Notable for its vivid characters as well as for its action scenes, the novel focuses upon the dedication of a handful of Communist revolutionaries with little in common besides their cause. Kyo Gisors, the novel’s central character, is a Eurasian married to a German-born physician; his French father, revered by Kyo’s fellow revolutionaries as an adviser and ideologue, increasingly seeks refuge in opium from the pressures of a political situation that he can no longer understand or explain. Katov, a Russian veteran of the Bolshevik revolution, is perhaps Kyo’s closest friend and ally. Ch’en Ta Erh, a former student of the elder Gisors, is one of the first true terrorists to be convincingly portrayed in fiction; in this troubled young man, thought and action have become fused into a formidable, if not invincible, killing machine. Also closely involved in the plotting is Hemmelrich, a German-born phonograph dealer who arranges the transfer of coded information through specially rigged phonograph discs.
Kyo’s wife, May, is another highly memorable character. Committed first of all to her medical career, May is a complex, often ambivalent figure; Malraux’s portrayal of her relationship with Kyo foreshadows by some forty years the treatment of modern marriage that today’s reader has to come to expect. Closer to caricature is Malraux’s portrayal of the rich industrialist Ferral and his almost-liberated mistress Valerie.
(The entire section is 557 words.)