Analysis of André Malraux’s Man’s Fate

Winner of the Goncourt prize in 1933, the most prestigious French literary award, Man’s Fate by André Malraux (1901–76) is part of an intriguing trilogy, including The Conquerors (1928) and The Royal Way (1930). Similar to these two earlier works, Man’s Fate was inspired by the author’s travels to Indochina in the 1920s.

The novel is set in Shangai in 1927 and relates events of the Chinese revolution. The Sino-Japanese Kyo and other members of the Communist Party fi ght along with the Nationalist Kuomintang to overthrow European capitalist domination. But when the armed revolution is over, the Communists are asked to surrender to the Kuomintang. Kyo and his friends are arrested; the former commits suicide and the latter are executed by their former allies, the Nationalist revolutionaries.

The characters’ tragic end is reinforced by a condensed narrative time sequence (the story spans only a few days) and cinematographic style that adds gravity and intensity to the dramatic episode. Although the barbaric execution of Kyo’s companions may herald bleak times for the Chinese, Malraux does not deem the situation utterly desperate. Through Kyo’s wife, May, who continues her fi ght against the Nationalists, the author suggests that there is still hope to outwit the usurpers of the revolution and reconnect with its ideals.

The novel’s detailed, more or less real historic accounts beguiled many readers into believing that the tale was reality and not fi ction. The way Malraux relates the Chinese revolution led many readers, upon publication, to think that the novel was a truly historical account based on lived experience. Of course, this is sheer fantasy, for Malraux never took part in the revolution. More still, in 1933 he had not yet visited China, and a close inspection of the work’s details shows how highly exotic Malraux’s China is.

The novel offers readers a conventional imaginary urban China built upon European stereotypes widely in circulation during the 1930s. Opium smokers, bamboo shoots, and traditionally dressed characters pervade the narrative. This urban setting is especially a composite, murky locale peopled by characters (at least the key ones) who are mostly hybrid or foreign. May is half-German, married to the Sino-Japanese Kyo; Katow is Russian. Besides, all these characters are well educated, giving the revolution a clearly intellectual cast. This elitist depiction undermines the proletariat’s contribution to the revolution. It relegates them to the background where they become a mere backdrop to the character Ferral’s capitalist world.

If the historical and ideological context of Man’s Fate is a central component of the narrative, it above all serves as fodder for the author’s metaphysical philosophy. In short, Malraux in this novel uses history and politics mostly to address humanist issues, urging readers to meditate on humankind’s tragic fate. Each of his characters offers an insight into our complex human condition. Kyo, a young idealist Communist, acts in order to give meaning to his life and death: He takes his life to reunite in the world of the dead with ideal people whom he would have liked to have lived with. Unlike him, Tchen becomes a terrorist not out of idealism, but merely to fi ll his life’s emptiness. Gisors, Kyo’s father, is the revolutionary intellectual par excellence. He gives himself over to opium addiction to make up for his inability to join word to action. Ferral, the greedy French capitalist, supports Chiang Kai-shek (Jiang Jieshi) not out of espousal of the latter’s ideals, but for sheer love of power; his ultimate ambition is to secure a high offi cial position in Paris. Finally, Katow crystallizes brotherhood by giving two of his companions his cyanide to spare them a brutal, horrendous death.

Basically, Malraux in Man’s Fate describes the solitary, precarious character of the human condition and points out the illusory nature of unions, political or otherwise. For instance, though Kyo and Katow try, each in his own way, to achieve fraternity through death, both are left fi nally to face fate alone. Worse, most of the novel’s characters not only feel lonely in the face of death, but they are also gripped by solitude when they are with the living. This sense of life’s precariousness and utter solitude pervades the political sphere. The different members of the Communist group, for example, all nurture secret, personal motives, and each has his own reasons to fi ght for common ideals. Solitude also mines the domestic sphere. Kyo and his father do not seem to have much to say to each other. Similarly, when May tells Kyo about her infi delity, silence and distance set in, isolating them from each other and breaking down all communication.

Harris, Geoffrey T. André Malraux: Across Boundaries. Amsterdam and Atlanta: Rodopi, 2000.
Malraux, André. Anti-Memoirs. Translated by Terence Kilmartin. New York: Holt Reinhart, 1968.
———. Felled Oaks: Conversations with de Gaulle. Translated by Irene Clephane. New York: Holt, Reinhart, 1971.
Tame, Peter D. The Ideological Hero in the Novels of Robert Brasillach, Roger Vailland & André Malraux. New York: Peter Lang, 1998.

Categories: French Literature, Literature, Novel Analysis

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