André Malraux, Man’s Fate

André Malraux was of a generation of French novelists which emerged during the 1930s. At the time, the norm of French “high” literature was excessive, flowery, and sentimental autobiographic writings of the middle class, Proust being the prime example. Writers such as Malraux, André Gide and Romain Roland had established themselves before the thirties, but in that decade they were attracted to leftist politics, specifically the version put forth by the Soviet Union. Both their own ideological convictions and material concerns played a role in this, as the USSR sponsored conferences of writers and helped found literary organizations during the Popular Front era, which for it marked a definite de-emphasis of the revolutionary role of the working class, and an accommodation with intellectuals as well as the ruling class itself in the name of anti-fascism. Therefore it was quite profitable as well for a writer of the period to become engagé, although many became so because they were sincerely convinced of the need for socialism.

The problem with this was that the Soviet Union’s needs were fickle and driven in the end by what the ruling bureaucracy narrowly perceived as its national interests. Therefore when it signed a Non-Agression Pact with Nazi Germany, it was not about to entertain arguments either from within the Communist Parties or their intellectual fellow travelers. This resulted in many an intellectual abandoning socialism.

Therefore we have André Malraux, a man who I think typifies that generation. He came somewhat early to communism, during the late twenties after having experienced the tyranny of democratic France in its colonial possessions in Indochina. Man’s Fate is based on his own experiences of the 1927 Chinese Revolution, which I will describe in a second. Early on he sympathized with Trotsky’s Opposition, but moved steadily rightward as the decade went on and the World War found him supporting De Gaulle’s Free France. He ended his career in the mid-70s as a minister in the Gaullist government. As a result he became more and more a politician as his life went on, and less and less an artist.

Now, the revolution of 1927. This event was the conclusion of what some would call China’s “bourgeois revolution.” A brief rundown: in 1911 the Qing dynasty abdicated, and despite the promise of a republic, the country soon fell under the control of many squabbling warlords, a situation aggravated by the presence of American, British, French, Japanese colonialists on the sea costs squabbling for control. Out of this emerges the Guomindang (GMD), a nationalist party led by Dr. Sun Yatsen dedicated to the reunification of the country as a republic and the limiting of foreign influence. in 1920 the Communist Party (CCP) is founded, and like elsewhere in the world it grows rapidly on the basis of the prestige of the Russian revolution, attracting leaders from nationalist Chinese intellectuals and a membership base from China’s burgeoning industrial proletariat. The Soviet Union seeks an accommodation with the GMD, which it provides with funding, arms and the basis of the Leninist model of party organization. In return the GMD adopts a vague form of “socialism” in Dr. Sun’s “Principles of National Reconstruction,” and allows CCP members to operate as a faction within it, and many CCP members including the young Mao Zedong become leaders of the GMD. Sun dies in 1925 and is succeeded by Jiang Jieshi (Chiang Kaishek) who resents the growing Communist influence in his party, despite the many gifts he has received from the Soviet Union. In 1927, on the occasion of the anticipated Northern Expedition, which would take the GMD army north to reconquer the Chinese heartland from the warlords, Jiang makes his move against the CCP, which at that point, under orders from Stalin, will not countenance a break with Jiang. In Shanghai Communist-led workers take control of the city and welcome the GMD army, they are then disarmed, imprisoned, and many massacred.

That is in brief the background of Malraux’s novel. I was interested in reading it but to tell the truth not overly enthusiastic, and this grew worse and worse as I got into the book, to the point when last night I seriously debated whether to take the time to read the last thirty pages, even though I hate to leave a book unfinished. In the end I can truly not understand why this book is still in print, or considered by some as a classic. Let me explain why.

The book mainly concerns itself with telling the story of leaders in the CCP in Shanghai. Among these are Ch’en, a student and ex-Christian convert whose assassination of a government figure opens the novel. Kyo is a leader and strategist, his girlfriend May a doctor, and his father Gisors is an elderly professor and opium addict who played a role in converting many of the best and brightest of the nationalist youth to Marxism, reminiscent I think of the early CCP leader and intellectual Chen Duxiu. Besides these native Chinese communists, we have Himmelrich, a German emigre, Katov, an advisor from the Soviet Union, and numerous other more minor associates. The thing that is immediately obvious should be that Malraux chooses to focus on the leaders (and of those they tend to be from wealthy, petty-bourgeois and urban backgrounds) rather than the rank and file, which is not necessarily a bad choice, but one I would guess that was influenced by his own experience as a foreign emigre sympathizer, since those were the people he would primarily have known in China.

Much of the book, therefore, brings us into the theoretical and strategic debates that take place at the Party’s heights. These revolve around whether to remain in the GMD or push forward the role of the proletariat and peasants in the revolution. I did not expect to be very interested in them as I already knew the content largely, but Malraux surprised me by producing several debates that were both engaging and did not seem out of place in the context of a literary work, which I imagine is very hard to pull off. In this way I at least found them to be the best parts of the book. Take, for example, this dialogue between Kyo and a representative of the Comintern on the subject of promoting peasant insurrections:

The six days he had spent coming up the river had confirmed Kyo in his idea: in those clay cities that had squatted on the river-junctions for thousands of years the poor would be as ready to follow the peasant as to follow the worker.

‘The peasant always follows,’ said Vologin. ‘Either the worker or the bourgeois. But he follows.’

‘No. A peasant movement lasts only by attaching itself to the cities, and the peasantry by itself can only produce a Jacquerie, that’s understood. But if there is no question of separating it from the proletariat: the suppression of credits is a fighting slogan, the only one which can mobilize the peasants.’

‘In short, the parceling of lands,’ said Vologin.

‘More concretely: many very poor peasants are landowners, but their work is for the usurer. They all know it. Moreover, in Shanghai we must train the guards of the Workers’ Unions as quickly as possible. Allow them to disarm under no pretext. Make use of our force against Chiang Kai-shek.’

‘As soon as that slogan is known, we shall be crushed.’

‘Then we shall be crushed in any case. The Communist slogans are making headway, even when we give them up… Either we must be willing to participate in the repression with the troops of Chiang Kai-shek – does that suit you? – to compromise ourselves irrevocably, or they will have to crush us, whether they want to or not.’ (143-44)

This has the credit of announcing the debate, and making a decent argument from both sides, though it is clear which side right is on. Unfortunately this is the best of what the book has to offer.

After all the debates are done, the main characters are still faced with the fact that the Communists have been defeated. How they deal with this, which for almost all of them means death, seems to be what Malraux most wants to portray, the existential crisis brought on by the approach of death, even after a life lived in pursuit of one’s convictions. In and of itself this is not the worst topic, and I would venture to say that “The Wall” by Sartre, one of my favorite stories, deals with it quite well. However I think Malraux bit off way more than he could chew.

Sartre chose to succinctly describe one man’s reaction as he faces death for his political activities, in contrast Malraux tries to portray every conceivable reaction a person could have to this. Ch’en turns to terrorism and dies in an attempt to blow up Jiang’s car, although we find out later that the Marshal was not inside. Kyo, having been imprisoned and waiting for death, reflects on his life before biting down on a cyanide pill. Katov finds a final meaning in his own life by giving his own cyanide to two other prisoners before the GMD lead him away to be burned alive. Here, for the record, is a scene from Kyo’s death, as he is as close to the protagonist as we have:

… the fatality which they had accepted rose with the murmur of these wounded men like the peace of evening, spread over Kyo – his eyes shut, his hands crosses upon his abandoned body – with the majesty of a funeral chant. He had fought for what in his time was charged with the greatest meaning and the greatest hope; he was dying among those with whom he would have wanted to live; he was dying, like each of these men, for having given meaning to his life. What would have been the value of a life for which he would not have been willing to die? (319)

Etc, etc, etc. Maybe this is supposed to sound lyrical and elegiac, but to me it just sounds sort of bloated. For one, it demonstrates the author’s supremely annoying habit of going inside all his characters’ minds to tell us exactly what they are thinking at any given moment. For the record this quality made the novel impossible to like from a purely literary standpoint.

As for the political, I haven’t died yet in the socialist cause obviously, but I have trouble believing that this is what it would be like. Existential crises happen to all of us of course, but it seems like many of us would be thinking about more mundane, worldly things if we were at the point of dying. In contrast every character of Man’s Fate who faces death seems to have these profound moments right before death. This would seem to imply that every communist revolutionary who dies for the cause has thought out their participation in the movement and related it to their individual search for meaning. There are two big problems with this: one, not all revolutionaries are intellectuals. Some are, and some of those have been leaders, and probably a few of those have approached the revolution from the standpoint of a personal quest for meaning, but I tend to believe that most revolutionaries are actual workers, who come to the movement because they understand that it best represents their material interests in society. This is not to say that intellectuals are deep and workers or peasants “shallow” in any sense. Rather, I find it hard to imagine an existential approach to Marxism or any other variant of revolutionary politics. As a matter of fact Marxism strictly proceeds from the point of view of the society rather than the individual. I don’t think as a philosophy and guide to action that it could ever have much to do with existentialism, whatever its form.

Secondly, this kind of scene implies that revolutionaries are somehow more “deep,” more sensitive anyway than the ordinary person, which strikes a hollow note. Saying that revolutionaries are more sensitive than ordinary people plays very well into the liberal myth of fanaticism, that revolution is the domain of tragic, unreasonable and overly intelligent and sensitive elites, and that ordinary people would do best to steer clear of them. This is made particularly clear by the first scene, in which Ch’en “was serving the gods of his choice” or communism, by the act of killing. To me this says that Malraux only approached Marxism as a petty-bourgeois romantic, and left it when other things became more exciting. If only I had paid attention to the warning signs early on and stayed away from his novel.

Literary qualities: 1/5, Social qualities: 2/5

André Malraux, Man’s Fate (La condition humaine), translated from the French by Haakon M. Chevalier. 356 pages. New York: Vintage International, 1990. $14.95

Similar books: Jean-Paul Sartre, The Wall and Other Stories, Arthur Koestler, Darkness at Noon.

Next up: Milan Kundera, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting.

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1 Comment

Filed under History, Literature, Reading journal

One response to “André Malraux, Man’s Fate

  1. Great analysis. But, don’t you feel that there are some revolutionaries that have those profound moments of self-identity before death and that this is their particular story, which is especially heartbreaking when the leaders of their movement that they held so dear were so quick to turn their back on them?

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