Francois de Massot conducts a short interview with left communist writer Jean Malaquais, for the journal Informations Ouvrieres.
Informations Ouvrieres (IO): Your first novel, Les Javanais, is set in France. What was your first contact with France?
Jean Malaquais (JM): When I had taken my school-leaving exams, at the age of 17, I left Poland and my family. However paradoxical it may seem today, my intention of seeing the world was also a determination to move outside the world of books. My father taught Latin and Greek, and I grew up surrounded by books. I wanted to know something different. I travelled across Romania, Poland, Palestine…
But my real aim was to get to Paris. For me, as for many people, France was the homeland of the Rights of Man, of freedom and the Commune. I was in Paris on July 14. What else was there to do but go to the Place de la Bastille? Just before dawn, I went to sleep under the awning of a roundabout. I was - in brutal fashion – dragged out by two policemen, who took me to the police station. As my papers were in order, they had to let me go again. I was unwise enough to ask one of the policemen why he had hurt me. In reply I got a smack across the face that knocked me right off my feet… it left an indelible mark on me. Of course, cops are the same all over the world, but France has a particular “aura” about it.
IO: And how, after this experience and the rejection of books, was it possible to become a writer?
JM: I survived by working at night in the Paris food market. I spent my days in the Saint-Genevieve library. By accident one day, in October 1935, I found an extract of Andre Gide’s Journal dated March 1935. Gide regretted the fact that he had never had to “work for a living”; he had thus been deprived of an essential experience. These remarks threw me into a terrible rage.
I wrote to him telling him that he didn’t know what he was talking about, that if he had his hands in the grease of the factory, there would have been one proletarian more, but one writer less… he replied to me. We met. He told me: “You must write.” He encouraged me and helped me. We remained friends until he died…
IO: Your novel Les Javanais appeared in 1939. You won the Theophraste Renauot prize. Leon Trotsky wrote to you very enthusiastically…
JM: Yes. I only found out about the letter and his article later on, as I had been called up. I think that Trotsky was impressed by the fact that in the book Stalin appears as the incarnation of evil.
On this point, let me relate an anecdote. My book has been translated into Hungarian. In the text, Trotsky’s name appears repeatedly. Now the name of Trotsky does not appear in my novel: it had been worked in to replace Stalin by the publishers who were under the Stalinists’ thumb. I have never been the member of a Trotskyist organization. But there is one point on which I have no argument. For me, Stalinism is the supreme form of counter-revolution, the vomit of the earth.
IO: If you didn’t receive the letter Leon Trotsky sent you, there was another point of contact. You wrote a book called World Without Visa, which dealt with the fate of refugees stuck in Marseilles in 1941 waiting for a visa. Now “World Without Visa” is the title of the final chapter of Trotsky’s autobiography, My Life.
JM: Of course. And I lived this experience. It was at the very last moment that I was able to get to Mexico, by way of Venezuela. There I became a friend of Natalia Trotsky who was a remarkable woman.
IO: When you returned to France in 1947 World Without Visa appeared and the Editions Spartacus also published a pamphlet by you titled Louis Aragon, Professional Patriot. You were not very kind to the official poet of the French Communist Party. Many things have happened since then. Do you still stand by your position?
JM: Absolutely. The Stalinists, who hadn’t hesitated to get into bed with the Nazis at the time of the Hitler-Stalin pact (which Aragon supported), wanted to present themselves as the only “anti-Fascists.” Aragon went so far as to demand Gide’s head. I repeat, the crimes of Stalinism are abominable. The worst thing is that Stalinism has for a long time discredited – perhaps for a century – the very idea of a classless society.
IO: So, after all these experiences, what would you say in particular to the youth of today?
JM: That, despite everything, under no circumstances should they accept this society, a society which, in the name of money, crushes and mutilates. They must rebel – by that I don’t mean breaking windows, but refusing this system which is worse than slavery, and the xenophobia that goes with it, something which makes my book completely contemporary. And that is why, after having lived through this century, I can say: “I’m a dirty foreigner, it’s my main claim to fame.”.
First published in 1996 in the French publication Informations Ouvrieres. First published in English in Revolutionary History in 1999. Scanned and OCRed for libcom.org from an edition in the Communicating Vessels Anthology.