“What books are worth writing, except Memoirs?”
—The Conquerers, 1928
In 1965 President De Gaulle sent his Minister for Cultural Affairs to visit the Chinese leaders in their heartland. André Malraux had staked his spiritual claim on the Orient more than thirty years earlier with four books, and no one had challenged it. The move was an obvious one for De Gaulle, and a mission not without excitement for Malraux. Probably in order to find rest and resume his writing interrupted since 1957, he traveled by water. The name of the liner, Cambodia, recalled his earlier trips to the Far East. That corruptly administered French colony was the scene of his arrest and trial in 1924, actions which provoked strong protests from many Paris writers. Moreover, the opening sequences of his first two novels take place at sea.
Malraux carried on board with him in 1965 a small library, including his most recent novel, Wrestling with the Angel (La Lutte avec l’ange). The first part had been published in 1943 as The Walnut Trees of Altenburg: the second part, of which an unfinished manuscript had been destroyed or lost by the Gestapo, was announced as still “in progress” in 1965. He had almost a month to work on it in the privileged calm of shipboard life. But instead of returning to the novel, he found himself writing an extended, self-revealing, magnificently eloquent log of the trip, a reweaving of his life back into his work. He chose a counter-title, implying a new genre: Anti-Memoirs. It is as if, beneath the keel of that slow boat to China and inside this substantial volume, Malraux’s past has begun slowly surfacing, like an unknown creature from the deep. When it does, as in the China sequence recounting his conversation with Mao Tse-tung over the fate of hemispheres, the pace of things has slowed and deepened in order to encompass that past. Malraux completes his circumnavigation by air over the Pole and returns to Paris a changed man, not so much because of the trip as because of the unexpected book the trip has spawned.
This much information, at least, can be deduced readily from internal evidence. This much, and possibly more—barely discernible, bringing a note of private lyricism that is unexpected in Malraux. Granted the mood is half shrouded in rhetoric. I quote from the second page of the French text in my own translation.
Why do I remember these things?
Because, having lived in that uncertain country of thought and fiction that artists inhabit, as well as in the world of combat and history, having discovered in Asia when I was twenty a continent whose turmoil still illuminated the meaning of the Occident, I have encountered at intervals those humble or exalted moments in which the fundamental enigma of life appears to each of us as it appears to most women on looking into an infant’s face, as it appears to most men on looking into the face …
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