The opening sentence of the Wikipedia entry for Andre Malraux says he “was a French author, adventurer and statesman” — a very concise summary of a very broad life. The adventurer part started first — at the age of 21 he headed to Cambodia, removed some temple bas-reliefs and found himself facing three years in prison for stealing the carvings. An impressive array of French intellectuals interceded and his sentence was first reduced and then suspended. The adventurer part of his life continued for some time; he was with the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War and the French Resistance in World War II. That background led to what eventually became the statesman role. He was Minister of Information for De Gaulle (1945-46) and, perhaps most notably, a controversial Minister of Cultural Affairs for De Gaulle from 1958-69. It should come as no surprise that many leftish intellectuals wondered about that last role: Had the renegade changed sides?
As an author, Malraux is best known for Man’s Fate (the French title is La Condition Humaine), a novel about the unsuccesful Communist uprising in Shanghai in 1927. His bibliography includes a number of other novels (perhaps most notably Man’s Hope), many essays and two major collections published later in his life — The Psychology of Art (1947-49) and The Metamorphis of the Gods (1957, 1974, 1976). Whatever opinion you might have of Malraux’s politics, he is as close to a Renaissance man as the twentieth century had to offer.
I was a young newspaper reporter covering politics when I first read Man’s Fate in 1971 so I was quite aware of Malraux’s most recent career in the DeGaulle cabinet. Those with any knowledge of the Canada of the time will know that DeGaulle was a somewhat disruptive figure in our country — his proclamation “Vive le Quebec libre” in 1967 was one of the more controversial contributions to Canada’s French-English debate. I was intrigued and impressed by the novel and its author — many of the themes and observations seemed pertinent given the American debacle then going on in Viet Nam and Cambodia.
All of this came back to mind last year when Mrs. KfC went to Indo-China with some friends and I decided to visit some of the fiction set there (Kim Echlin’s The Disappeared and Graham Greene’s The Quiet American were two early reads in the program). Man’s Fate was brought up from the basement and added to the pile — but when I discovered that Hesperus Press had published The Way of the Kings, Malraux’s second novel and one I did not know, I figured a detour would not be out of order.
This novel was inspired by Malraux’s bas-relief adventure: Claude is a young French adventurer, on his way to Siam, with the intention of smuggling out some traditional temple sculptures to sell back in Europe at a handsome profit. On the voyage there, he becomes entranced with a fellow passenger recounting his stories:
‘Young men don’t really understand — what shall we call it? — eroticism. Until you turn forty, you get it all wrong, you’re trapped by love: any man who thinks, not of a woman as complementing sex, but of sex as complementing a woman, is ripe for love: too bad for him. But what’s worse, there comes a time when the idea of sex, the idea of youth, comes back to haunt you, stronger than ever. Nourished by all kinds of memories…’
The speaker is Perken, a Dane who is an “old hand” in the area. He is on his way back after an unsuccessful attempt to raise funds for his own shady project. Many on ship know of him, or at least his reputation, but that knowledge comes more in the way of legend than verifiable fact:
Now the legend of Perken was roaming the ship, passing from deckchair to deckchair like the anguish or expectation of arrival, like the malevolent boredom of a long sea passage. It was still an undefined legend, full of mindless mystery rather than hard fact. There were plenty of people eager to confide, knowingly, behind cupped hands, ‘An amazing fellow, you know, amazing,’ but few who knew what they were talking about. He had lived among natives, in territory where many of his predecessors had been killed, and had held sway over them, probably using methods that had not been very legal to begin with.
Perken, in fact, wanted the funds to arm the tribes in the areas he controls, both to ward off other tribes and the colonial masters who are threatening to build a railway through the territory where he has influence. A partnership with Claude has appeal to him because it will raise those funds; for Claude, the partnership will bring access to local knowledge that he simply does not possess. There is another element to the proposed partnership, however — Perken is also in search of another European similar to himself, one Grabut, who has apparently “gone native” in a Perken-like role with one of the tribes in an area neighboring his.
Claude and Perken do strike a deal, establishing the narrative framework that will carry the book. And while that framework is developed, it is not really what The Way of the Kings (the title comes from the traditional path they will follow into the interior) is about. As the novel unfolds, Malraux concentrates more and more on less concrete themes: an exploration of male friendship and dependency, ruminations on sexuality and power and, increasingly, the preoccupation of individuals (especially adventurers) with their own mortality.
That summary invites comparisons with the work of Josef Conrad, both his novels set in the area and, of course, The Heart of Darkness, the search for the brutal African ivory trader, Kurtz. Alas, Malraux is not well-served in the comparison — his youth shows (he was only 32 when he wrote this novel) and Conrad’s exploration of imperial evil in an individual is far more developed. As this novel becomes more and more introspective, the intermingling of complicated plot and internal thoughts becomes increasingly muddled and this reader often wondered just where the author was trying to go.
Despite that, I am glad I took the detour. The progression from Conrad, through Malraux, to Greene and even Echlin (she doesn’t rate with the other three, but still adds detail to the picture) offers a useful, fictional picture of the involvement of Westerners with this very Eastern part of the world — all told from the Western perspective. At a time when global economic power is inexorably moving towards this area, that background is more than appreciated. And it offers some chilling warnings about the after-effects that imperial history and abuse will leave as we move into the future.
His resume shows that Malraux understood both individual and political power and how both thoses kinds of power can be abused. While this short novel (it is only 170 pages) is not an easy read and was written relatively early in his accomplished life, it brings its own set of rewards with it — even if it is better regarded as a “background” read, rather than a primary source.