Dobbs was sitting was not so good” seems a clumsy construction for the first sentence of any novel. But look again: the passive voice and unadorned language plays into Dobbs’ bleak finances and uncertain future. Where malapropisms do pop up in Treasure, they feel more like inventive language and not bad translations, much like the vivid banter in the Coen Brother’s Miller’s Crossing.

Der Schatz der Sierra Madre. Early German edition of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.

Der Schatz der Sierra Madre. Early German edition of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.

The novel starts with this bare introduction on the street bench and carefully winds up to grander purposes. Dobbs searches Tampico and its environs fruitlessly for a way to better his lot in life. Panhandling, lottery tickets, setting up oil camps in the Mexican jungle (one of the best sequences in the early part of the book), and everything in-between are explored by Dobbs and the buddies he picks up along the way. Unlike The Grapes of Wrath or Lao She’s Rickshaw, the men are not guileless innocents pummeled and tumbled about by societal forces. They talk back to authority. They smell a con as soon as it develops. They earn a few pesos here and there, and though facing swindles left and right, they manage to scrape together enough money to ever-so-tenderly improve their situation. Traven’s politics are nuanced enough not to keep throwing the men under the bus wheels and then deploring their situation to the reader.

Eventually Dobbs and cohort Curtin meet up with a weathered but cheery prospector named Howard who leads them into the hills in search of gold. Chapters detailing the days’ work leave the reader as exhausted as the men (in a good way). Howard’s fine fireside storytelling and concise observations on gold and greed balance against the grind:

Every day their respect for old Howard grew greater and greater. That old fellow never complained, never whined, never felt too tired to lend here a pull and there a push. He appeared to become younger and more active with every mile that the little train made toward its goal. He climbed steep rocks like a cat and trotted for long, dreary hours across arid stretches without even mentioning a drink of water.

“Never fail to understand the reason why gold is so precious,” he said occasionally when the boys were all in. “Perhaps you know now why one ounce of gold costs more than a ton of cast iron. Everything in this world has its true price. Nothing is ever given away.”

Baumann calls Traven a “humanistic anarchist,” which seems about right to me. There are no cries for taking up guns and igniting a revolution, no sense that the proletariat assuming power would somehow improve the world. Note here how the men go from slaves of one sort to another, gradually:

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. … They had become members of the minority of mankind.

Those who up to this time had been considered by them as their proletarian brethren were not enemies against whom they had to protect themselves. As long as they owned nothing of value, they had been slaves 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.

I normally don’t have much taste for this sort of sermonizing, but these pronouncements are an organic component of the novel, as much as the exegesis of whaling in Moby Dick. Remove these passages and Treasure loses its spine. This is one reason why it’s so much more than a sensational novel of adventure and gunplay. Storytelling and lore shared between the characters are key focal points in the novel. In a tale so absorbed with avarice, there’s a surprising amount of cooperation and amiability, usually promoted by nothing more than sharing stories. Some of the negotiations are businesslike, even courteous, although handguns are always within reach.

Howard is a welcome foil to the dour Dobbs and everyman Curtin. He is more than the wise old man leading the two “boys” through the quest, he provides real sagacity in his stories and advice. He does more than prepare them for what they will face in the desert and the hard work to come, Howard prepares them for becoming rich knowing full well it will test them. He predicts how the other two will hide their share of the treasure and the nature of the sparks that will lead to infighting, and perhaps murder. Dobbs is the principal character but Howard is always the center of attention whenever in scene. Dobbs is suspicion, fear, and shortsightedness; Howard is light and humor and insight. He’s easily the best character in Treasure.

The final fifth of Treasure gives Traven the opportunity to speak out for the native peoples of Mexico, subject matter he will embrace wholeheartedly later in his six-part Caoba (mahogany) cycle of novels. The Indians and their lucid way of life are the counterpoint to the salty thirst for money that drives just about every page preceding. The book toys with the trio ditching their riches and settling into native life. It would’ve made this humanist-anarchist novel a utopian fable, a resolution Traven does not settle for.

“No other biography than his works”

Der Ziegelbrenner

Der Ziegelbrenner. This edition was published on November 9th, 1918, two days after Kurt Eisner made a speech demanding workers’ reforms to 60,000 Bavarians. The Bavarian Soviet Republic formed five months later.

If Ret Marut is B. Traven, something seems to have cooled his politics by the time he published Treasure. In Germany, Ret Marut published an anarcho-revolutionary periodical called Der Ziegelbrenner (“The Brick Burner”). According to Baumann, the paper was rife with firebrand and anti-Semitism. Nothing like that is to be found in Treasure, whose humor is gentle but with an edge and whose politics seem more philosophical than urgent. This is another reason Baumann believes Marut collaborated with a Croves/Torsvan experience-carrier rather than adapted the carrier’s material solo. Perhaps distance, maturity, or the experience of fleeing into exile tempered Marut’s views. Maybe the experience-carrier informed Marut of the possibilities of a more balanced view of the world. Certainly it didn’t make financial sense to strip anti-Semitism from one’s novels when half of your income could be derived from publication in 1930s Germany. Maybe life in Tampico and Acapulco transformed Marut more quickly than we believe possible.

I have to wonder if Marut is represented by the ever-suspicious Dobbs and the experience-carrier is the sage Howard. Little about Dobbs’ history is offered, but it is suggested he’s a man running from a past and a place he cannot return to. Howard, on the other hand, has so acclimated to Mexico he’s more comfortable around the aboriginal peoples than other Americans. If the Erlebnisträger theory has any weight, it doesn’t seem far-fetched that Marut would blend in his own creative impulses (and his past) into the experience-carrier’s ur-story of mining the Sierra Madre. Both Dobbs and Howard are integral to Treasure; it’s difficult to see how Dobbs or Howard could’ve been bolted onto an already-existing novel without rewriting the entire manuscript.

What if Treasure was written like a movie script during Hollywood’s star system, two writers locked in a room with a typewriter, paper, and cigarettes? They bounce ideas off each other and the four walls to devise chapters, improvise dialogue, polish each others’ drafts, and so forth? Marut had his reasons for anonymity, and perhaps the experience-carrier did too, and so a combined pseudonym was born. I wouldn’t be surprised if the experience-carrier died soon after, hence the shift in subject matter in Traven’s later work.

Unfortunately, Treasure loses its way as it enters the final stretch. Gold in tow and the troop traversing the Mexican countryside aimlessly, it feels as if Traven is searching for how to wrap things up. The conclusion is cosmic fate rearing its head and resetting everything the men had toiled for. Watching hard work toward a better life swept away in a moment’s notice would have rung familiar to Ret Marut, a man who fought a workers’ revolution and fled after it crumbled under a bloody attack by the army of his own country.

If the novel’s ending seems too pat, revisit the question Traven asked in the opening paragraph: Does Dobbs deserve his punishment? The complexities of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre are that, by the final page of the book, I feel a touch of pity and plenty of revulsion for a man who three hundred pages earlier was simply searching the streets of Tampico for ten centavos to buy himself a hot lunch.

Twenty Writers, Twenty Books: Introduction

See the “Twenty Writers” home page for the current list of “Twenty Writers, Twenty Books”

The Treasure of the Sierra MadreEvery so often an Internet-age chain letter makes the rounds on the social networks that asks the recipient to list their top ten books. Most people are game because it’s fun to make these lists. Sites like BuzzFeed and Upworthy have built media empires on list-making. David Letterman and “Top 10” are synonymous. We like lists. They’re oddly cozy.

Generally my friends’ lists of books are a little of the familiar, a little of the unfamiliar, and a bit of the unexpected. Lists are a kind of self-expression. For lists of works like books or music, we’ve even adopted strategies that are similar to the strategies used to make those works in the first place. There’s a tension between highbrow and lowbrow, a fear of being too obvious, a la producing a mix CD of nothing but #1 Top 40 hits, or too obscure, a la a mix CD of Central European filk music. No one wants to put a The Da Vinci Code or The Great Santini at the top of their list of books, even if you love either dearly. If you include that book that doesn’t use the letter e, you should probably add something more accessible, like The Great Gatsby, and maybe even feel clever that both have a similar family name in their title.

When I considered my own top ten books, I realized three things. (Yes, another list.) First, I knew I couldn’t keep my list down to ten, and I certainly didn’t want to number them. A linear ranking just isn’t an accurate diagram for great books. I don’t want to make a catalog of the best to not-the-best, I want to make a “web” of book titles that together represents something larger.

Second, if I was going to make a list of books, I wanted to write about each of them rather than simply present their titles. Some of my motivation here is that I’ve read about these authors and thought a lot about their books, probably more than I sanely should. Writing forces me to make my own decisions and dig a little deeper into the work. I have to take a stand or two, what I feel is important, where I think the work missed the mark. In turn, those decisions have an impact on my own fiction.

Third, my list of books is more driven by authors than titles. To borrow terms from computer science, I’m a depth-first rather than breadth-first reader. When I find an author I like, I tend to dig into their backlist. If an author leaves a palpable impression on on me, I start searching for biographies and book reviews. I don’t buy the notion that we should detach the author from their writing. Fiction is the product of continuous decision-making. The author’s decisions are characterizing of him or herself, just as the decisions of his or her characters accrete to form personalities on the page. I want to tangle with those authorial decisions.

One proviso: I like poetry but don’t feel conversant enough to include any in my list. I’ll just leave it at that.

So here goes, my top twenty books (not ten) and their authors, each written up as a separate entry, unnumbered to avoid creating a sense of best and not-the-best. I’m releasing these as I write them, which means it might be some time before the list is complete (assuming I finish this at all). My list begins with B. Traven’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, a book that surprised me in its quality and scope. When I went to learn more about the author, I discovered his name represented one of the great literary mysteries of the 20th Century.

In some ways, I’m writing these entries for myself. I hope they’re informative or enjoyable for you. If you get anything out of them, please leave a comment and share with your friends.

See the “Twenty Writers” home page for the current list of “Twenty Writers, Twenty Books”.