I can still hear the prattle of democracy at dinner, the trite formulas, ridiculous in Europe, harbored here like rusty old steamers, again I see the solemn enthusiasm they ignite among all these men.
My deepest hostilities aren’t so much against possessors as against the stupid principles that they spout to defend their possessions.
I finished The Conquerors a couple of weeks ago, so what follows are half-digested, half-forgotten thoughts on this book by Charles de Gaulle’s Minister of Information and Minister of Cultural Affairs. My copy, and therefore this write-up, consists of two distinct parts: the novel, published in 1928, and a reflective essay on the topics of the novel, published in 1949.
The Conquerors is a novelization of the 1925-1927 Cantonese revolution in Hong Kong. The unnamed narrator is a Frenchman who traveled by way of Vietnam to meet his old friend Garine working as a propaganda officer for Mikhail Borodin, the Russian agent in Hong Kong. Despite nominally working toward the same end, there is tension between Garine and Borodin since the former is a true believer in the cause, while the latter is primarily working to advance the soviet political agenda. Yet, as these two men with European connections play out their drama, there is a larger conflict between Chinese revolutionaries, Chinese warlords, and the Europeans in Hong Kong. Garine and Borodin both intend to use the Chinese to accomplish their objectives, with a powerful pacifist (compared to Ghandi) and a young anarchist. The situation in Hong Kong deteriorates under repeated assaults from European capital and Chinese arms before ending on an ambiguous note.
The Conquerors is something of an odd book in that it is utterly driven by the plot, being told in chronological narration with a date and time for nearly every entry, while not actually being about the plot at all. The plot of The Conquerors is a vehicle for Malraux to talk about issues of colonialism and revolution, which he opposes and favors, in that order. Despite the flatness of some of the Chinese characters and the problems posed by the large number of Chinese factions, Malraux is most critical of European influence in the revolution since both capitalists and communists are, ultimately seeking to effect some sort of colonial project.
Where the novel The Conquerors ultimately fell flat, the concluding essay was a thoughtful critique of Western Civilization. Among other issues, he talks about how Russia is in some ways a European country and, in others, wholly un-European. In the conclusion to this essay he wrote:
When was France great? When she did not take refuge in France. She is universalist. To the rest of the world the greatness of France is much more the cathedrals or the Revolution than Louis XIV. Some countries, like Britain — and it may be to their honor–are the greater the more alone. France has never been greater than when she spoke for all mankind, and that is why her silence is heard so poignantly today.
Of course, this passage struck a particular note in the wake of the recent American election. There were individual scenes in The Conquerors that were excellent, but the book as a whole did not leave enough of an impression that I can remember it well several weeks later. This passage in the concluding essay did.
Next up, I have finished Last Words from Montmarte, a posthumous, postmodern, epistolary novel by Qiu Miaojin, a Taiwanese lesbian author. I am also in the middle of reading Stephen Pinker’s The Better Angels of our Nature, but am up to my neck in grading and editing right now so have only just started Ursula K. le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness