Axel Madsen (2010) Silk Roads, The Asian Adventures of Clara and André Malraux Tauris Parke Paperbacks, London; 299 pp.; ISBN 978-1-84885-190-0.
Tens of thousands of young men volunteered to join armies in the First World War – the ‘Great War’ as it was called by its advocates. But the grinding years of trench warfare, the horrors of new armaments such as tanks and mustard gas, and the realisation that most of the military leaders were at best incompetent and uncaring left a deep and abiding cynicism in the wake of the war’s end. The 1920s saw a backlash against the old establishment order and its rules, and a commitment to hedonism and finding new ways forward for society. Communism, which had taken hold in Russia during the latter years of the war, was seen by many European intellectuals as the saving force for society.
André and Clara Malraux, a newly married couple in post-war France, in many ways typified the spirit of this age. They were both well-educated, highly cynical about the old order which had given birth to them, left-leaning in their politics and committed to exploring fresh perspectives and new ways of thinking. They were inveterate travellers and fascinated by global politics. They eventually divorced, and in later years André became a well-known writer and novelist, and ironically, a minister in two conservative governments under Charles de Gaulle. He was very famous in his day, though his fame has not weathered the ravages of time as well as others of his generation. Clara also pursued a literary career and as well as nine fiction and non-fiction works, published a six-volume autobiography, only two volumes of which have been translated into English. She was overshadowed by the popularity of her former husband’s works and his flair for making grand, if often vacuous, public gestures.
Madsen’s book recounts the adventures of this couple in the 1920s and 30s, with a particular focus on their activities in Vietnam and Cambodia, both then part of French Indochina. André had developed a fascination for south-east Asian art, particularly the sculptures of Angkor in Cambodia. He was able to pass himself off as an archaeologist and historian in order to get support for a trip to Indochina, but the real motivation was the fact that he and Clara were out of money and intended to travel to Angkor so that they could steal some sculptures and rebuild their fortunes.
Their trip is an interesting glimpse into a world where, despite the rise of radicalism, class and appearance were still important. The couple worked hard to conceal their poverty and to keep up appearances. Madsen gives a detailed narrative of their ill-fated trip to steal Angkor’s treasures, a trip which ended in arrest and trial for André. The couple left for France in 1924, but returned the following year, clearly captivated by the romance of Indochina and still determined to try their luck at becoming wealthy.
Their great skill was writing, so with a left-wing lawyer, Paul Monin, they set up a small newspaper, L’Indochine. The paper was openly radical and inspired by the growing influence of nationalism and communism in China and interest in this among the Chinese diaspora in Saigon. Not surprisingly, the French authorities were horrified by even the modest success of the new publication, and eventually closed it down and seized its assets. Not to be outdone by an establishment they increasingly despised, André and Clara set up an even more radical newspaper, L’Indochine Enchainée. They vainly hoped that a new left-leaning governor in Indochina would give them space to write, but in the end the establishment behaved as it always does, crushing any opposition. It would be the Vietnamese themselves who would have to overthrow their colonial rulers. André and Clara left Indochina with physically less than when they had arrived, but with a wealth of experiences that would sustain both of them in the longer term and infuse the contents of their literary works.
Madsen provides a detailed narrative of these formative years and captures the nature of French colonialism well. The details of the couple’s behaviour provide a good insight into their characters and their later public personas. André comes across as venal, self-serving and selfish, though Madsen remains sympathetic. Clara, from a rich Jewish family, suffered badly in World War II, and in the public’s mind she would always remain ‘André Malraux’s wife’. Yet she persisted in a literary career of her own and in many ways her life shows she was the more principled and stronger of the two.
The final two chapters of Madsen’s book provide a quick summary of the later years of both André and Clara, and a coda on what happened to some of the other key characters from the period. But the main body of the book provides an absorbing glimpse into an inter-war world long gone but in which the working of politics and the complexity of cross-cultural relations are all too familiar.