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During his richly eventful lifetime, André Malraux achieved recognition as an important and controversial novelist, man of action, art historian, and politician. As an author, Malraux is best known for his novel set in the Chinese Revolution, La Condition humaine (1933; Man’s Fate, 1934), which won the Prix Goncourt. As a man of action, Malraux began by espousing leftist (or anti-Fascist) causes: organizing the anticolonialist Jeune Annam movement in French Indochina, rousing a group of European intellectuals to protest Adolf Hitler’s methods, and forming a bomber squadron of international volunteers to support the Republicans during the Spanish Civil War. During World War II, Malraux became active among the Maquis and rose to the colonelship of the Alsace-Lorraine Brigade. After the war, Malraux established his reputation as an art historian with his Les Voix du silence (1951; The Voices of Silence, 1953). He also engaged in increasingly anti-Communist and right-wing politics as a supporter of General Charles de Gaulle, who, upon becoming the French head of state, appointed Malraux minister of information (1946), then minister of culture (1959-1969).

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The notion of writing Anti-Memoirs came to Malraux in 1965, when de Gaulle sent him as his personal envoy to the leaders of India and the People’s Republic of China, Jawaharlal Nehru and Mao Tse-tung. Because Malraux was recuperating from an illness, he made the voyage by sea rather than by air. This journey, whose ports of call he had first visited some forty years before, became a voyage not only through space but also through time, memory, and dream, and the age-old pattern of a voyage (for example, Odysseus’ journey, or the quest for the Holy Grail) supplied the form of the present book. Also at work in the book’s structure is a principle of association whereby comparable or contrasting memories are analogically or dialogically juxtaposed. As if to emphasize this pattern, four of the book’s five major parts bear the same titles as four of Malraux’s previous novels: Les Noyers de l’Altenburg (1943; The Walnut Trees of Altenburg, 1952), La Tentation de l’Occident (1926; The Temptation of the West, 1961), La Voie royale (1930; The Royal Way, 1935), and La Condition humaine. The memories evoked, however, are not intended primarily to elucidate the writings, the political actions, or the private life of the author. Rather, in an unconventional disclaimer, Malraux avers, “I do not find myself very interesting.” On the contrary, he says, “What interests me in any man is the human condition . . . , certain characteristics which express not so much an individual personality as a particular relationship with the world.” Hence his book’s title. Neither gossipy revelations nor scandalous confessions will be found here. The events that interest Malraux are those existentially privileged moments of fundamental human experience when, in the face of death, meaninglessness, and absurdity, the “mystery of life appears” to affirm the validity of human existence.

After these preliminaries, the first major part of the book begins, unconventionally for a memoir, with a distilled excerpt from Malraux’s novel The Walnut Trees of Altenburg. This episode deals pessimistically with suicide, madness, and the probable meaninglessness of human existence, but it ends with an epiphany of life’s continuity conveyed in the image of Altenburg’s walnut trees. These varieties of oblivion then call up for Malraux a chain of associations about death evoked by Egyptian pyramids (Cairo being one of his ports of call), which in turn revive memories of Hitler’s Nuremberg Stadium and Mexico’s pyramids. The chain ends, however, with a similarly affirmative image of the magic tree of Queen Sebeth in Senegal. To conclude this part of the book, which is a thematic confrontation of life (meaningfulness) and death (the absurd), Malraux relates his first experience of a return to life from a point of near death, an experience he calls “coming back to earth.” This one had occurred after his 1934 air search for the lost city of Sheba (which he claims to have located in Yemen); on his return flight to France, his airplane became caught in a seemingly fatal storm yet miraculously survived.

The second part of the book, “Anti-Memoirs,” finds Malraux meditating upon his encounters with two prominent statesmen, de Gaulle and Nehru. Each of these leaders played a primary role in saving the identity of his nation from meaninglessness and oblivion—in de Gaulle’s case from the Nazi occupation and the Algerian upheaval, in Nehru’s case from British imperialism. Malraux describes his own fears that after World War II the growth of Stalinist Communism would destroy the national identity of France, and he reveals how an unknown friend hoodwinked him and de Gaulle into meeting each other, an encounter that eventually led to Malraux’s appointment on de Gaulle’s staff. Faced by anti-imperialist upheavals in its colonies, France could protect its identity only by divesting itself of an anachronistic empire and forming a French community. De Gaulle sent Malraux as his emissary to various French colonies to explain this position, and Malraux recounts several stirring moments experienced in the Lesser Antilles.

A mental association between the dismantlings of the French and the British empires is natural, and Malraux proceeds to recount his visits with Nehru, who played a leading role in freeing India from British rule. As Malraux and Nehru discuss the problems of superpower hegemony, caste, and social justice versus nationalism, they recollect that imprisonment was an important common experience for them. Malraux then recounts his capture by and eventual escape from the Gestapo during World War II.

The next part, “The Temptation of the West,” like Malraux’s novel of the same title, is an East-West dialogue that deepens into considerations of philosophies and whole cultures as Malraux travels through India and Sri Lanka (Ceylon). Malraux meditates on the Hindu fatalism of Karma, its dualism in Shiva (god of destruction and creation), and its death-eluding supreme maya, which he associates with the symbolic Altenburg walnut trees. Half humourously, he tells how he, his nation’s minister of culture, was naively mistaken for an avatar of Vishnu, the preserver deity. Here also he includes another episode from his novel The Walnut Trees of Altenburg, in which the protagonist and his tank crew are caught in a German tank trap during World War II, give themselves up for dead, and then feel that sense of “return to the earth” and an affirmation of fundamental life when they manage to escape. This tale of near death and return to life leads into the account of a philosophical discussion between Malraux and Nehru, which concludes that the profoundest difference between European and Asian culture is, on the one hand, Europe’s view of death as real (stemming from its belief in the value of the individual life) and, on the other hand, the Hindu-Buddhist sense of the endlessness of life (in reincarnation and in interconnectedness). Characteristically, however, Malraux finds a commonality between Asia and Europe in their artworks (different though they are), for a work of art transcends its culture just as it survives the death of its culture and the aesthetics that produced it; it undergoes metamorphoses of appreciation rather than passing into incomprehension or oblivion.

The next part is titled “The Royal Way,” for Malraux’s novel about Indochina. This section explores the realm of romantic adventure and fantasizing—what Malraux calls the farfelu. Thus, when his ship undergoes repairs in Singapore, Malraux meets the mythomaniac Baron Clappique, a character from his novel Man’s Fate. Clappique reads him a film scenario about the legendary nineteenth century Frenchman David de Mayrena, a mythomaniac adventurer whose imperialist exploits in subduing the Moi tribes of Indochina were reflected in Malraux’s The Royal Way. The scenario is incorporated at length into Malraux’s text.

The final and climactic part of Anti-Memoirs is titled “La Condition humaine,” for Malraux’s most famous novel (known in America as Man’s Fate and in Great Britain as Man’s Estate). In this part, he describes his visit to China during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution and his meetings with the leaders of the most populous nation on earth, first with Foreign Affairs Minister Marshal Chen-yi, then with Premier Chou En-lai (on whose character the protagonist of Man’s Fate is supposedly based), and, finally, with Chairman Mao Tse-tung. All three men played heroic roles in the epic Long March, when the Nationalist Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek unleashed his “extermination campaigns” against Mao’s Communists, campaigns that eventuated, ironically, in the victory of the Communists in 1949. Although the Communists suffered enormous losses and privations, they conferred dignity and humanity upon the Chinese underclass (the poor, the peasantry, and the women), while creating a new identity for themselves and their country. Analogies between the struggle of the Chinese Communists during the 1930’s and 1940’s and that of the Vietnamese Communists during the 1950’s and 1960’s are much in the minds of Malraux and his interlocutors. These thoughts about Asian guerrilla fighters give rise in Malraux to memories of his eulogy for Jean Moulin, the French underground leader during World War II who had fought to retain the identity of his nation and who had affirmed the dignity of the human spirit by refusing to talk during his fatal torture by the Nazis. These thoughts, in turn, lead Malraux to observations about a contemporary turn in the use of torture (for example, the Nazi concentration camps), whose purpose is no longer to extract secrets but to degrade the dignity and destroy the humanity of the victim.

Malraux ends his book, however, on an image of hope. He tells of his ministerial inspection tour of the caves of Lascaux, the site of rock paintings made by prehistoric Europeans. During World War II, Malraux had used the caves as a secret ammunition base (imagistically similar to Mao’s use of the Yen-an caves as his headquarters). In the 1960’s, these caves are within the purview of his ministry of culture. Significantly for Malraux, the preservation of these ancient artistic monuments of man’s humanity was assigned to French conscientious objectors as their alternative to military service.

So concludes Anti-Memoirs, which, in the English translation by Terrence Kilmartin, comes to 420 pages, including a dedication to Mrs. John Fitzgerald Kennedy and a useful index, neither of which is in the French original. Actually, Anti-Memoirs is but the first volume of Malraux’s long autobiographical work Le Miroir des limbes (1967-1976; the mirror of limbo). Fascicles of this larger work were published as separate volumes between 1968 and 1976, and some have been translated into English: Les Chenes qu’on abat (1971; Felled Oaks: Conversation with de Gaulle, 1972), La Tete d’obsidienne (1974; Picasso’s Mask, 1976), and Lazare (1974; Lazarus, 1977).

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 166

Bevan, David. “On Le Miroir des limbes,” in André Malraux: Towards the Expression of Transcendence, 1986.

Bree, Germaine. “The Anti-Memoirs of André Malraux,” in Contemporary Literature. XI (Spring, 1970), pp. 269-273.

Chua, C. L. “André Malraux’s Anti-Memoirs,” in Michigan Quarterly Review. VIII (Summer, 1969), pp. 213-214.

Frohock, Wilbur M. “Last Will and Testament: Malraux’s Anti-Memoirs,” in The Yale Review. LVIII (October, 1968), pp. 126-137.

Gauthier, Joseph D. “The Religious Dimension in the Antimemoires,” in Kentucky Romance Quarterly. XVI (1969), pp. 221-230.

Langlois, Walter. “The Antimemoirs, Saba, and the Immortality of Man,” in The Southern Review. V (1969), pp. 1019-1029.

Riffaterre, Michael. “Malraux’s Antimemoirs,” in Columbia University Forum. XI (Winter, 1968), pp. 31-35.

Shattuck, Roger. “The Conqueror: Antimemoirs,” in The New York Review of Books. XI (October 24, 1968), pp. 5-13.

Stephane, Roger. “André Malraux Talks to Roger Stephane,” in Listener. LXXX (October 31, 1968), pp. 571-573.

Tarica, Ralph. “On Dreams and the Human Mystery in Malraux’s Miroir des limbes,” in Witnessing André Malraux: Visions and Revisions, 1984. Edited by Brian Thompson and Carl Viggiani.

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