In the summer of 1923, André Malraux had bad news for Clara Goldschmidt, the rich young woman whom he had married in 1921. He had to confess that her entire dowry had vanished into thin air as the result of some ill-advised speculation (Mexican mining). Malraux however refused to simply give up.
He came up with an alternative way of making money in a way that was both pleasant and exciting, organising an expedition to French Indochina, officially in order to study its temples. His actual goal was the theft of Khmer statues, which he intended to sell to art collectors in Europe and America. He had already contacted buyers via his good friend, art dealer Kahnweiler.
That very year, Malraux and Clara set sail for the jungle of Cambodia, where they managed to make their way to the temple of Bantea Srei (Angkor). Sculptures and fragments disappeared into their luggage. The illegal art trade in Cambodia was controlled by a few criminal clans, which an outsider like Malraux couldn't easily penetrate. The expedition was a complete failure, and Malraux was convicted to three years of prison. Clara managed to return to France, where she was able to convince a committee of famous writers to publish a petition. This was successful: his conviction was changed on appeal to one year's probation.
Release of writing talent
The petition included the autographs of André Gide, François Mauriac, Max Jacob, Louis Aragon, André Breton and publisher Gaston Gallimard, among others. As the main reason for setting Malraux free, his friends submitted that it was unacceptable to detain such a great writing talent as Malraux. This was a curious argument to make at that time, as the talented adventurer had had only written a single book, Lunes en papier, and a few articles. They would however be proved right, for Malraux published novels not long after his Cambodian adventure that would forever establish his reputation as a brilliant author: Les conquérants (1928), La voie royale (1930) (about a 'young archaeologist'searching for Khmer art in the Cambodian jungle), and especially La condition humaine, for which he was awarded the Prix Goncourt in 1933. All these books are set in Asia, the continent that continued to fascinate Malraux in spite of his failed Cambodian adventure. Perhaps as a result of his humiliating prison experiences in Phnom-Penh and his direct contact with a suppressed population, he chose the path of revolution.
Les conquérants begins in June 1925. The novel deals with revolts in Canton and Hong Kong, and the actions of the young Pierre Garine from Switzerland, who has sided with the Chinese revolutionaries. The book had such an impact due the to way in which Malraux portrayed his protagonist: not as a nationalist, or as someone driven by religious feelings or by anything else, but as someone who claimed to be completely apolitical. His only motivation was perhaps a vague fear of mortality. Although his alter ego Garine finds life completely absurd and pointless, he does fight alongside the suppressed Chinese. His antagonists are Borodine, the Russian party stooge who wants to force the communist Soviet system on the Chinese, the terrorist Hong and the pacifist Tcheng Dai, a kind of Ghandi-figure who commits suicide as the ultimate form of protest.
The lack of political moralism and revolutionary optimism in Les conquérants was not universally appreciated.