Tuesday, July 10, 2012

The Revolution Will Not be Televised - 'Cause it's Damned Dull

In a rare instance of justice in the world, Andre Malroux lost the Lit Nobel to Albert Camus. This is not because Camus is necessarily good, just that he is better than Malroux. Further, Camus is a common step on the way to real books for a few lucky souls and for this he has our respect, though not our love.

Malroux is who you read after Camus to appear different and who you continue to read if appearing different matters more to you than quality books. Because obscurity is really all Le Conditione Humaine (or Man's Fate for us anglophone churls) really has going for it. A shame, 'cause this is one golden subject - the failed Communist uprising in Shanghai. Hundreds killed, executed, or assassinated as a prelude to Mao's eventual triumph. A good "doomed cause" tale dragged down by overwriting and empty characters.

Of those characters, Malroux introduces us first to the revolutionaries - a politically correct mix of East and West who all talk like academic essays on meaning and other guff. One of them, the mixed-race Kyo, even talks that way to his girlfriend! And she does the same right back to him! When he turns back to take her with him while attempting to escape the city, what should've been a powerful scene falls with a dull thud as these two had no depth to speak of. They're all archetypes - fancy literary talk for hollow cliches bad writers rely on.

Except Marloux is not a bad wrieter. When dealing with other characters - all Western - he creates full people with depth and quirks and ambiguities that keep you interested. The best of all these is Clappique, the clown of the piece. A French expat and smuggler, he's always either drunk or trying to get drunk, usually with whatever floozy he happened to spot that night. That's good material on it's own but he's careening around Shanghai as it's breaking apart, making for an entertainingly madcap adventure.

Similarly another Frenchman, Ferral, is just as multi-layered despite being much stuffier than Clappique. He's trying to figure out some way of escaping Shanghai alive, or maybe sticking around and making good with whoever comes out on top. In fact it's the scene where he's playing a careful rhetorical game with a Chinese officer that the reason for Malroux's uneven characterization becomes apparent - he just don't get China. The book opens with revolutionary assassin Ch'en musing like a tiresome undergrad on... Hell, I don't even remember. But he's stabbing a guy while he does it, so it's existential. It's several chapters later, while Ferral is talking to that officer, that Malroux states why he couldn't write Ch'en as a human being - "...his inscrutable face... always looking for an angle..."

The Chinese are just too alien, so Malroux writes them as caricatures. Not to mock them but because he doesn't know how else to do it. Give him a Westerner and he's damned good - especially with how he builds up Ferral, complexities and all, just to have a tertiary mistress tear him down in a letter I'm quoting in full:

"Did you know, dear, that Persian women beat their husbands with their nailed slippers when they are angry? They are irresponsible. And then, of course, they afterwards return to everyday life, the life in which to weep with a man does not commit you, but in which to go to bed with him makes you his slave, the life in which one 'has' women. I am not a woman to be had, a stupid body in which you may find your pleasure by telling lies as to children and invalids. You know a good many things, dear, but you will probably die without its ever having occurred to you that a woman is also a human being. I have always met (perhaps I shall never meet any who are different, but so much the worse - you can't know how thoroughly I mean 'so much the worse!') men who have credited me with a certain amount of charm, who have gone to touching lengths to set off my follies, but who have never failed to go straight to their men-friends whenever it was a question of something really human (except of course to be consoled). I must have my whims, not only to please you, but even to make you listen when I speak; I want you to know what my charming folly is worth: it resembles your affection. If any unhappiness could have resulted from the hold you wanted to have on me, you would not even have noticed...

"I have met enough men to know how to regard a passing affair: nothing is without importance to a man the moment it involves his pride, and pleasure allows him to gratify it most quickly and most often. I refuse to be regarded as a body, just as you refuse to be regarded as a check-book. You act with me as the prostitutes do with you: 'Talk, but pay...' I am also that body which you want me to be wholly; I know it. It is not always easy for me to protect myself from the idea people have of me. Your presence brings me close to my body with disgust, as springtime brings me close to it with joy. Speaking of spring, have a good time with the birds. And, by the way, the next time do leave the electric switches alone.


Ferral retaliates by filling her suite with exotic birds and a kangaroo. That is good writing. Lyrical, passionate, and with it's philosophical ramblings woven so seamlessly into the character you don't even realize you're learning.Problem is, Malroux overdoes the good writing to make up for his sparse revolutionaries, turning the novel into an impenetrable lump of prose that not even these fun little snippets can recover.

That opening stabbing I mentioned? It lasts about four seconds - within the story - but takes nearly eight pages to get through because Ch'en, a caricature of a revolutionary, can't even wipe his ass without expounding at length on the relations between the worker and the state and the meaning to be found in death and blah blah blah. Later, when fellow revolutionaries Katov and Hemmelrich are taking counter-attack fire at the latter's home, everything is written so long and woodenly that you doze off without realizing Katov is captured and Hemmelrich's wife and kid just got crushed to death by falling masonry or something. Fast, bloody action slowed to the pace of some Manhattanite lit theory dweeb!

In fairness to Malroux, a lot of the dragging of the prose could be attributed to the translator. Brits always do lousy translations of Continental works because passion is entirely alien to the Brit consciousness. They can do grim and they can do satire, being a cruel and masochistic culture. But the passion of a revolutionary? Brits just ain't wired for that. It's why they still have a monarchy and it's also why this novel feels like the revolutionary spirit buried in so much high falouten droning.

Malroux could very well have intended this as a celebration of Marxism, making him a fool but at least an entertaining and sincere fool. As it is, the book reads like a second-hand account by someone who treats the subject with all due seriousness but just doesn't get it.

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