André Malraux: La Condition humaine (Storm in Shanghai; Man’s Estate)
Malraux’ finest novel and one of the finest novels to come out of France, this novel is set in China in March 1927, at the time of the Nationalist Revolution. The principle of Malraux’ philosophy – namely that the individual is important but ultimately is likely to be subject to forces beyond his control – is the theme of the novel. During this period, the Communists were unsure of Chiang Kai-shek (later, of course, he was to be their sworn enemy) and, at this period, the Moscow Comintern decides they need him and happily let their foot soldiers perish, in some cases quite unpleasantly. This novel is the story of these people.
The strength of the novel is that, despite his political affiliations – essentially pro-Communist – Malraux paints the trials and tribulations of all the main characters. We start out with Tchen who has to kill someone he knows (who happens to be asleep). He has agonies of conscience about this and Malraux has already painted a picture of both the seamy side of revolutionary life but has also shown us that the foot soldiers of the revolution are humans with human feelings. This sympathy for the characters is particularly apparent in the scene in the prison, when Kyo (the committed Communist, fighting for the rights of oppressed peoples) and Katov (the professional Communist agitator) meet and Katow selflessly gives up his cyanide, knowing full well he might be tortured to death.
Of course, Malraux turned out to be wrong, in his predictions, as Chiang Kai-Shek was no saviour. And the European role in the Chinese Revolution was entirely marginal. But his all-round portrait of all the players and the fate of man before the inevitable is masterly.
First published in French 1933 by Gallimard
First English translation 1937 by Methuen