An­dre Mal­raux & the Trans­for­ma­tion of His­tory

The London Magazine - - NEWS - Jef­frey Mey­ers

An­dré Mal­raux’s The Wal­nut Trees of Al­tenburg (Lau­sanne, 1943), an underrated mas­ter­piece of the twentieth cen­tury, is a dif­fi­cult and elu­sive book, full of art analo­gies, bril­liant apho­risms, lyri­cal de­scrip­tions, philo­soph­i­cal ideas and mil­i­tary bat­tles. Writ­ten dur­ing the Ger­man oc­cu­pa­tion of France, the novel tells the story of the heroic but dis­il­lu­sioned Vin­cent Berger, nar­rated by his French-Al­sa­tian son, who pre­sum­ably re­lies on the diaries of his late fa­ther. It has a con­fus­ing time-scheme, a mix­ture of fic­tional and his­tor­i­cal char­ac­ters, and a lofty in­tel­lec­tual debate. Though the broad his­tor­i­cal out­line is clear enough, the chap­ter of the novel about Vin­cent’s re­la­tion­ship with the Turk­ish rev­o­lu­tion­ary En­ver Pasha and his PanTurk cam­paign de­parts wildly from the his­tor­i­cal re­al­ity, and has usu­ally been ig­nored by the crit­ics. It is worth con­sid­er­ing why Mal­raux in­vested this his­tor­i­cal fig­ure with the aura of hero­ism.

The novel be­gins with a pro­logue, ‘Chartres Camp’, in 1940, about twenty-five years af­ter the main ac­tion. The nar­ra­tor has been cap­tured by the Ger­mans and con­fined with other pris­on­ers of war in the mag­nif­i­cent but sym­bol­i­cally empty French cathe­dral. Chap­ter two (my main fo­cus) goes back to Turkey be­fore World War I. Vin­cent, a Ger­man-Al­sa­tian (since Ger­many had an­nexed that province from 1871 un­til 1918) lec­tures on the Ni­et­zschean ‘Phi­los­o­phy of Ac­tion’ at the Univer­sity of Con­stantino­ple, and be­comes En­ver Pasha’s trusted ad­vi­sor. En­ver sends the ide­al­is­tic Vin­cent to Cen­tral Asia to help pro­mote the Pan-Turk move­ment, but his mis­sion ends in fail­ure.

Chap­ter three takes place just be­fore World War I at the high-minded col­lo­quium, or­ga­nized by the nar­ra­tor’s un­cle Wal­ter, in the Al­tenburg Pri­ory near Stras­bourg. It de­scribes Wal­ter’s friend­ship with Friedrich Ni­et­zsche, whom he had res­cued and taken back to Ger­many af­ter the philoso­pher’s

com­plete men­tal breakdown in Turin. Vin­cent’s fa­ther has com­mit­ted sui­cide for ob­scure rea­sons, and his death seems the­mat­i­cally con­nected to Ni­et­zsche’s in­san­ity. The fic­tional eth­nol­o­gist Möll­berg gives a provoca­tive lec­ture in which he ar­gues against his now-dis­carded idea that all civ­i­liza­tions share a ba­sic unity. The de­bates at Al­tenburg give the novel its philo­soph­i­cal theme and ask: in the pres­ence of war and de­struc­tion can we be­lieve in the fun­da­men­tal good­ness and unity of man? Mal­raux uses the ex­pe­ri­ence of his hero Vin­cent Berger to ques­tion his own ex­is­ten­tial de­spair dur­ing the Ger­man oc­cu­pa­tion, and the ap­par­ent de­struc­tion of France and its cul­tural in­sti­tu­tions.

Chap­ter four shows how Vin­cent Berger falls vic­tim to a hor­rific Ger­man gas at­tack on the Rus­sian front in Poland in 1915. Chap­ter five, also called ‘Chartres Camp’, leaps for­ward to World War II in France, but takes place be­fore the open­ing chap­ter in Chartres. Part of a four-man tank crew, the young Berger is caught in a deep anti-tank ditch, but the Ger­mans do not, as ex­pected, an­ni­hi­late them with a bar­rage of ar­tillery. Though Mal­raux does not de­scribe the ac­tual scene, the men are cap­tured when France sur­ren­ders in 1940 and im­pris­oned (as in chap­ter one) in Chartres cathe­dral. The cir­cu­lar struc­ture frames the por­trayal of the pre­vi­ous war and sug­gests men trapped in a de­struc­tive ver­sion of Ni­et­zsche’s eter­nal re­cur­rence.

To un­der­stand the sig­nif­i­cance of En­ver Pasha in the novel and in Vin­cent Berger’s life, it is nec­es­sary to dis­tin­guish the his­tor­i­cal record from Mal­raux’s fic­tional ac­count. En­ver Pasha (1881-1922), the son of an Ana­to­lian bridge-keeper and an Al­ba­nian peas­ant, was the leader of the Young Turk rev­o­lu­tion. Born in Con­stantino­ple and ed­u­cated at its mil­i­tary academy, he was a com­man­der in Libya and the Balkans, and Min­is­ter of War from 1913 to 1918. As the strong­est ad­vo­cate for Pan-Turk­ism, he was mainly re­spon­si­ble for ad­vo­cat­ing, as a state pol­icy, the de­feat of Rus­sia and es­tab­lish­ment of a Eurasian em­pire. He was also one of the prin­ci­pal ar­chi­tects of the Ar­me­nian geno­cide of 1915.

En­ver’s real char­ac­ter was very dif­fer­ent from the heroic leader por­trayed by Mal­raux. Louise Bryant, who knew him when he was be­ing courted and li­on­ized in Moscow in 1921, re­called that he ‘cer­tainly has charm, in

spite of his very ob­vi­ous op­por­tunism, cru­elty and lack of con­science’. The his­to­rian David Fromkin, even more se­vere, calls the dap­per, mus­ta­chioed, unusu­ally short sol­dier ‘a vain, strut­ting man who loved uni­forms, medals and ti­tles. . . . As a gen­eral he con­tin­ued to be God’s gift to the other side. As a politi­cian, he was equally mal­adroit: he alien­ated the other Bas­machi [anti-Soviet Moslem guer­ril­las], many of whom turned against him’.

Al­ways cav­a­lier about ve­rac­ity, no­tably in his Anti-Mem­oirs, Mal­raux hastily wrote his novel in Nazi-oc­cu­pied France dur­ing an ob­scure pe­riod of his life, and may have re­lied on faulty mem­ory. Care­less or ig­no­rant of the facts, he uses as­pects of En­ver Pasha’s life to suit his own nov­el­is­tic pur­poses, turns En­ver’s de­feats into vic­to­ries and makes his fail­ures seem heroic. Drawn to hope­less causes, Mal­raux wrote great nov­els about the sup­pres­sion of the Chi­nese rev­o­lu­tion and the lost war in Spain. In his poem ‘Spain’ Au­den wrote, ‘His­tory to the de­feated / May say Alas but can­not help nor par­don’. But in Wal­nut Trees, writ­ten from the view­point of the de­feated side, Mal­raux both helps and par­dons En­ver Pasha.

Mal­raux’s nar­ra­tor tells a story of ide­al­ism and dar­ing. He men­tions or de­scribes the ma­jor mil­i­tary events in mod­ern Turk­ish his­tory, but does not por­tray them ac­cu­rately or in chrono­log­i­cal or­der. He, of course, does not re­fer to En­ver’s dom­i­nant role in the mas­sacre of the Ar­me­ni­ans. He por­trays En­ver at the height of his power, glo­ri­fies his Ni­et­zschean phi­los­o­phy of ac­tion and mil­i­tary ex­ploits, and does not de­scribe his de­feat in the Cau­ca­sus in 1914 or death in Cen­tral Asia in 1922. In con­trast to the neg­a­tive his­tor­i­cal ac­counts of Bryant and Fromkin, Mal­raux praises En­ver’s pos­i­tive qual­i­ties: his youth and:

dash, his tough­ness, his ro­man­tic tem­per, his charm. . . . The Turk­ish army, for the first time since the Bat­tle of Plevna, now had a war leader. . . . En­ver had a fa­natic faith in his luck, which had up to now [1914] served him well; over­com­ing all dis­as­ters, go­ing ahead what­ever the re­sult, had, he be­lieved, been the very source of all his achieve­ments.

Mal­raux writes that Sul­tan Ab­dul Hamid, the Caliph of all Is­lam, feared

the Young Turks would di­min­ish or even ex­tin­guish his power. He op­posed their move­ment and ad­vo­cated his re­li­gious Pan-Is­lam pro­gram—rather like the one ISIS is fight­ing for today--in which his name ‘had been pro­claimed in daily prayer from Fez to Kabul, and in all the mosques of In­dia. . . . In the palace the word ‘Turk’ was used only as an in­sult; army com­man­ders who were sus­pected of na­tion­al­ism were sacked on the spot’. Mal­raux re­peats three times that the Young Turk re­volt be­gan with their army in Mace­do­nia and, as­sert­ing Realpoli­tik, the nar­ra­tor states that mil­i­tary force was paramount: ‘The Young Turks are the only ones at the mo­ment who are ca­pa­ble first of main­tain­ing [the army], then of de­vel­op­ing it. Au­thor­ity [of the sul­tan] is all right, but power is bet­ter. . . . We can only take ac­tion through some one, and that some­one can only be En­ver’.

Mal­raux gives the mis­lead­ing im­pres­sion that En­ver had de­feated the Ital­ians in Libya in the Ital­ian-Turk­ish war of 1911. In the novel, when En­ver ar­rives in North Africa, the Ital­ians hold the coastal ports and he is dis­cour­aged by the cat­a­strophic state of the Turk­ish army. But he joins forces with the lo­cal Senussi tribes, a mil­i­tary and re­li­gious or­der who fight against the Ital­ian in­vaders. Vin­cent Berger, En­ver’s émi­nence grise, ad­vises him ‘to mo­bilise the tribes of the Libyan Desert with the help of the Senussi, and try to paral­yse the Ital­ians by mod­ern guer­rilla ac­tion with­out giv­ing bat­tle’. Berger’s idea was not based on En­ver’s con­duct but on the tac­tics of Mal­raux’s great hero, T. E. Lawrence, in Ara­bia. Mal­raux writes that when money and ma­chine guns ar­rived from Con­stantino­ple, En­ver was ready to take on the Ital­ians: ‘[Gen­eral Rodolfo] Graziani flung in five col­umns: all five were wiped out’. But the Ital­ians, not En­ver, ac­tu­ally won that war. Graziani (the vic­tor in Abyssinia in 1936), did not even fight in Libya un­til the 1920s.

Break­ing chronol­ogy to sug­gest the con­fu­sion of events, Mal­raux be­gins Berger’s ac­count of En­ver’s ca­reer with the Turk­ish de­feat in the Balkans, the siege of Adri­anople (235 kilo­me­ters west of Con­stantino­ple) and en­emy forces only thirty kilo­me­tres from the cap­i­tal. In this ver­sion, En­ver him­self kills the min­is­ter of war and res­cues the city: ‘En­ver, at that time com­mand­ing the Tripoli army, had sud­denly ap­peared in the huge door­way. At the third step he took to­wards him, the Min­is­ter of War fell to the

ground clutch­ing his stom­ach’. En­ver then ‘re-formed the Turk­ish army in one month, as­sumed the of­fen­sive, and, af­ter a forced march of eighty-four kilo­me­tres in one day, reached Adri­anople. Con­stantino­ple was saved’. En­ver did re­cap­ture Adri­anople, dur­ing the Sec­ond Balkan War in July 1913, when the vastly out­num­bered Bul­gar­ian army re­treated.

The Moslems of the Cau­ca­sus, not the Young Turks, had taken con­trol of that re­gion. En­ver never got as far as China, and it would have been im­pos­si­ble to in­te­grate the dis­tant Uyghurs with the Ana­to­lians. But Mal­raux writes that be­fore World War I, to counter the Rus­sian ex­pan­sion as far as the Pa­cific, En­ver en­vi­sioned ‘the union of all Turks through­out Cen­tral Asia from Adri­anople to the Chi­nese oases on the Silk Trade Route,’ with its im­pe­rial cap­i­tal in Sa­markand in­stead of Con­stantino­ple. He there­fore sends Vin­cent Berger as his emis­sary to es­tab­lish con­tact ‘with the Kurds, the emirs of Bokhara and Afghanistan, the khans of Rus­sian Turkestan’. In the bazaar of Ghazni, Afghanistan, Vin­cent is sud­denly at­tacked by a mad­man, con­sid­ered holy in Moslem cul­ture. He can­not de­fend him­self and is beaten up, but the phys­i­cal as­sault brings in­tel­lec­tual clar­ity He learns that civ­i­liza­tions are vastly dif­fer­ent from one an­other, as the eth­nol­o­gist Möll­berg later ar­gues at the col­lo­quy at Al­tenberg, and re­al­izes that ‘Ot­toman­ism, the in­cen­tive to the new Turk­ish as­pi­ra­tions which had per­haps saved Con­stantino­ple, sim­ply does not ex­ist’. When the deeply dis­il­lu­sioned Vin­cent trav­els back to France and meets En­ver en route in Port Said, he feels ‘he had been de­ceived, not by him­self, but by that false, id­i­otic Cen­tral Asia, which had re­jected its own destiny, and by all those who had shared in his be­lief’. Still cling­ing to his own il­lu­sions, En­ver says he should have sent a Moslem in­stead of Vin­cent.

Af­ter many years in Asia, Vin­cent is deeply moved by the re­union with his own ur­ban cul­ture in the old port of Mar­seilles: ‘Through the strains of mu­sic and the smell of warm bread, housewives were hur­ry­ing along, shop­ping-bags on their arms; a print-shop put up its mul­ti­coloured shut­ters on which a last sunbeam lin­gered; a liner’s siren wailed’—but he ig­nores its al­lur­ing sum­mons back to the East. Vin­cent’s re­turn to Mar­seilles fore­shad­ows the con­clud­ing scene of the novel when he sees an old peas­ant cou­ple in a war-wrecked French farm­house who sto­ically ac­cept dis­as­ter

and rep­re­sent, like the an­cient trees of Al­tenburg, the sur­vival of tra­di­tional val­ues and cul­ture: ‘Open doors, wash­ing, barns, man’s im­print, bib­li­cal dawn in which the cen­turies jos­tle, how the whole daz­zling mys­tery of the morn­ing deep­ens into the mys­tery’ that ap­pears on the wasted lips of the old woman.

De­spite the novel’s loose struc­ture, Mal­raux clearly in­tends the chap­ter on En­ver and the Pan-Turk move­ment to re­late to the other parts of the book. Just as Vin­cent sur­vives a de­fence­less beat­ing, dysen­tery and se­vere dis­en­chant­ment in Asia, so his son, in the vir­ile fra­ter­nity of the tank crew, sur­vives be­ing trapped in the deep tank ditch and es­capes land mines and the Ger­man cross­fire.

Möll­berg’s nos­tal­gic mem­ory of Africa is one of the ex­alted mo­ments of the novel:

The end­less suc­ces­sion of days un­der the dusty fir­ma­ment of Libya or the heavy leaden sky of the Congo, the tracks of in­vis­i­ble an­i­mals con­verg­ing on the wa­ter points, the ex­o­dus of starv­ing dogs un­der the empty sky, the time of day when every thought be­comes a blank, the gi­ant trees gloomily soar­ing up in the pre­his­toric void.

Though he longs for th­ese ex­otic places, his lec­ture at Al­tenburg re­jects the con­ti­nent he once loved. Some of the speak­ers ide­al­is­ti­cally pro­pose the unity of mankind. Möll­berg, re­ject­ing this theme, makes some weird clay and bronze fig­ures—a strik­ing con­trast to the hand­some carved wooden Gothic stat­ues in Al­tenberg and in the dis­tant Stras­bourg cathe­dral. But th­ese are hideous hy­brids, in­spired by the mon­sters in Bosch and Breugel, and par­ody the grotesque dis­tor­tions of African carv­ings: ‘pen­guins with cats’ faces, squir­rels with fins, fish with ec­to­plas­mic heads, birds of prey with mon­keys’ bod­ies’. The unity of mankind turns out to be an il­lu­sion, re­futed by the fail­ure of Pan-Turk­ism and by Möll­berg’s re­pu­di­a­tion of fif­teen years of eth­no­log­i­cal re­search. Möll­berg has thrown away the man­u­script of his un­pub­lished book, Civil­i­sa­tion, Con­quest and Fate. The pages, blown across Africa by the desert winds from the Sa­hara to Zanz­ibar, recall the let­ters writ­ten by the French pris­on­ers of war in Chartres,

thrown away by the Ger­man guards and also blown away by the wind.

In the great­est scene in Mal­raux’s novel, the poi­son gas at­tack against the Rus­sians in 1915, the vic­to­ri­ous Ger­man sol­diers per­son­ally con­front their vic­tims. Hor­ri­fied by the suc­cess of the gas, they wearily carry their suf­fer­ing, burned and as­phyx­i­ated en­e­mies back to the safety of their own trenches. The men who re­lease the gas and the men who are poi­soned by it are both vic­tims of this bar­bar­ity. As the hu­man­ity of the res­cue tran­scends the gas at­tack, this Ger­man re­treat is more of a moral vic­tory than a Ger­man ad­vance. Mal­raux writes of Vin­cent, who gasps for breath and dies while res­cu­ing a Rus­sian sol­dier, ‘What he liked about war was the mas­cu­line com­rade­ship, the ir­rev­o­ca­ble com­mit­ments that courage im­poses’. Vin­cent has dis­cov­ered that there is no mono­lithic unity in civ­i­liza­tion, but still be­lieves in com­mon hu­man­ity.

In The Wal­nut Trees of Al­tenburg Mal­raux por­trays En­ver as a coura­geous ide­al­ist who re­mains faith­ful to his vi­sion. Strongly at­tracted to this flam­boy­ant fig­ure, he dis­torts his­tory and char­ac­ter to por­tray the Turk­ish ad­ven­turer. Vin­cent, his dis­il­lu­sioned al­ter-ego, takes the pre­war trip to Tur­kic Asia which fore­shad­ows the same jour­ney that led to En­ver’s death in 1922. Mal­raux omits his evil acts and his fail­ures, awards him a mil­i­tary vic­tory in Libya and leaves him at the peak of his power. He does not de­scribe how he died fight­ing for a hope­less but no­ble cause. The lives of En­ver Pasha and Vin­cent Berger em­body the great themes of the novel, de­fined by Joseph Frank as ‘Man’s ir­re­me­di­a­ble soli­tude; his ab­surd but un­quench­able long­ing to tri­umph over time; his obli­ga­tion to as­sume the bur­den of free­dom by stak­ing his life for his val­ues; his de­fi­ance of death as an ul­ti­mate af­fir­ma­tion of ‘au­then­tic’ ex­is­tence.’ Mal­raux was drawn to the ide­al­ism, Napoleonic am­bi­tion and heroic fail­ure of the rev­o­lu­tion­ary En­ver, whose qual­i­ties he ad­mired and shared. Like his cre­ator, En­ver ex­em­pli­fies the ide­ol­ogy of ac­tion, the de­sire to leave a scar on the map and the pos­si­bil­ity of tri­umphant achieve­ment de­spite mil­i­tary de­feat.

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