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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1831

Man’s Hope is an epic novel about the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939. During this bloody conflict, sometimes regarded as a dress rehearsal for World War II, the Fascist elements of the Spanish military and the Catholic church, under the leadership of the Falangist dictator Francisco Franco, were supported vigorously by Benito Mussolini’s Italy and Adolf Hitler’s Germany and overthrew the leftist Republican government of Spain which was supported by the Soviet Union and by individual citizens of the Western European nations.

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André Malraux was among many anti-Fascist Europeans who volunteered to fight for the Republicans, and he played a significant role as an organizer of the International Squadron of aircraft for the Republic. Malraux’s experiences in Spain went into the writing of Man’s Hope, which contains more than seventy named characters and provides a panoramic view of the war from the Republican vantage. Written in the heat of battle and published while the war was still raging, it depicts the events of 1936-1937 as an adventure of the human spirit within a framework of historical, political, and philosophical ideas.

The novel is divided into three parts, and the first two of these parts are themselves divided into two sections. The first part is titled “Careless Rapture” and its first section bears the same title. This title keynotes the optimistic and carefree mood of the Republican militia and their international volunteer comrades during the first summer of the Civil War. The action begins in Madrid on July 18, 1936, and the reader follows the adventures of Manuel, a neophyte Communist, as he participates rather unthinkingly though successfully in the anti-Fascist fighting. This fighting takes place amid fists clenched in the leftist salute and street singing that keynotes the lyric impulse of a folk movement against tyranny.

The scene swiftly shifts from Madrid to Barcelona, where the Anarchists form a surprising coalition with the Civil Guard (commanded by Colonel Ximenes, a devout Christian) to defeat the Falangists. In Barcelona, the singing of Madrid is replaced by the no-less lyrical strains of the factory sirens, symbolic of the workers’ power. The further successes of the Republicans are relayed to the reader through Manuel, fighting in the countryside, and through Colonel Magnin (the French volunteer who organizes the Republicans’ International Squadron) as he successfully recruits volunteers and leads a raid on Medellin.

Beneath the surface of this uprising, Malraux also strikes a more sober note, pointing to a need for structuring and organizing the elation of a popular movement. There is too much carelessness and waste of life, as shown in Manuel’s smoking as he drives a car loaded with explosives, in the unnecessary kamikaze tactics of the Anarchists, in the boyish antics of some of Magnin’s airmen, in the insensitivity of a youngster who dips his finger into the blood of an executed Falangist to write Republican slogans on a wall.

This sobriety deepens in the second section of part 1, entitled “Prelude to Apocalypse,” which concerns the mismanagement of the emotions of the Republican movement. The illusionary nature of the lyric impulse is primarily shown through the failure of the Republican siege of the Alcazar (castle) of Toledo. Seasonally, summer has changed to autumn, and the dominant atmosphere is no longer that of singing but of funereal flamencos and Wagnerian Valkyrie wailings heard amid the stench of decomposing flesh. The first failure of Magnin’s squadron occurs as Jaime Alvear, a most likable member, is blinded during a sortie.

Malraux focuses on Captain Hernandez, who is apparently in charge of the siege of the Alcazar. Hernandez is a former Alcazar cadet and professional soldier who chooses the Republican side because of his ideology, which is rooted in a conviction about individual freedoms. He is unable to organize the besiegers, especially the Anarchists, into a disciplined force, and his characteristic gesture becomes a shrug of the shoulders. When the Falangist relief column approaches the Alcazar, Hernandez’s men abandon their posts and retreat hastily to Madrid, but Hernandez, playing the part of a sacrificial victim, fights a gallant delaying action with a few good soldiers and is captured and executed. Hernandez’s death underlines the analysis of Spanish Intelligence Officer Garcia (an erstwhile professor of ethnology), who has pronounced that the energies of the people’s movement will have to become organized or else die—even though organization is antithetical to the movement’s spirit. To Garcia, the party discipline of the Communists seems best suited to achieve that organization. Malraux, however, tempers Garcia’s assertions with the viewpoints and examples of Negus, an admirably brave Anarchist leader, and of Colonel Ximenes, the model of an efficient Christian soldier.

The second part of Man’s Hope is entitled “The Manzanares” (named for the river flowing through Madrid), and its sections are entitled “Action and Reaction” and “Comrades’ Blood.” “The Manzanares” begins with the rout of the Republicans from Toledo in September, continues with the siege and bombing of the Republicans in Madrid (now a hard-pressed city in flames), and ends in December with the Republican counterattack on Guadarrama. Describing this perilous time for the Republicans, each section of “The Manzanares” contrasts the ethic of intellection against that of action. “Action and Reaction” dramatizes the historical and military action of the siege of Madrid, but in his original French title “Etre et Faire,” Malraux also counterpoints the intellectual and individualistic urge to be and to fulfill an identity (etre) against an activist’s communal need to make (faire) a society. For this purpose, Malraux embeds in this section a despairing discussion between two intellectuals: Scali, an Italian art scholar who has joined the International Squadron, and Alvear, a Spanish art historian whose son was blinded during a bombing mission.

In the second section, “Comrades’ Blood,” the Republican plight becomes even grimmer as Madrid is subjected to saturation bombing, and there is hand-to-hand fighting in the West Park and on the University campus. Again,Malraux embeds a contemplative discussion, this time about Miguel de Unamuno y Jugo, a real-life intellectual and writer who dies after being placed under house arrest by General Millan Astray (who is notorious for his slogan of “Death to intelligence! Long live death!”). While these intellectuals either are frozen in despairing inaction (Alvear) or suffer death (Unamuno), however, Malraux shows that those engaged in political action are succeeding. In “Action and Reaction,” Manuel becomes a lieutenant colonel as he transforms the rabble retreating from Toledo into troops to defend Madrid. In “Comrades’ Blood,” he becomes the brigade commander in the successful Republican counterattack at Guadarrama, having learned well from Colonel Ximenes and General Heinrich, a German with the International Brigade. Similarly, Magnin is able to overcome the demoralization and lack of material that had set in at the beginning of “Action and Reaction,” and in “Comrades’ Blood,” his men fly newly assembled planes from the Soviet Union and successfully protect Madrid from bombing by German-made Junkers.

The final part of the novel was originally entitled “The Peasants,” but Malraux changed the title to “Hope” in his definitive 1947 revision—probably to underscore its importance for the work as a whole. In the first chapter, Malraux raises the problems of dehumanization, efficiency, and intellectualism in a confrontation between the machine-gun expert Karlitch and the humanist scholar Scali. Karlitch has become progressively more bloodthirsty as the war progresses, even commenting that hanged men do not look right because of the lack of bloodshed. Scali, who has watched this degeneration, is plunged into despair by it. Counterbalancing Scali’s gloom is the hope in Jaime Alvear’s recovering eyesight as he begins to make out the lights of a merry-go-round. Thus Malraux sets up his rhythm of antithetical oppositions, despair and hope.

The experience of Attignies, a bombardier, adumbrates this rhythm as his plane is shot down and crashes in the sea. The survivors are rescued by the militia and join a group of peasants who make their way through a tunnel. As Attignies passes into the bowels of the earth and reemerges on the other side, he undergoes a symbolic death and resurrection. He is made to feel the mystery of life and a profound fraternity with the peasants for whom he fights.

Magnin experiences the same vision, only more intensely, as he goes to a mountain (in contrast to Attignies’ tunnel) to bring down the survivors and the bodies from one of his planes. Among the crew is Scali, whose foot has been destroyed. As the cortege of wounded and dead are borne down the mountain, Scali sees Spain as a region dominated by death and symbolized by the twisted machine gun that he sees lying on top of a coffin. Magnin, however, catches sight of an apple tree surrounded by a ring of dead fruit; as he looks, Magnin realizes that the decomposing fruit also contain seeds that will regenerate life. Magnin’s consciousness is thus filled with this circular, cyclical symbol, a vision of regeneration and hope. When he looks at the same twisted machine gun, Magnin’s imagination sees it metaphorically as a living tree branch.

A similar and possibly more complex epiphany is experienced by Manuel. In the course of the novel, Manuel has become a more disciplined person, an efficient soldier, and an astonishingly effective leader of men. He has not achieved this maturity without paying a price. At the beginning of the novel, Manuel is a carefree cinema sound technician whose greatest love is music. After the Republican victory at Guadalajara against forty thousand Italian troops, followed by a similar success at Brihuega, Manuel enters a church and plays a Kyrie composed by Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina for Ximenes. As Manuel plays, he is suddenly desolated by the feeling that music belongs to another existence from which he is now excluded by his combat career. Ximenes predicts that the young man will be a general before he reaches the age of thirty-five.

In the final chapter of the novel, however, Manuel happens to hear, amid the sounds of the spring thaw, a militiaman picking out a tune on an abandoned piano. Manuel returns to his quarters and listens to Beethoven records, finding that his old love for music has not deserted him. On the contrary, he discovers that this music enables him to recover and resurrect his past self, a self which he had thought was dead. The undulations of the musical phrases tell him that life is not a state but a flux. The state of war and warrior is not permanent but only a phase in life’s rhythm of change; the rhythm itself is what is permanent. As he looks out onto the fields of Spain, where Christians and Moors once fought on ground now trod by a new generation of losers and victors, Manuel discovers that the tramp of the men and murmur of the streams are as profound and as permanent as the beat of the human heart.

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