André Malraux: The Indochina Adventure

A laudatory, one-sided, study on the less than two years André Malraux spent in then Indochina, from December 1923 to December 1925.

Langlois malraux cover

Type: hardback

Publisher: Pall Mall Press, London.

Published: 1966

Pages: 259

Language : English

ADB Library Catalog ID: HISMAL2

"The life and works of André Malraux are a passionate continuation of the youthful struggle he began in Indochina to help the helpless regain a measure of their dignity," writes the author (p 230) in this unapologetically laudative portrait of a young Parisian traveler in his "combat with mortality". How ransacking the precious temple of Banteay Srei in December 1923 "helped the helpless" remains to be explained.

But the author has an answer to that, too: if Malraux selected Banteay Srei as a target for his looting attempt, it is not because it was located out of the beaten path, not because George Groslier had missed it in his 1914 survey of the temples "in the shadow of Angkor", not because it was not yet listed in EFEO Inventory of Khmer monuments, but thanks to his "superior artistic insight" (p 27).

The Banteay Srei Affair thus turns into a personal and homeric fight between a young, idealistic, self-tauught archaeologist who "was planning to write a detailed comparison of Khmer and Siamese art based on his discoveries in the jungle" (p 9), and his nemesis, "a corrupt man named Henry Chavigny, self-styled de la Chevrotiere, a philanderer who liked to pose as the champion of virtue and public morality, especially if it meant attacking a Bolshevik", whose newspaper, L'Impartial, was "an ultra-conservative daily, unofficially subsidized by the Administration."

Henri Chavigny de Lachevrotière (11 Sept 1883, Saigon, natural son of Eulethere Chavigny and a Tonkinese woman - 12 Jan 1951, Saigon, killed by grenades thrown into his convertible by Vietnamese independentists), was the epitome of French colonialism: he owned a 110 ha plantation in Kampot, hotels Majestic and Palace in Saigon (now HoChiMinh Ville), and fiercely held the idea that archaeological sites must be preserved "for the future of tourism in Indochina." It is mostly to counter his Impartial that Malraux came back to Saigon in 1925 -- he had left Indochina in October 1924, four days after the Appeal Court had rejected the sentence for his theft in Banteay Srei, and spent only seven weeks in France before rushing back -- and launched his own newspaper, L'Indochine, later renamed L'Indochine Enchainée.

Between June 1925 (he had arrived with Clara back to Saigon in February) and January 1926, Malraux published a flurry of pamphlets, arguing for the right for the Annamite to obtain French citizenship but mostly directed against colonial characters such as de La Pommeraye, who was then the director of the newly launched Société des Grands Hotels d'Indochine, or Governor Maurice Cognacq. The author attempts to explain why, if not pure anti-colonialism but at least pleading for "enlightened colonialism"was at the core of Malraux's motives in this vendetta, he failed to produce a novel or a major essay against colonialism in Indochina, turning instead to the Kuomintang fight (or his experience of it by proxy) to produce his novel Les Conquérants (1928). France's public opinion had to wait until 1935 for a lucid, exhaustive and moving depiction of colonial Indochinese realities with Indochine SOS by newspaperwoman Andrée Viollis (1), Malraux writing a short preface to the book which was removed from the 1949 second edition (this one with a foreword by Francis Jourdain).

There is a blatant omission in Langlois' essay: why did Malraux lied about going to Canton during his short trip to Hong Kong and Macao in August 1925, and why his collaboration and friendship with lawyer Paul Monin, who had convinced him to come back to Saigon and launch L'Indochine, suddenly deteriorated in the last months of 1925? On December 24, Malraux abruptly announced his return to France with Clara, "in order to follow on with the fight". At that time, Paul Monin, whose sympathy for Chinese communist activists was much less rhetoric than Malraux's, and who was closer to Vietnamese nationalist leaders that Malraux had ever been, was getting ready to travel to China, and pleaded in vain with his younger friend for joining him.

In his "Malraux et Monin histoire d'une rencontre, histoire d'une rupture" [Amitiés Internationales André Malraux, Présence d'André Malraux, n. 13, 2016], historian Yves le Jariel writes: "Son expérience politique indochinoise s'est terminée [in 1926] par un échec. Malraux ne peut supporter les échecs qu'il ne peut transcender. C'est sans doute ce qui explique qu'il attendra plusieurs années avant de s'engager publiquement pour défendre des Vietnamiens révolutionnaires en proie à la répression coloniale. [...] Il annonce publiquement son départ vers le 24 décembre, soit une semaine avant de s'embarquer pour Marseille. Il est probable qu'il a averti son codirecteur à la dernière minute de sa décision. Il y a eu de toute évidence une explication très dure entre les deux hommes et qui consacre leur rupture. Monin, qui s'était déplacé pour accueillir les Malraux à leur arrivée à Saigon ne vient pas leur dire au revoir au moment de leur départ." ["His Indochinese political experience ended [in 1926] in failure. Malraux cannot bear failures that he cannot transcend. This undoubtedly explains why he waited several years before making a public commitment to defend revolutionary Vietnamese who were prey to colonial repression. [...] He publicly announced his departure around December 24, a week before embarking for Marseille. He probably waited the last minute to inform his co-director, and there was obviously a harsh confrontation between the two men which sealed their breakup. Monin, who had come to welcome the Malraux upon their arrival in Saigon, did not come to say goodbye at the time of their departure."]

In annex to his essay, Yves le Jariel published a letter from Clara Malraux to Gertrude Morin, dated 29 April [the historian guesses the year was 1962, we tend to think it was 1966]: "Je ne sais si vous avez lu le livre de M. Walter Langlois où, avec une assez grande légèreté, il tente de faire revivre cet épisode de la vie d'André Malraux et cela sans tenir compte du rôle immense qu'eut alors Paul Monin." ["I don't know if you have read the book by Mr. Walter Langlois in which, rather flippantly, he attempts to revive this episode in André Malraux's life, and this without taking into account the immense role that Paul Monin played in it.”]

(1) Andrée Francoise Caroline Jacquet (9 Dec 1870, Les Mees, France -10 Aug 1950, Paris), pen name Andrée Viollis, one of the first women war reporters, antifascist activist, had married in 1905 Henry d'Ardenne de Tizac (18 May 1877, Paris - 17 Dec 1932, Paris), sinologist, curator of the Cernuschi Museum in Paris, and novelist under the pseudonym of Jean Viollis. Her daugther Simone Téry, also a reporter, had joined Paul Monin in China in 1927. While Andrée's involvement in defence of Vietnamese activists remained constant, this cannot be said of Malraux's. For instance, when an appeal for the amnisty of Vietnamese nationalists was issued in December 1936 by the Comité d'Amnistie et de Défense des Indochinois et Peuples Coloniaux, Andrée Viollis signed along Francis Jourdain, Magdeleine Paz, Félicien Challaye, J. Longuet, Daniel Guérin, Paul Langevin, Victor Bäsch, Paul Rivet, Marius Moutet, Marcel Prenant, René Maran, and five organizations: the Comité, the Secours populaire de France, the Communist Party, the SFIO Socialist Party and the Ligue des Droits de l'Homme.

Tags: looting, Banteay Srei, Bardez Affair, colonialism, French travelers, French Indochina