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André Malraux: big hero or ‘little thief’?

Taing Rinith / Khmer Times Share:
André Malraux in 1933. Supplied

In his home country of France, André Malraux (1901- 1976) was known as an award-winning novelist, a famous art theorist, and a remarkable minister in President Charles de Gaulle’s administration. However, all of these achievements do not erase the fact that he was caught red-handed trying to smuggle artifacts out of Cambodia’s ancient temples in 1921. Despite this, many still view him highly as a critic of French colonial authorities, and a freedom-fighter for non-French people in Indochina. Can this justify his “crime” in Cambodia? Taing Rinith puts André Malraux on trial.

Almost a hundred years ago, in 1923, a 21-year-old André Malraux and his wife Clara arrived in Cambodia, at that time a French protectorate, in search of a Khmer temple, of which he had read about a few years earlier in an article published in the Ecole Francaise d’Extreme-Orient (EFEO) Bulletin by French archaeologist Henri Parmentier. The article described the impressive temples of Cambodia, especially Angkor Wat, and that the site was neglected and overgrown with vegetation.

Malraux, an exploerer who adored T. E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia), wanted to take this opportunity for adventure.

“According to Malraux’s research, the article prompted him to begin a careful analysis of the laws governing archeological sites in Indochina, using the bulletin itself and official publications as his primary references,” writes Walter Langlois, Malraux’s biographer, in his 1966 book “André Malraux: the Indochina adventure”.

Pretending to be mere sightseeing tourists and scholars, Malraux, Clara, and their friend Louis Chevasson received special permission from the authorities to explore the Banteay Srei site.

However, their true plan was to search for artifacts and items that could be sold to art collectors and museums.

They had some bas-reliefs removed from the temple and took them back to Phnom Penh, where they were immediately apprehended by the authorities. The arrest was ordered by none other than George Groslier, the Cambodian Scholar, and founding director of the National Museum of Cambodia, who would later contemptuously refer to Malraux as “le petit voleur” (the little thief).

Groslier with his son and daughter. Supplied

“Upon inquiry, he became convinced that this temple was – legally speaking – abandoned property,” Langlois says.
The trial took place in Phnom Penh on July 16 and 17, 1924. Malraux was sentenced to three years in jail and five years banishment from the colony, while Chevasson received an 18-month jail sentence. However, Malraux appealed in Paris and was released, without serving any jail time.

This incident in Cambodia turned Malraux into a fervent anti-colonialist and an advocate of social change. While in Southeast Asia he organised the Young Annam League (the precursor of the Viet Minh, or Viet Nam League for Independence), became a leading writer and pamphleteer, and founded a newspaper, L’Indochine Enchaînée (“Indochina in Chains”). Malraux took up the cause against the administration, including writing articles about the poor conditions of prisons, the land-grabbing that had happened on an industrial scale, as well as corruption and scandal.

One example is the affairs of Felix Louis Bardez, a French administrator, who was murdered by locals in Kampong Chhnang over excessive taxation in 1925. When the court sentenced one man to death, and five others to a penal colony, Malraux condemned the trial as false justice.

Because of this, some scholars regard him as a hero. Among those is Belgian researcher and journalist Raoul-Marc Jennar, the author of “Comment Malraux est devenu Malraux” (How Malraux became Malraux).

“During the 26 months Malraux spent in the French colony of Indochina, most authors wrote about the theft of the statues in the ruins of Banteay Srei temple,” Jennar said five years ago during the launch of Malraux’s biography.

“But it’s hard to find details about the life of Malraux as a journalist and an activist against colonialism.”

Still, many others condemn Malraux’s theft of ancient artifacts in Cambodia. Cambodian historian Sambo Manara says the André Malraux incident is an example of how the Frenchmen’s love of collections destroyed the Kingdom’s ruins during the colonial period.

“During those times, French archaeologists, with the approval of the French government, were removing large numbers of items from Angkor and bringing them to museums in France,” he says. “For almost a century, these items have still not been returned to Cambodia.”

Kent Davis, Groslier’s biographer and the publisher and editor for DatAsia Press, says Groslier deserved
praise for his commitment to preserving Cambodia’s heritage when he orchestrated the arrest of André Malraux.

“When George became aware that Malraux had come to remove even more irreplaceable heritage from Cambodia, he became an eager participant in stopping this from happening,” Davis says, adding that Groslier never viewed France as “Cambodia’s master” either.

“George was born in Cambodia and all my impressions are that he held the Kingdom in his heart as his true homeland.

George certainly embraced his French heritage as well, and I think that gave him his perhaps idealistic perspective that France should act on Cambodia’s behalf to protect its unique heritage.”

No Regret?As years went by, Malraux wrote several brilliant and powerful novels dealing with the tragic ambiguities of political idealism and revolutionary struggles such as “La Condition humaine” (1933), which made him known to readers all over the world, and “La Voie Royale” (1930), which is set among the Khmer temples of Cambodia that Malraux himself explored.

In 1958, he was appointed as the Minister of Cultural Affairs in the first cabinet of the Fifth Republic by Charles de Gaulle, a position he held for 10 years.

Up to his death in November 1976, Malraux never felt any guilt or regret about the incident in his younger days.

This was confirmed by François Doré, a researcher and manager of the Librairie du Siam et des Colonies, in Bangkok. François actually interviewed Malraux in person in 1969 after he left the French Government.

“I was a young student at the CFJ (Centre de Formation des Journalistes), and I went to his house for an interview on the occasion when he would give the keys of the ministry to his successor,” he says.

“He thought, until his last day, that he was totally right, and actually, he consistently asked to have the statues (from Banteay Srei) returned to him, claiming that he was their rightful owner.”

François also disagrees that Malraux’s theft of the ancient artefacts was a “crime”. “Can you imagine the daily life of this young man of 23, sailing to the other side of the globe to an unknown world not able to swim, to speak one word of English, or to ride a horse? And at the end of the long trip of more than one month, walking for days through the jungle to find an forgotten small temple. And this is nearly 100 years ago! Don’t you call that an adventure?” he said.

Meanwhile, Groslier’s biographer, agrees that the theft was partly caused by Malraux’s youthful craving for adventures, but it was also driven by financial gains.

“He was apparently an egomaniac, narcissist, and perhaps even a sociopath who felt no guilt or shame for his actions,” Davis said.

“Cambodian history is filled with fascinating characters and adventures, but taking things that don’t belong to you – whether you’re a person or a country – is not a good idea.”

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