A deeply divisive novel, laying bare the troubled divide between the political and the philosophical aspects of existentialism. It cannot resolve that divide, between the communal dream of a better world and the isolation of an individual being; it does not offer salvation from the latter in the former, save in the words of Kyo and Katov who at least stand for the dignity and freedom of the ‘masses’ though their doctrine is notably free of any actual content.
Key words: isolation, aloneness, painful freedom of relationships, the void of opium haze, “an ectasy toward downward”, “murder left no trace upon his face”. Fate, condemnation, “the fate of China being decided,” and “the illusion of being ble to whatever they pleased” fatalism as Marxism, a fascination with suicide as radiant exhuberance, pain as caused to others, as others caused to oneself. Murder as aloneness, “all fighting was absurd, nothing existed in the face of life”. It is a grim existentialism, in which our fate is suffering, our situation alone, the human condition. And the revolution, doomed to fail. A human being, thought Ferral, “an individual life, unique isolate, like mine…” spoken like a true capitalist?
And yet, the human condition: if we are fated, if “no doubt they were all condemned, the essential was that should not be in vain” we are free to “serve the gods of one’s choosing,” Kyo as hero: “no dignity for man who does not know why he works” and “freedom is not an exchange, it is freedom” and it must be fought for struggled for, died for. Heroic, successful, sympathetic revolution, and in Kyo’s work to the Comintern agents in Hankow, the peasants must unite with the workers, “behind the army, in the rural districts, the Communists are beginning to organize the peasant Unions,” the people will never be satisfied with the betrayal of the revolution, the revolution fated to succeed, because it offers dignity, purpose, hope, because it is right. Katov’s sacrifice, to save others. It is hard to squre the realism, the intimacy, the sympathy of the description of the April 12 incident, the Shanghai uprising of 1927 and its bloody suppression at the hands of the Nationalists, with the atomization of existentialism. Why make it so specific, so sympathetic, if only to use it for an existentialist fable. Perhaps that is the fable: an existentialist revolution.
The city in revolt: Hankow, 1927.
“Over there were chimneys, cranes, reservoirs – the allies of the Revolution. But Shanghai had taught Kyoo what an active port was like. The one he saw before him was full of nothing but junks and torpedo-boats. He took his field-glasses: a freight-steamer, two, three….
He walked about at random. The kerosene lamps were being lut inside the shops; here and there silhouettes of trees and the curved-up roof-ridges rose against the Western sky, where a light without source lingered, seeming to emanate from the softness of the sky itself and to blend far, far up with the serenity of the night. In the black holes of shop – nonwithstanding the soldiers and the Worker’s Unions – doctors with toad-signs, dealers in herbs and monsters, public writers, casters of spells, astrologers, and fortune-tellers continued their timeless trades by the dim light which blotted out the blood-stains. The shadows melted rather than stretched on the ground, bathed in a bluish phoporescence; the last flash of the superb eveneing that was being staged far away, somewhere in the infinity of worlds, of which only a reflection suffused the earth, was glowing faintly through an enormous archway surmounted by a pagoda eaten away with blackened ivy. Beyond the din of bells and phonographs and the myriad dots and patches of light, a battalion was disappearing into the darkness which had gathered in the mist over the river. Kyo went down to a yard filled with enormous stone blocks: those of the walls, levelled to the ground in sign of the liberation of China…
Rickshaws were waiting on the quay, but Kyo’s anxiety was too great to allow him to remain idle. He preferred to walk. The British concession which England had abandoned in January, the great world banks shut down, but not occupied….”Anguish – a strange sensation, you feel by your heart-beats that you”re not breathing easily, as if you were breathing with your heart…” It was becoming stronger than lucidity. At the corner of a street, in the clearing of a large garden full of trees in bloom, gray in the evening mist, the chimneys of the Western manufactures appeared. No smoke. Of all the chimneys he saw, only the ones of the Arsenal were operating. Was it possible that Hankow, the city to which the Communists of the entire world were looking to save China, was on strike? The Arsenal was working; could they at least count on the Red Army? He no longer dared to run. If Hankow was not what everyone believed it was, all his people were already condemned to death. May too. And himself.
At last, the building of the International Delegation.
The entire villa was lighted up. Kyo knew that Borodin was working on the top story; on the ground-floor the printing-press was running full speed, with the clatter of an enormous ventilator in bad condition”