As explosive and immediate today as when it was originally published in 1933, Man's Fate (La Condition Humaine), an account of a crucial episode in the early days of the Chinese Revolution, foreshadows the contemporary world and brings to life the profound meaning of the revolutionary impulse for the individuals involved. As a study of conspiracy and conspirators, of men caught in the desperate clash of ideologies, betrayal, expediency, and free will, Andre Malraux's novel remains unequaled. Translated from the French by Haakon M. Chevalier
Infused with his own outlook and written with obvious sympathy for the Communist movement in China (and the terrorists within it) this novel might not appeal to all but it's certainly one worth giving a try.
Two vinyl recordings labeled as language-teaching records are played, each starting at the same instant. The first record hisses so one can’t hear the words on the second record. At select moments the hissing briefly stops, a quiet interval just long enough so that a single word from the second record is heard. Then the hissing resumes until it stops again to allow a second word to be heard. The hissing/quiet/hissing/quiet continues until, by the time both records reach their ends, all words of the message have been revealed. Plus, the two records are always shipped separately to ensure security of the message.
Vinyl Encryption! Nice. Effective for 1920s rebels and not a bad name for a band. It’s even possible to see it as a symbol for how essential coordination and communication are to success, which becomes terribly evident as the revolt goes on.
In this novel Malraux gives the impression he would rather be thought to have a highly original intelligence, or a great capacity for the profound, than anything else praiseworthy. The risk of appearing ordinary in the extraordinary scenes he has composed seems to me slight but, just in case, his characters often express thoughts more apt to arrest and distract the reader than immerse him in the story. In this he does those characters, notably the Gisors, no favors. This heightened desire for originality reminds me of the similarly surnamed Norman Mailer who often seemed to be striving to find ideas that would make people want to talk to him at parties. Malraux emerged into fame from 1920s Paris, a competitive scene for the creatively gifted where one could not, I imagine, not value any effort that might make a memorable impression.
In contrast, Malraux does well with how he makes us aware of conditions provoking the general strike that occurred just before the uprising, simply reporting the slogans expressing demands on banners hung about Shanghai: “A twelve-hour working day,” “No more employment of children under eight,” “Right to sit down for women-workers.” No explanation needed. No wonder the protests and revolt.
I’ve read complaints about Haakon Chevalier’s translation of La Condition Humaine, voiced mostly by readers who acknowledge not knowing French. When one doesn’t know the original language, how is it decided that the translator, not the author, is at fault? One way would be to compare Chevalier’s version to Alistair MacDonald’s, titled A Storm in Shanghai, a title not boding well for McDonald’s effort. Let’s give Haakon some credit. Man’s Fate is a way better title than MacDonald‘s invention. As for the immediately obvious The Human Condition, that strikes me as a literalism that could hardly be duller or more vague. If we have to choose between pretentious titles then at least let us choose the most portentous.
But, well, that’s just, like, my opinion, man.
My other opinion is that this is a dramatic story Malraux has told, with the playing out of the revolution having the qualities of suspense, excitement, and surprise that I like such a story to have. And despite what can seem excessive devotion to profundity and portent in Malraux’s telling, he often enough hits on just the right tone and mood to make his story have an impact it could not otherwise have. He is even, at times, original and possibly profound.
For a more conventional but also good novel set during the Chinese revolution of the 1920s, try The Sand Pebbles by Richard McKenna.
There's a good book in here somewhere. Some of the scenes are incredibly vivid, but much is lost in translation. The prose is clunky, and some explosive scenes are ruined by bad phrasing.
Very frustrating - this is the sort of thing that makes me want to learn French. Ah well.
Recommended for die-hard revolutionaries, and Francophones.
In the context of this pivotal 1927 political moment, but more importantly for Malraux, his characters confront deep themes of the meaning of action, inaction, collective vs. individual action, and moral choices, when the stakes are imminent death. As, in truth, they always are. This is a political novel (the author was an honored guest of the Soviet writers' union in 1934), but is also one of the pioneering works of French existentialist literature (won the "Prix Goncourt" in 1933). The title is taken from an aphorism of Pascal, which translates approximately to: Imagine a number of men in chains, all condemned to death, from whom some are taken each day to be executed before the eyes of the others. Those who remain see their own plight in that of their fellows and, looking at one another in sadness and without hope, await their turn. In this image, you see the human condition."
(Malraux went on, in his later years, to become Minister of State for cultural affairs under President De Gaulle. It is thanks to Malraux that centuries of soot and grime were cleaned off Notre Dame de Paris, and later the Louvre, so that we may see these masterworks more nearly as the generations of their creators did.)
Equally dogmatic and dour, Man's Fate is episodic in terms of narrative and ensemble. There is gore and grief and considerable historical certainty at what the Future holds----even as the vanquished are tortured and often burned alive. Elements are included of miscegenation and misogyny. These simply enhance the noir. There's plenty of silence, muttering and plaintive smoking. There's a suicide bomber and a confidence man straight out of Melville.
I’ve not read any fictionalized version of the Chinese Revolution. Admittedly, it’s mostly been of the Soviet variety. So, I can appreciate getting a backdrop to events that I only know cursorily through history—the motivations and psychology that went into each moving part, each country or faction’s stake in the event, each principle character lending a hand in constructing (or deconstructing, depending on the instance) a picture to a very complicated puzzle.
Unfortunately, the characters really have no personality deeper than those motivations or allegiances to their faction. Whether Chinese, Japanese, French, or Russian, I really don’t get a sense of any individual personality outside of its group. They seem more facsimile than real beings of pathos. And the settings leave you wondering just where in the hell you are. If that were the point—to leave you disoriented and crouched in the jungle gloom—I’d get it; but, honestly, it’s hard to pay attention to flat characters moving from offices to bombed-out buildings to forests to streets, especially with all that action.
Don’t get me wrong—there are some shining moments here. Some truly painful moments. One scene with a character splitting his cyanide tablet in half for a pair of suffering revolutionaries who then drop those pieces . . . yeah, more of that kind of shit. A character stumbles across a child’s severed arm, and that visual is strong, but then it’s immediately whisked away with more bombing. Which, to be fair, wouldn’t probably get properly assessed until later, anyway. But we never get that character’s reckoning of the horror in any real sense. More complexity of characters and their interactions instead of merely steamrolling the action would’ve had more impact.
Honestly, with all that death and self-sacrifice, I was kind of bored with the politics, the boardroom meetings, the too-quick revelations of man’s condition. Which is especially disappointing since the French title is 𝘓𝘢 𝘊𝘰𝘯𝘥𝘪𝘵𝘪𝘰𝘯 𝘏𝘶𝘮𝘢𝘪𝘯𝘦. I wanted more than just shrapnel to stick into the meat. Maybe I was looking for too much. But I often found myself drifting . . .
“The room remained the same: the mosquito-net, the blank walls, the clear rectangle of light; murder changes nothing . . .”