For the last year I lived in Phnom Penh, I rented an apartment in the French colonial part of town. It fell within my modest budget because, despite the grandeur of a few façades, the neighborhood was on the sketchy side. It was one of the only places in the city where sex workers could congregate on the street. At night, cars prowled with their windows down and men swigged beer by the abandoned former police headquarters. There was a sleazy bar on one corner named Colonail.
My apartment was a yellow one-bedroom on the first floor that was dark in the daytime when the baby blue shutters and doors were closed. Large fans spun on the high ceilings. From the balcony I could see the still-functioning colonial-era Post Office on one side and the Tonle Sap River on the other. I fell asleep listening to foghorns from ships coming into harbor. Sitting inside on a quiet afternoon, it could have been early 20th century Indochina.
Back then, this building was the Manolis Hotel. Parts still have the original floor tiles and room numbers are still fixed to the slatted wooden doors. For a brief period in the early 1920s, one of the rooms belonged to the legendary novelist and statesman Andre Malraux who spent many months under house arrest there. For no particular reason, I was convinced my room had once been his.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
It was 1923 when Malraux, then 22, arrived in Cambodia with his wife Clara. Newly broke Parisian intellectuals, they had a scheme to steal statues from the Angkor temples to sell in the West. It failed, and they were both arrested in December of that year. The legal wrangle that ensued, ending in a one-year suspended sentence for Malraux and nothing for his wife, meant he spent more than a year stuck in Phnom Penh and, later, Saigon.
The incident is often mentioned as an aside in Cambodian history books but less often noted is the extraordinary change that it wrought in Malraux. During that time he became an anti-colonial agitator and champion of causes that are still important in the region today. But to most people, he’s best-known for his time in Indochina as the era’s most curious thief.
Raoul Jennar is out to change that. The political scientist and researcher, who has Belgian and French heritage, was 17 when he discovered Malraux’s novels, described by their first publisher as “absurdest in nature, with strange plot turns and metaphors, airy, sometimes humorous in tone, while still dealing with seemingly serious matters.” In a recent email, Jennar put it like this: “A novel by Malraux, it’s not simply a story. It’s a deep road inside the mind of the key characters: how they deal with injustice, with oppression and, above all, with death.”
His encounter with the work of Malraux was the start of a life-long obsession. In Belgium, Jennar was a member of the ‘Belgian Friends of Andre Malraux’ society, which organized exhibitions, symposiums and presentations. He owns 114 books on Malraux. But, for a long time, this was not enough. “About the 26 months Malraux spent in the French colony of Indochina, most authors wrote about the theft of statues in the ruins of Banteay Srei temple,” he said. “But it’s hard to find details about the life of Malraux as a journalist and an activist against colonialism.”
So Jennar decided to write about it. His new book, Comment Malraux est devenu Malraux (How Malraux became Malraux), released in April by French publishing house Cap Bear, documents the radical change Malraux underwent after the botched robbery. “Malraux moved from political indifference to a political commitment; he moved from a man of thought to a man to a man of action,” Jennar said.
Andre Malraux died in 1976. Jennar never met him, despite spending the better part of three decades in Cambodia, working variously as an advisor to international NGOs and the government. “I know very well his daughter Florence,” he said, adding that she helped with the book. Most of his research was done in French colonial archives. He also scoured four volumes written by Clara.
Jennar found that, while awaiting trial in Phnom Penh and Saigon, Malraux suddenly awoke to the abuses of the colonial regime. “The purpose of the French [in Indochina] was not settlement, like it was in Algeria or, for the British in Australia, for instance,” said Jennar. “The purpose was economic exploitation using the local labor force. Extremely important investments were made in mines, rubber, tea and coffee plantations and textile. The local population were treated as people of second class by French civil servants, businessmen and settlers.”
There was no “legal apartheid” but an “indigenous code” institutionalized discrimination, he said. “To be clear, it was slavery without the status. It was real forced labor. France, which gave to the world the 1789 human rights declaration — “all the people are equal” — failed completely to give the same rights the French enjoyed to the local populations. The official explanation of colonialism was the so-called ‘French civilizing mission.’”
Malraux took up the cause against the administration. He wrote articles about the poor conditions of prisons and the land-grabbing that happened on an industrial scale. In Saigon, he founded an anti-colonial newspaper which he named L’Indochine and, later, L’Indochine enchaine [Indochina Chained] after the authorities shut it down for three months. They covered corruption and scandals like the Bardez Affair of 1925, when a French administrator was murdered by locals over excessive taxation. One man was sentenced to die and five others sent to a penal colony. Malraux condemned the trial as a travesty of justice.
“Malraux blamed the French colonial authorities for failing to bring to Indochina the values of the 1789 Revolution and, in particular, the Declaration For Human and Citizen Rights,” said Jennar. “He wrote himself, about his involvement in Indochina between 1923 and 1925, ‘we wanted to make 1789 in a country that didn’t make it.’”
“Most of the time, Malraux and the people around him failed to change the behaviors of the colonial civil servants and administration. They themselves faced repression and, at the end of 1925, Malraux left Indochina.”
It was this early experience, Jennar argues, that set Malraux on the path that led him to join the French resistance during World War II and become what the Los Angeles Times called ‘the Byron of his time.’ In addition to fighting fascism in Spain and later, the Nazis. Malraux published a string of successful novels. Some were based on his experiences in Indochina. After forging a friendship with former French president Charles de Gaulle, he was appointed culture minister.
“It’s a pity Malraux is known only for the stealing of artifacts in a temple,” said Jennar. “He should be known more for his strong support of colonized people, blaming the colonial system, fighting colonial corruption, denouncing the capture of lands by French corporations, the torture in the prisons, the indigenous code that created a legal and criminal discrimination between the French and Indochinese people. He was a human rights activist in Indochina.”
I went back to Phnom Penh a couple of months ago and, by chance, stayed in my old room in the old Manolis. Looking at the broken number plate on the wooden door, I entertained the same idle thoughts about Malraux, the young and foolish crook, as I thought of him then. Next time, I’ll know better.