The first I ever heard of Angkor Wat’s fabulous temple complex was reading Andre Malraux at a young age, probably Man’s Fate, though I’m not so sure now.  I put the vivid memory of it in my sack of longing where it has surfaced to glitter at odd moments over the years.  Now, on the way to Cambodia in February of 2013, I thought I’d track down the passages to see how much my own imagination had added, or to compare his descriptions then with what I would actually see.

Quick searches led me not to Man’s Fate but to The Way of Kings [1930] (as it is titled in a recent Howard Curtis translation.  The early translation by Stuart Gilbert, was titled The Royal Way.) What a strange book!  Malraux was in Cambodia in 1923, with his wife Clara, doing exactly what the characters are doing in the novel — poaching, with intent to smuggle, stone religious sculptures from abandoned and jungle-overrun temples.  In real life he was caught, tried, convicted and sentenced to three years in jail by a French colonial court in Phnom Penh.  His collaborator, Louis Chevasson, and presumed model for Perken in the novel, was given eighteen months.  Malraux’s wife Clara, also with them on the escapade was set free since “the wife is required to follow the husband,” she could not, herself, be responsible. [Yes, times have changed!]

The plot of the novel follows, and expands upon, Malraux’s and Chevasson’s expedition of thievery.  From the moment we meet Claude Vannec and Perken [no other name?] in a Djibouti whore house the narrative and their conversations inform us of their hyper-sexual and experience obsessed characters. …”the hand pointing to a young black woman, naked (shaved of her body hair), a dazzling patch of sunlight on her pointed right breast…”

They form a friendship of similar types in the 14 days of passage, both pushing against the constraints of bourgeois life, both adventurers, Claude young, Perken experienced.

He had no desire to sell cars, stocks and shared, or speeches, like those of his friends whose slicked-down hair signified their distinction, nor to build bridges, like those whose badly cut hair signified their know-how.  Why did such people work?  To gain esteem.  He hated the esteem they were seeking.  For a man without children and without a god, submission to order was the most profound submission to death.

So male! So French! A novel in which the ideas are as important as the action:

What the man who knew he was separate had to demand of himself before anything else was courage.  What to do with the corpses of ideas which dominated the conduct of men who thought their existence was useful to some kind of salvation, what to do with the words — those other corpses– of those who wanted to live their lives according to a model?  There was no purpose in life, but that in itself had become a condition of action.

After a literary detour that fills in Claude’s life, and a detour in the voyage when they part in Singapore, the two meet up in Phnom Penh.  There they board a launch towards the jungle proper and the shadows of the Royal Road (one of a network of  roads spreading out from 12th century Angkor Wat to other parts of Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam) looking for some stone — worth at least 50,000 francs!– and to pick up the trail of an even older adventurer, Grabot, whom Perken wants to find. Machine guns enter into the picture as well.

Perken has been ‘in-country’ before. His maleness is given added luster:

  “There was talk of the missions the Siamese had entrusted to him among the rebel tribes, the way he had organized in Shan country and the Laotian marches, ..the passion he was said to have possessed once, a passion  for dominance, for the savage power he would not let anyone control, his decline, his sexual activities.

And not Perken alone, but Claude:

The austere need to dominate he had spoken of to Perken, the desire to dominate death, echoed within him with every throb of the blood in his temples, as imperious as a sexual need.

Strange indeed. I see a graphic comic book with its hyper-masculanized figures, stepping into the looming jungle, death and darkness surrounding them; they, chests out-thrust, biceps bulging, brows knotted with thought, unafraid.

And the jungle does loom.  The images come from another age when the tropics and all associated with them was devilish and dark — thereby permitting the Europeans to enslave and murder those who lived there. [Rubber slavery in the Amazon, in Peru, in Indochina.]

The jungle and the heat, though, were stronger than their anxiety: like a man sinking into illness, Claude was sinking into this ferment, in which the shapes swelled and grew and decayed outside the world where men mattered, dividing him from himself, with the force of darkness.  And everywhere insects.

The other animals, furtive, usually invisible, came from another universe, a universe in which the leaves on the trees did not seem joined by the air itself to the gummy leaves over which the horses walked… But the insects lived off the jungle, from the little black creatures, round as balls, crushed by the hooves of bullocks pulling the carts and the ants scurrying up the sides of porous trees…the disgusting virulence of microscopic life.

(The times have turned much since then.  Read books about the jungle written today, and they are likely to be non-fiction, explorations or accounts of much older adventures, naturalist works.  We get nothing like the portrait of damp, dark savagery of Malraux’s years.  Dangerous, yes.  Unknown, surely, enormous, incomprehensible but not threatening as if from another world. [See for example The Lost City of Z,  River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey, and One River. Even Romulo Gallegos’ Canaima, a coming of age story in the Venezuelan jungle, written in 1935, just 5 years after Malraux’s novel,  has nothing of the dark, dripping, insect plagued imagery of the French man.])

The men find a stone relief worth having.  And here, these adventurers, these manly men, show themselves to be anything but: they have come unprepared.  They have no idea of what tools, what skills and yes, what engineering, it will take to wrest the stones from their resting places.  They chip at carboniferous sandstone with a small chisel. They hammer at it.  They wonder if bullocks pulling at ropes might dislodge them.  Claude finally turns the hammer around and uses the nail-pry as a chisel with the momentum of a full swing to help.  It works.  And then the claw breaks –and they have brought no other hammer heads!  A few handles but no heads.

I lose sympathy for idiots quickly.  You go into the jungle the first rule is be prepared. Then, when danger comes (even if only a ‘fiction’)  the contest is interesting; we can pull for the man who has done everything right and is still overcome, or makes a small but fatal error. We recognize our human fraility, and care. For those who, with contempt for bridge-builders in their brain, go in with only a contract-to-sell what they find, we have little sympathy, or interest.

It comes as small surprise, after the images of the jungle, that the native peoples are of similar cast: devilish, cunning, barbarous….

The Mois

 “…stopped at the edge of the clearing, swarming like dogs or wolves behind that mysterious line, as if some occult power were forbidding them to cross…”, “a circle of brutes…”,  “the eyes of greedy animals…”  “subhuman men…”, “their jabbering subsided…”  “…the legs covered with excema, this vile, bloodstained loincloth, this human being capable only of snares and cunning, like the beasts of the jungle.”

Not remembering of course that he, the narrator, the protagonist, is the invader and thief, that he has brought guns – just in case.

The portrait is not a surprise within the text; it is more of a surprise, given who the author is, or who he became.  Malraux, after his sentence for theft was lifted, returned to Indo-China and edited a virulently anti-colonialist newspaper in Saigon until it was shut down.  He was a well known man-of-the-left — until the Algerian war and friendship with Charles DeGaulle flipped him.  Yet it’s interesting, even so, to think about a man-of-the-left, with such attitudes about the people for whom he is fighting — can this be a good thing? Perhaps it was the arrest and trial that moved him from being a dilettante and wealthy woman’s husband into a man who had felt the heavy hand of colonial justice; perhaps he wrote from his past attitudes as he moved into new. It has to be said, however, the portraits of colonized people in The Way of the Kings would be recognized and approved of by those Malraux was coming to detest.

Having heaved one bas-relief onto their carts and proceeded on they find that the carts and bullocks of the next village, where they hoped to release their present team and acquire a new one, had fled.  Perken presses on.  Bad goes to worse and they enter rebel territory,  the people of the Stiengs.  And there they find Grabot, no longer the manliest man in the jungle but a slave, blinded by those he once dominated  The two men face down a band of Mois in some pages of gripping terse writing, the complex paragraphs of struggle with ‘aloneness’ and existence left behind.  They strike a deal with the tribe and then, released to carry out their end of the bargain, alert the colonial authorities.

“…the government will take the opportunity to send in the militia to quell the rebellion, and to occupy everything they can in rebel country.  It’s a good excuse, and a real advantage.  A white man tortured … the people who hold the railway concession are strongly in favor of a military occupation…”

The story ends, as has been foretold and retold throughout the novel, in death.  Perken’s knee during his desperate negotiations with the Stieng, had gotten infected by spines buried in the ground.  They have been guided to the border with Siam.  Claude knows he can make it to Bangkok and from there back home.  “There was nothing to stop him, except the presence of death.”  Bound to Perken, he stays.

He couldn’t abandon him, either to other human beings, from whom he felt forever separated, or to death.

And manliness, from courage, from decisions made, enters again into the text.  Women are sent for — useful for sex, the companion of death.  The two men are satisfied and continue to trek to Perken’s “land,” high in the Lao mountains.  He hopes to return to the scene of his youth and his dominance, and to help the Lao Buddhists, who carry guns nonetheless, fend off the militias sent after the “rebels,” clearing the way for the new railway lines, and the fleeing Mois.

It’s a sad story and ends sadly.  Death wins.

I was curious about the language throughout, often perplexed by the referents, or linkage of clauses.  Howard Curtis, an experienced translator, with credits from Balzac to Simenon, says about La Voie Royal:

…an extreme style, as tangled and dense as the jungle through which his protagonists struggle.  Ornate descriptions, torrents of adjectives, extravagant similes, sentences of Proustian complexity, bulging with subordinate clauses, interspersed with dialog so laconic as to verge at times on the cryptic; these are not the calm, measured, analytical tones of classical French.

The earlier version,  The Royal Wayby Stuart Gilbert, whose translations to English of Camus were all we knew for decades, is hard to track down these days. I’ll be curious to get my hands on it to see how he dealt with onerous passages such as “What the man who knew he was separate.. (above.)

And the descriptions I have carried with me so long?  Not to be found.  I don’t mind at all waiting to see these Hindu-become-Buddhist temples for myself, though the tourism patina that surrounds all of the world’s great localities is bound to distract.  It would be interesting to read an experience of those who came upon them after centuries of neglect and were rocked to their very souls trying to grasp such a then unknown civilization and such a collapse.