André Malraux’s novels immediately come alive by means of their style. The literary text gives one the impression of capturing a series of fleeting moments as a recent newspaper headline, a dispatch, a radio transmission, or a telephone call is urgently related. Passing time is often officially noted by date and time. Scenes are cinematically condensed. Malraux’s heroes are already enmeshed in a struggle in which they have chosen to fight. Even the most insignificant gestures and movements are now powerful and carry with them the urgency of a crisis. When events occur or communiqués are released, Malraux’s characters grope to understand what is really happening in the conflict surrounding them—what is false and what is true. With Malraux’s heroes, the reader plunges into a void of uncertainty that encompasses not only the happenings related in the novel but also the inner turmoil of the heroes themselves.
In this crucial situation, Malraux’sprotagonists experience a loss of equilibrium and ask themselves questions that, under normal circumstances, they would not ask. Why are they fighting, who is the enemy, and who are they? Regarded by many critics as a precursor of the existentialists, Malraux often causes his heroes to confront death—an important theme in his fiction, because the novelist can thereby question the very essence of humanity.
According to Malraux, the greatest tragedy of human destiny in the contemporary world is not the meaninglessness of human existence, with all doomed to be defeated by death. Rather, Malraux believes that humanity’s real tragedy lies within people themselves and, more specifically, in modern notions of individualism. The novelist’s brief encounter with the Surrealist movement proved to him that individuals do not know themselves. Contrary to Surrealist thought, however, Malraux believed that one’s inner being could never be understood. Thus, the ego of Malraux’s characters is portrayed as an incongruous monster. Moreover, his protagonists’ preoccupation with themselves as individuals only leads them to draw closer to madness and increasingly to isolate themselves from others. Individualism, then, is at the heart of the most significant theme of Malraux’s fiction: solitude. Absolute solitude, in which one becomes alienated from others as well as from oneself, represents, for Malraux, the most tormenting of human conditions.
To counteract human solitude and give meaning to human existence, faced by the inevitability of death, another theme appears in Malraux’s fiction: fraternité virile, or virile fraternity, a term that denotes a special bond between men, a solidarity of such strength that individual solitude and metaphysical anguish are overcome. Malraux’s service during World War II and in an air squadron in the Spanish Civil War confirmed his conviction that the comradeship between soldiers can sometimes approximate this ideal of fraternal love.
Himself an avowed agnostic, Malraux painted in his fiction the tragic picture not of humanity’s loss of God, but rather of the loss of humankind’s belief in humanity. Particularly in Man’s Fate and Man’s Hope, Malraux proposed that humans can recapture the latter conviction through what may be termed a personal revolution. When some of Malraux’s heroes revolt against the dominance of the ego and succeed in defeating its power over them, their unity with others shows that mutual love between human beings is possible.
Published in 1928, The Conquerors introduced the journalistic style that became characteristic of Malraux’s fiction. The novel begins with a radioed news flash, “A general strike is decreed in Canton,” and updates about political upheaval in Canton and Hong Kong punctuate the entire book. From the beginning, the narrator—who remains nameless—writes down dates, places, and whatever factual impressions he can record. In the first part of the novel, his boat draws near Canton, where he intends to meet and work with an old friend, Pierre Garin, now called Garine. The narrator has not seen Pierre for five years; when he comes across verbal and written reports about him, he strives to find once again the man he used to know so well. Garine, however, has become so different that he might as well be a stranger. Garine had always been a gambler and an adventurer; now, in charge of the propaganda bureau in Canton, he is obsessed by a power struggle over the expulsion of the British from Hong Kong.
When the narrator finally sees Garine face-to-face, it is obvious that the latter can think of nothing but his struggle for power and his enigmatic adversary, Tcheng-Daï. The latter is an old Chinese leader whose conservative, altruistic philosophy opposes the liberal individualism of Garine. In a way, Malraux continues in The Conquerors a debate that was at the heart of his philosophical tale La Tentation de l’Occident (1926; The Temptation of the West, 1961), in which the letters exchanged between a European in China and a Chinese traveler in France contrast Western and Eastern philosophical beliefs. More important in The Conquerors than the revealing questions to which such a contrast leads, however, is the notion of solitude, which Malraux presents primarily through his hero, Garine.
Solitude, probably the most compelling theme in Malraux’s fiction, is often portrayed, as Malraux depicts it in The Conquerors, as the result of a break of ties to another—a break caused by an individual’s personal ambition and by the egocentric image he has of himself. It is significant that, before going to China, Garine had already totally rebelled against society as a result of a brush with the law. The brief account of the trial in which Garine was found guilty of financing illegal abortions, although undoubtedly based on Malraux’s own trial for having attempted to take several bas-reliefs of an Indochinese temple out of the country, also prefigures in many ways Albert Camus’s well-known novel The Stranger (1942). Like the trial of Camus’s hero, Meursault, Garine’s court judgment is shown to be an absurd ritual. In Garine’s eyes, his trial was a ludicrous comedy, since the process of “judging” him only proved the refusal of the jurors to understand what he had done. Although Garine knew that what he had done was not legal, he had spent his own money to help destitute women pay for their abortions.
Since the trial, Garine’s hatred for society has led him to think only of himself. With pride, he declares to the narrator at one point that he is completely asocial and hates all humanity, including himself. What his ego demands is power. Even the political struggle in which Garine is now engaged, where it is a question of the expulsion of the British from Hong Kong, is a highly personal fight in which he sees himself as having to emerge as conqueror. This image of himself has isolated him from not only the social establishment but also himself. Dominated by his quest for power, Garine willfully ignores the signs of tropical disease that he knows is slowly eroding his vitality and about which his doctor has alerted him in vain. Garine will get necessary medical help later.
Finally, the friendship between Garine and the narrator has likewise broken down because of Garine’s obsession. Malraux shows by his narrator’s continual physical presence during nearly every minute of Garine’s day—logically explained by the fact that he is Garine’s secretary and Chinese interpreter—that the bond of friendship that united them in the past has been destroyed. The narrator’s cautious attempts to reach Pierre Garin are only rebuffed.
It is somewhat ironic that a secondary character in the novel, Hong, who is as obsessed with terrorism as Garine is by political power, should, in one scene, explain to a group of shocked observers—which includes Garine and the narrator—that he kills, not for politics or to change the social order, but rather to prove something to himself....
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