Man’s Fate?

I read Andre Malraux’s Man’s Fate, one of those novels I’ve really wanted to read for the longest time, some time ago. It’s supposed to be one of the best fictional accounts of the Chinese revolution, the blurbs read, with a focus on the failed Shanghai Insurrection of 1927, which was brutally crushed by Chiang Kai-shek’s troops. But now I feel shortchanged. For some reason, I felt that the novel was a bit overrated.

Yes, there were not a few highlights, particularly in the first part leading to the General Strike. The novel captured the optimism of the revolutionary workers and their party preparing for the insurrection and the the maneuvering of the forces of reaction.

The interspersing of radio broadcasts and newspaper headlines in the narrative intensifies the feeling that what one is reading actually took place in reality. This reminded me of Tolstoy’s sweeping historical flare in War and Peace. However, these are weighed down by dragging portions and overly existentialist themes.

There is always a sense of foreboding. Those familiar with their history all know beforehand that the alliance between the striking communist workers and the Kuomintang will be betrayed by the latter as Chiang Kai-shek orders the brutal killings of the communards. There is also the matter of the Comintern and worker’s leadership’s miscalculations.

A striking Shanghai worker executed by Chiang Kai-shek's troops.

You wait for that moment. But after the suspense, it’s as if something’s still lacking. I just cannot put precise words into it now. But perhaps it’s the impulse to strive for a sort of complete closure in the narrative that leaves no space in the readers’ imaginations for the construction of alternative scenarios for the ill-fated uprising. It could not have happened any other way, the narrative seems to say.

Man’s fate in Malraux’s novel is ultimately absurd and tragic. The collective action of the workers is crushed and the defeated workers are depicted being finished off individually by the forces of reaction.

Nevertheless, such a pessimistic stance will be proven wrong by the march of history more than a decade after the novel’s first publication in 1933. The deaths of the Shanghai communards were never in vain, their failure redeemed by the 1949 victory of the new democratic revolution led by Mao. ■

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