André Malraux on India and Bangladesh

This is a translation of two web pages about the French writer André Malraux, and his views on India and Bangladesh, published by the “Association pour la Diffusion de la Pensée Française” (Association for the Spread of French Thought), Ministère des Affairs Etrangères (Ministry of Foreign Affairs).

I am grateful to the ADPF for permission to translate these web pages.

A short introduction to Andre Malraux: His life and Works

(This introduction to Malraux’s life and works is based entirely on the three Author Resource Pages (Literature Resource Center) which can be found on the website http://galenet.galegroup.com and are named in the footnotes.)

André Malraux (1901-1976) was one of the great literary figures of the twentieth century. Though his fame rests mainly on six novels, published over two decades, he has also made a lasting contribution in many other genres of writing.
Because his novels examine his philosophical viewpoints as well as his belief in the “death of God,” Malraux is often seen as the forerunner to existentialist writers Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus. Like these thinkers, Malraux sees humankind as existing in a state of alienation caused by a loss of faith – which he terms “la condition humaine” – and the awareness of the absurdity of a human existence lacking order and meaning.1

Malraux’s first job after school was as a book dealer’s chineur – a kind of agent who scoured second-hand book stores in search of rare and valuable books. For most of his life, Malraux was involved in writing or publishing, and he never worked at “regular” jobs, only as an author or editor.

In 1923, and again in 1924, Malraux visited Indo-China. In Saigon he wrote for the newspaper L’Indochine; his views were anti-colonial, and supportive of the nationalist “Jeune-Annam” movement. In 1925 Malraux reported news about protests by a group of Chinese students in Shanghai against the colonial authorities. (A few years later he wrote a novel, Les conquérants, based on these events.)

He returned to France in 1927. In 1928 he became art editor at the publishing house Gallimard. This was during a remarkably creative period for Malraux. La tentation de l’Occident (The Temptation of the West) which is in the form of a fictional correspondence between a young Chinese traveling in the West and a European in Asia, had already appeared in 1926. Not long afterwards came Les conquérants (The Conquerors) in 1928, La voie royale (The Royal Way) in 1930 and La condition humaine (Man’s Fate) in 1933.

    Les conquérants caught the eye of Leon Trotsky, who was in exile on an island near Turkey. He wrote an article “La révolution étranglée” (The Strangled Revolution) which appeared in the Nouvelle revue française, April 1931, arguing that the characters of Malraux’s novel are not models of Communist behavior. In his reply, Malraux defended his characters saying that the novel was not only about collective action, but also about individuals, their actions and their predicaments. The book was banned in the Soviet Union.

La condition humaine (Man’s Fate) 1933, is set in Shanghai in 1927, when a protracted and bloody civil war broke out after General Chiang Kai-Shek made a definitive break with the Communist revolutionaries he had been allied with. The novel won Malraux the prestigious Goncourt Prize. (He would use some of the money he earned in flying over South Arabia in search of the lost capital of the Queen of Sheba).

In spite of the Trotskyist sympathies of Man’s Fate, Malraux was invited to speak at the Writers’ Congress in 1934.  It is suspected that in an era of rising fascism and Nazism, the Soviets needed sympathetic allies, even if they happened to be bourgeois dilettantes. Malraux also went to Berlin accompanied by André Gide, to intercede on behalf of communists who had been accused of setting fire to the Reichstag. His efforts did not bear fruit, except in the form of inspiration for his next novel, Le temps du mépris (Days of Wrath) (1935), which had an anti-fascist message, as did his subsequent work, L’Espoir (Man’s Hope) (1937). Man’s Hope deals with the first nine months of the Spanish Civil War. Malraux contributed to the anti-fascist movement not only with the force of his pen. In July 1936, Malraux visited Spain in order to write a report on the political situation, in his capacity as co-president of the Comité Mondial des Intellectuels contre la Guerre et le Fascisme (World Committee of Intellectuals Against War and Fascism). He sized up the state of affairs, and realized that the Republican government of Spain needed help against the Fascists. While working as a high-level intermediary between the governments of France and Spain, he also assumed leadership of an international air squadron of volunteers and mercenaries. The short-lived squadron was disbanded and absorbed into the Spanish armed forces, but not before it had played an important role in evacuating civilians fleeing the town of Málaga when it fell to the fascists in February 1937. The Spanish Government thought Malraux would be more suitable as an international spokesman, and sent him on a mission to the US and Canada. Malraux’s fame as a Goncourt prize-winner caused him to be given much attention in leftist publications. However, America’s policy of neutrality in European internal affairs ensured that his efforts were unrewarded except for some publicity.

When World War II broke out, Malraux served as a tank soldier for a short time, before being wounded and taken prisoner. He escaped to the free zone (southern and central France which was presided over by Marshal Pétain). For over three years, Malraux enjoyed a period of respite, during which he worked on his last novel, Les noyers de l’Altenburg (The Walnut Trees of Altenburg) (first published in Switzerland in 1943). Unlike his other works of fiction, this one was not based on current events. After this novel, Malraux wrote no more fiction, but worked on his autobiographical work,
Antimémoires (Anti-Memoirs) which appeared in 1967.

In March 1944, Malraux joined the French Resistance Movement, and after some adventures, including capture and imprisonment, he assumed leadership of the Brigade Alsace-Lorraine under the name “Colonel Berger”. The brigade participated in the defense of Strasbourg. Though Malraux achieved much distinction in this phase of his life, his personal life was beset by tragedy. His two half-brothers, Claude and Roland, died in the war, and his companion Josette Clotis, mother of his two sons, Gautier and Vincent, died in a train accident. Malraux, who was famed for the striking imagery and realism with which he described events he had observed — or even events he had never witnessed –could never bring himself to write a fictionalized account of his glorious but tragic days.

    Those who regarded Malraux as a leftist were surprised when he became Minister of Information under de Gaulle’s coalition government. De Gaulle’s government lasted less than two years (1945-46), and Malraux went back to private life, appearing again to public view when de Gaulle returned to power in 1958.  Malraux served as Minister of Culture from 1958 to 1969. During this period, Malraux met many important international figures such as Mao-Tse Tung, Jawaharlal Nehru and Senghor. Many of Malraux’s reminiscences from these days are to be found in Anti-Memoirs.

Malraux’s political vagaries are most easily explained in negative terms. He sympathized with the Kuomintang because he disliked European colonialism, with Leon Trotsky (in Man’s Fate) because he disliked the rigidity of Stalinism, with the Spanish Republic because he disliked fascism, with de Gaulle because he feared the monolithic structure that Russian and Chinese communism threatened to become. (His anticommunism relaxed when it became clear that this structure was less monolithic than at first appeared.)2

Malraux has been a much-misunderstood literary personage, especially in the English-speaking world, for a number of reasons, such as the myths surrounding his personal and political life, and the difficulty of translating his very poetic prose into English. But, most importantly, his political opinions changed with time, and people have judged Malraux through the prism of their own cherished political views:

…Malraux’s political evolution and his often contradictory allegiances – he has been described as anarchist, anticolonialist, Marxist, ant-fascist, liberal, Communist (first a Trotskyist, then a Stalinist), Fascist, nationalist, Gaullist, reactionary, conservative – have generated much confusion and spawned many ephemeral but damaging pamphlets that have detracted from his stature as a writer of international repute. Though the man who defended Communist leaders imprisoned by Hitler may seem to have little in common with the minister who denounced communism just a decade later, the two positions are not necessarily incompatible.3
 
With this introduction, I invite you to discover Malraux through his works, just as I have recently begun to do.

André Malraux/ Asia
Last Modified: 15 May 2002
Downloaded on: 17 April 2005
http://adpf.deleg.oxymium.net/adpf-publi/folio/malraux/10.html

    Asia played an important role in Malraux’s life.

“The passion that Asia has evoked in me some time ago — the vanished civilizations, the ethnography – had to do with a basic surprise at the forms that man can take.”

After Indochina, Malraux discovered India and then Japan, two countries that never ceased to fascinate him.

India

Discovered in 1929 or 1931, India would be to Malraux “the other pole of our lives”. However what India was in his eyes could be gauged only in 1967 with the appearance of his Antimémoires. The intense poetry  of the pages dedicated to Benares, to the Madura temple, to the caves of Ellora and Elephanta communicates to us Malraux’s fascination, or perhaps we should say enchantment, which Malraux would later give evidence of:

“There is something in the thought of India that is fascinating and fascinated, which partakes of the feeling which it inspires in us of climbing a sacred mountain whose peak recedes forever; of moving through darkness to the light of the torch that it carries.”

Land of sacred caves, India was also for Malraux the land of Gandhi, whom he had never met but who was always present in his thought, and of Nehru , whom he met a number of times, and who became almost a friend and about whom he reminiscences long in his Antimémoires. After his trips of 1958 – when he was General de Gaulle’s representative, and of 1965, Malraux revisited India in 1973 and 1974. In 1974, before going to Bangladesh, he once again saw the Taj Mahal, the Ganga at Benares, the temples of Khajuraho, and went up as far as Kathmandu, Nepal. The following year, he received, from Indira Gandhi’s hands, the Nehru Peace Prize. That was to be his last voyage to India.
  

Though his meeting with this country was one of the decisive meetings of his life, Malraux was certainly not the first French writer to have written on India, far from it. In A barbarian in Asia, Henri Michaux had dedicated several pages exclusively to this country. But for the author of Antimémoires, India was not only a land of wondrous or irritating scenery, it was above all a mysterious civilization, and its art, one of the greatest in the world.

It was he, who in 1960 organized in the Little Palace the exposition Trésors d’art de l’Inde (Treasures of Indian Art). In the preface to its catalog, he wrote:

“It is at Ellora, at Elephanta, in so many sacred caves, that we find the great assembly of Mothers, the highest spiritual images of Asia, springing up from the depths of eternity…”

Through this exhibition, by the numerous works from India reproduced in Le Musée Imaginaire de la sculpture mondiale [Imaginary Museum of World Sculpture], and finally by means of the pages of the Antimémoires we have already spoken about, Malraux greatly helped to give his readers a fine idea of this frequently misunderstood land. That is surely the reason why the Indianist Guy Deleury wrote at the head of his Modèle indou [Indian Model] the following dedication: “To the memory of André Malraux who apprised us of India’s existence”.

1. Antimémoires, « Folio », p. 235.
2. Ibid., p. 236.
3. Gallimard, 1933.
4. Le Modèle indou, Hachette, 1978.

Note: The original French web-page is now accessible at:
http://www.culturesfrance.com/adpf-publi/folio/malraux/10.html )

André Malraux/ Bangladesh
http://adpf.deleg.oxymium.net/adpf-publi/folio/malraux/17.html
Last Modified: 15 May 2002
Downloaded on: 17 April 2005

It was the last battle of the writer of L’Espoir [Hope].

In 1971, he alerted public opinion about the extent of the massacres of which the Bengalis were victims – three million deaths by the end of the war – he declared that he was ready to go to fight on their side, but his plans did not come to fruition.

Nevertheless, two years later, Mujibur Rehman, Prime Minister of Bangladesh, invited Malraux to his country, to thank him for his gesture. At his arrival in Dhaka on 21 April 1973, Malraux said:

“I kiss poverty on a single face. Since I cannot kiss everybody, I kiss Bangladesh on a single face.” (These were the words he often quoted, the words of Saint Francis to the beggar-woman of Assisi.)

During his brief visit, Malraux paid a visit to the wounded fighters of the Resistance, at the Suhrawardy Hospital in Dacca. He met the highest authorities of the country, and made several speeches. In Dacca, in front of the column dedicated to the memory of the unnamed dead, Malraux said:

“Students of Dacca, I am speaking today, for the first time, in the only university in the world, which has more dead than living students […] All your dead ones had a rendez-vous with destiny, but now, it is for you to build the nation.”

Later, at the University of Rajshahi where the President of the Republic conferred upon him the title of doctor honoris causa, Malraux, dressed in a red cloak, spoke the following words: “On all your graves, on the pits filled with the corpses of your intellectuals, write in huge letters:

“You who pass by this stone later, go tell our people that those who have fallen here have died because, during the nine month-long age of suffering, they chose fight with their bare hands!”

Salutations to you, O dead ones of the forests that surround us!
You have shown the world that an enemy can never assassinate enough to kill the soul of a people which does not surrender!

Malraux had wished to fight on behalf of Bangladesh not only because this country had been “the most cruelly, decimated, the most threatened”, but also, as he said to the Bengalis, “because you belong to the Indian civilization, which, for three thousand years, has been a civilization of the spirit.” André Malraux’s fight for Bangladesh was an example and symbol, a symbol of his compassion (as seen from his distressed face at the hospital at Dacca), his love of India, his concern for the human soul.

(The original French web-page is now accessible at:
http://www.culturesfrance.com/adpf-publi/folio/malraux/17.html )

 

References

1. Contemporary Authors Online, Gale, 2003.

2. André Malraux, by W.M. Frohock, in European Writers, Vol. 12, pp. 2413, 2432, Charles Scribner’s Sons

3. Robert S. Thornberry, Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 72: French Novelists, 1930-1960. A Bruccoli Clark Layman Book. Edited by Catharine Savage Brosman, Tulane University. The Gale Group, 1988, pp. 237-272.

 

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