Obituary: Jean Malaquais

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AMONG THE writers who were great world wanderers - Conrad, Traven, Cendrars - we should include a lesser-known name, that of Jean Malaquais, a Pole who taught himself French and in 1939 won the prestigious Renaudot Prize for fiction with his extraordinary autobiographical novel Les Javanais, lauded to the skies by no less than Trotsky, Andre Gide and Pierre Herbart.

Malaquais was a most unusual man who led a most unusual life. He was born Wladimir Malacki in 1908 in the Jewish ghetto in Warsaw, into a family he described as "totally agnostic". His father was a professor of Greek and Latin, his mother a musician. At an early age, when he was only seven years old, he became forever suspicious of all authority, and especially of the police, after seeing Russian mounted police slashing off heads with their sabres.

As soon as he had got his high-school diploma, he ran away from home to escape the oppressive atmosphere of the ghetto:

I had the feeling that the end of the world was approaching in Poland, so I wanted to discover the life of other lands before it disappeared entirely. Morally and intellectually I was a tramp, a companion of the dispossessed.

He did all kinds of odd jobs: building labourer, miner in the lead and silver pits of Provence, deck hand in the merchant marine, fruit and vegetable porter in Les Halles. In Paris, he spent all his spare time in the lovely old Sainte-Genevieve library, the only one that stayed open at night and was centrally heated, where he studied French language and literature all on his own.

By 1938, he had completed the first draft of Les Javanais, the utterly frank account of his life as a miner in the "Java" lead and silver mine in Provence, in which all the stateless, homeless foreigners living outside the law could find labouring work - and no awkward questions asked by the police. These marginals and clandestins were of all nationalities: Germans and Austrians who had fled the Fuhrer's advance, Russians in bad odour with Stalin, Italians whose socialism had brought down the wrath of Mussolini upon them, Moldavian-Wallachians, Armenians, Turks, Poles - all of them known as "the Javanese".

They enjoyed passable living conditions, and were not deprived of food, drink and tobacco at Madame Michel's corner bar, or of sexual relief at the local brothel, where the girls were kind-hearted. These men from all four corners of the world developed their own pungent jargon spiced with gutter French, Jewish humour, German expletives and operatic bursts of Italian lyricism. It was a temperamental tongue, full of sarcasm, nostalgia, East European derision, but not lacking in tenderness, seriousness and optimism upheld against all odds. It was the original ideal European Community, a model of self-help and mutual trust that our present very loose union of nations would do well to copy.

This violently expressive language formed the basis of Malaquais' literary style, creating a realism that has often been compared with Celine's. The young author was lucky to meet a friend of Andre Gide, the writer Pierre Herbert, who had accompanied the Master to the Soviet Union on that disillusioning visit.

Herbart was a fervent Communist and a homosexual whose short novel L'Age d'or ("The Golden Age", 1953) is the best ever written about young homosensual passions: to our shame, this beautiful work has never been translated into English. Herbert put Malaquais in touch with Gide, to whom he sent his novel. Gide was wildly enthusiastic about its original style and unusual subject, praising its "epic grandeur, at once clownish and tragicomic". It was published by Dencel in December 1939.

Trotsky wrote a famous review of it, which is included in his collected works, and it was given brilliant reviews in the French press. When at the age of 29 Malaquais finally received the news that his novel had been awarded the Prix Renaudot, he was sharing the general boredom of the drole de guerre encamped in Lorraine on the Maginot Line, and it was some days before his commanding officer could be persuaded to let him have leave to go to Paris to receive the award and sign thousands of copies of his book.

But the war began to make itself felt and with almost surprising ease the Nazis occupied France. Malaquais made his way to the free zone in the south of France, and in Marseilles met a number of writers and artists in a similar plight, hoping to find a ship to take them to the United States. Among Malaquais' friends were Andre Breton, Max Ernst, Victor Serge, Heinrich and Golo Mann, Franz Werfel and the tragic Walter Benjamin, who committed suicide when he was on the point of being smuggled into Spain.

Malaquais was in a similarly dangerous situation, because after being captured by the Nazis he managed to escape. He was given asylum for a few months by the novelist Jean Giono. But things were looking desperate for all those would-be refugees, and Malaquais wrote imploring letters to Gide and Herbert begging for help. In his journals, Gide mentions one of these letters, accusing him and Herbart of deserting him: but Malaquais had forgotten to put his address on the letter, so it was impossible to get in touch with him.

Finally, through the selfless devotion of a young American, Varian Fry, and successful interventions by Gide and Herbart, Malaquais and his companions were guided clandestinely across the Pyrenees into Spain, where Malaquais boarded a ship at Cadiz to Venezuela. There he stayed through the war, writing his memoirs of soldiering in France, Journal de Guerre and Journal de Meteque, which of course could not be published in France under what Malaquais calls the putainiste Petain regime in Vichy - a conflation of the word putain, "prostitute", and the collaborationist traitor General Petain. But they were published in the United States in 1943. They have only recently (1997) been published in France, to great and somewhat shamefaced acclaim.

For Malaquais' great novel had fallen into oblivion in France. He taught French for some years in the US, where he wrote a considerable body of work in the form of novels, essays, plays and short stories. Only one novel, Planete sans visa, was published in France in 1947, and went unnoticed. While he was living in America, Malaquais became friendly with Norman Mailer, who was enthusiastic about his work.

Malaquais translated The Naked and the Dead into his suitably idiosyncratic French. His novel Le Gaffeur (1953) was prefaced by Mailer, as was a collection of short stories, Coup de barre. Le Gaffeur was translated into English in 1954 as The Joker, but the task of transforming the unique style of Les Javanais into readable English has apparently proved too daunting for our unadventurous publishing houses.

Finally, Jean Malaquais returned to Europe, where he lived most of the time in Geneva. His last work was a monumental study of Kierkegaard which was originally a thesis sustained at the Sorbonne. It was natural that he should be attracted by that unclassifiable outsider, the very untheological theologian and philosopher who was a forerunner of the existentialism Malaquais had been practising without knowing it all his life. Fortunately, Les Javanais has been brought back to life in a fine new edition (1995) by the excellent Phebus firm in Paris, which is the publisher of his Journal de guerre and which will reissue all his other deplorably neglected works.

Wladimir Malacki (Jean Mala-quais), writer: born Warsaw 1908; died Geneva 22 December 1998.