Lazarus is part of the second volume of The Mirror of Limbo, of which the first volume was Anti-Mémoirs. Jean Lacouture, Malraux’s biographer, says that Malraux was writing Lazarus at the end of January, 1973, following a brush with death in the final months of 1972.
Framed by his illness, Malraux divides his book into three parts. He introduces each part with comments on his physical condition which he follows with a meditation on man’s fate and the subject of brotherhood. In Part I, he is suffering with a so-far unknown illness of which the symptoms are weakness, dizziness, and the threat of paralysis. Concerned that this may be his last book, he returns to an event which he had described in The Walnut Trees of Altenburg (1948), the gas attack by the Germans on the Russians at Bolgako on the Vistula in 1916. In this event, Malraux sees “a confrontation between fraternity and death and that element in man which today is fumbling for an identity, and is certainly not the individual.”
The material on which his account is based comes from notebooks belonging to his father, Major Berger, who was a witness to the attack in Malraux’s novel, The Walnut Trees of Altenburg. Robert Payne, in A Portrait of André Malraux, published in 1970, says that “this story is a myth; nothing remotely resembling it ever happened.” Nevertheless, according to Malraux’s account, Major Berger was at the Russian front to observe the first German gas attack. Also present was the inventor of this weapon, a German professor who was one of the small number of experts in this field. The professor was elated with his invention which he saw as completely effective and of great value to the German cause.
After a night passed in waiting, the attack was launched. The gas rose like a wall and grew as it advanced to the Russian trenches. Silence and stillness marked its approach, broken only by a horse on the Russian side which dashed madly into the gaseous mist, veered, whinnied, and was silent. After a sudden firing of the Russian guns, silence returned. The German infantry set out toward the Russians. Through binoculars the observers followed the attack. They were soon surprised to see the Germans returning, each carrying a gassed but living Russian on their shoulders. Berger and the professor left the observation post to go to meet these soldiers. In the zone affected by the gas, the vegetation was reduced to slime and blackness. A German soldier, straining under the load of his Russian, told the Major: “It’s not right; man wasn’t meant to be putrefied!” Berger threw himself into the evacuation, seeking desperately a live Russian to rescue, but those that he encountered were dead or nearly so. The Germans and Berger realized that they, too, were victims of the gas. As they reached the field hospital and the ambulances, Berger asked himself: “What the hell is man doing on this earth!”
Part II of Lazarus opens with another attack, this one characterized by a raging tension, collapse, convulsions, but no pain. The doctors decide on hospitalization at the...
(The entire section is 1296 words.)