Shikumen street where Chen prowled
La Condition Humane (Man's Fate)
Chen Da-er, terrorist March 21, 1927
‘Should he try to raise the mosquito netting?
Or should he strike through it? Chen was torn
with anguish-his eyes riveted to the mass of
white gauze that hung from the ceiling over
a body less visible than a shadow, and from
which emerged only that foot half-turned in
sleep, yet living-human flesh.
The only light came from the neighborhood
building, a great rectangle of wan light cut by
window bars, one which streaked the bed just
below the foot as if to stress its solidity and life.
Four or five klaxons screamed at once. Was he
discovered? The wave of uproar subsided: some
traffic jam, there were still traffic jams out there
in the world of men.
He repeated to himself that this man must die
stupidly, for he knew that he would kill him.
Whether he was caught or not, executed or not,
did not matter. Nothing existed but this foot,
this man whom he must strike without letting
him defend himself-for if he defended himself,
he would cry out. Chen was becoming aware,
with a revulsion verging on nausea, that he stood
there not as a fighter, but as a sacrificial priest….
The sleeper, lying on his back in the European
style bed, was wearing only a pair of short drawers,
but his ribs were not visible under the full flesh.
Chen had to take the nipples as gauging points.
He changed the position of the dagger: blade down.
To touch this motionless body was as difficult as to
stab a corpse, perhaps for the same reason. As if
called forth by this notion of a corpse, a grating
sound suddenly issued from the man’s throat. Chen
could no longer even draw back, for his legs and
arms had gone completely limp. But the rattle
became regular: the man was not dying, he was
snoring. He again became living, vulnerable; and
at the same time, Chen felt himself ridiculed.
The body turned gently toward the right. Was he
going to wake up now? With a blow that would
have split a plank Chen struck through the gauze.
Sensitive to the very tip of the blade, he felt the
body rebound towards him, flung up by the springs
of the bed, He stiffened his arm furiously to hold it
down: like the severed halves drawn to each other,
the legs sprang together toward the chest; then
they jerked out, straight and stiff. Chen would have
struck again-but how was he to withdraw the dagger….
Nothing bore witness to the struggle-not even the
tear in the gauze, which seemed to have been
divided into two strips—nothing but the silence and the
over-powering intoxication into which he was sinking.
Rén de Qíngkuàng
Man's Fate depicts the 1927 Communist uprising in Shanghai and the party's later annihilation in a massacre led by its former ally Chiang Kai-shek and his Nationalist forces. Malraux's alienated revolutionary heroes - Ch'en, a young Chinse fighter, Kyo Gisors, a Eurasian organizer, Katow, a former student of medicine from Russia, and others - find a sense of human solidarity and dignity in action and death. "The great mystery is not that we should have been thrown here at random between the profusion of matter and that of the stars; it is that from our very prison we should draw, from our own selves, images powerful enough to deny our nothingness." (from Man's Fate) Ch'en is a terrorist who struggles with his orders: "He was serving the gods of his choice; but beneath his sacrifice to the Revolution lay a world of depths beside which this night of crushing anguish was bright as day. 'To assassinate is not only to kill, alas...'" The title of the book came from the 17th-century philosopher Pascal. At the end of the novel, Katow gives away his cyanide capsules, and faces his death, complete aware of its nature - he will be thrown into the boiler of a steam locomotive.