The rejection of refugees under the lens of Jean Malaquais' “Javanais”

Foreigners and strangers often frighten us: they are part of the unknown. To reduce the fear, let us first define the concept. Even if those two words tend to be confused (in French, their meaning is merged in the single word “étranger1), they represent different notions. The foreigner is a person who does not have the nationality of the country where they live and work; whereas the stranger is defined by their otherness, by being somebody who we are not familiar with: “The Other is most often the one I do not identify with and I consider as outside my community.”2 Xenophobia and racism often result of this amalgam between the nationality of a person and the unconscious and irrational assumption that they are incompatible with our own nationality. Above all, this definition reminds us that otherness is not a fact directly accessible to the human brain in its natural state, but a construction: “[...] externality is defined by geography, history and language. Somebody’s externality is observed and acknowledged; while otherness is constructed.”3 The rise of tensions towards foreigners, especially nowadays in Europe is linked to the confusion between the foreigner, one who does not live in one’s own country, and the fantasy of an Elsewhere that disturbs a certain vision of the national identity (one people, one language, one nation). The fact is that “one is not born a foreigner, but becomes one”, that “no one is born unassigned, placeless or timeless [...]. One does not always become what one always was. In this case, becoming a foreigner is becoming what we were not, what we have never been” 4 is too often forgotten and this leads to the rise of populism and nationalism that encourages a withdrawal despite its contradiction with the supposed values of a true European Union. The stranger, a scapegoat, an outlet for problems related to aggressive capitalism, to the rise of inequalities and to an unregulated globalization, crystallizes tensions.

These issues have been around for a long time: it is easy to make a comparison between the situations today and during the interwar. Indeed, the economic crisis (stock market crash in 1929 vs. financial crisis in 2008), the rise of nationalism (various fascists movements vs. the populists and anti-European parties in Europe: Front National in France, Golden Dawn in Greece, UKIP in the UK, PVV in the Netherlands, etc.) and the several wars (World War II vs. Ukrainian conflict and wars in the Middle-East) describe similar patterns. The violence exerted against foreign populations reached its apex with the rise to power of these parties in the thirties, and its consequences must not be forgotten. Labour, concentration, and extermination camps for human beings considered as the “scum of the Earth5” because of their otherness, their difference, their foreignness, should provoke a larger mobilisation, with Europe responding to the migrants drowning in the Mediterranean and the populations left to suffer without assistance by the politics of silence, and wishing for a miracle solution. A solution to reduce hate and fear is to better know and understand the stranger. One must see the stranger from the inside, apprehend their otherness, reduce the strangeness and bring the different worlds closer. A book from the thirties, still of an “astonishing topicality6”, provides us with a “kaleidoscope7” of narrative voices that allow us to integrate, for the length of the book, inside a community of immigrant workers in the south of France. Les Javanais (“The Javanese”) by Jean Malaquais presents the current problems in Europe and the world with foreigners and otherness under a different light.

Jean Malaquais is an European. Even better, he is an internationalist8, because of his ideals as well as his life story. Originating from Poland, convinced internationalist and an early opponent to Stalinism, he leaves his country after his baccalaureate to explore the world and travels in Europe, in North Africa, surviving by working some odd jobs. He worked in particular in a mine in the South of France in the end of the thirties, and this experience has been the main inspiration for his first novel, Les Javanais. He met André Gide after the former sent the latter an incendiary letter, criticizing him for his declaration in the Nouvelle Revue Française “I feel today, gravely and painfully, this inferiority - of never having had to earn a living, of never having lived in need9.” A long friendship, lasting until Gide’s death, was born from this diatribe, even though Malaquais wrote to Gide, a respected author of the time:

[...] that, if he felt inferior to eat his fill, I didn’t feel any superior because I stayed hungry; that I dreamed of being hired because it would fill my stomach, and that I hated the idea because it would empty me of my substance; that for a lack of work we die, and that work lives us dead tired; that nothing degrades like the slavery of wage labour; that the only “profound teaching” we earn there is named tiredness and misery10.

Gide allows Malaquais to stop working to dedicate himself to the writing of Les Javanais11, in French even though he speaks several languages, among which Polish and German better than French. This novel will earn him the Renaudot prize in 1939, and has been entirely rewritten at the end of the author’s life, in 1995, in order to make his Javanais intemporal and as topical for the public of the nineties as it was in the thirties. Les Javanais is a novel that recounts the life of foreign workers in a mine in the village of Vaugelas, a fictional version of Londe-les-Maures. Working in illegality, stateless, political exiles or economic migrants, these “Javanese” live in insalubrious barracks they name “the island of Java”. The mine is old and dangerous, and a workplace accident will lead to the closure of the mine, helped by the vehement local brigadier who wants to get rid of these “metics” (LJ 105) at any price. The closure puts the Javanese back on the road, “gone to swarm other islands -- other and always the same” (LJ 254).

Photograph of a mine in the 20s in Oklahoma. Under Creative Commons. Source.

Malaquais succeeds in revealing the construction of the otherness that foreigners are subjected to, otherness constructed by the authorities and consequence of the historical situation. At the time, “denaturalisation became a powerful weapon” that allowed “persecuting governments to impose their model of values [...] those that persecution named undesirable became the undesirables of Europe12”. The Javanese are like the “stateless” of Hannah Arendt, “relegated to a condition of superfluity, not only in the sense of the non-necessary, but also of a disposable surplus (Uberflüssigkeit) of the political system and the world13”. Even more insidiously than with direct persecution, the Javanese are confined to the margins of the French society, to the periphery of legality and citizenship, like phantoms, invisible, non-existing. Thus the French brigadier Carboni says: “take it easy with the metics of the mine. Not very documented that, but enough!” (LJ 105) This quotation illustrates the “superfluity” of the poor migrant foreigners of the time, the next highlights their status as disposable surplus: “undocumented foreigners, yes, they had to have them, and even France, that’s super well-known, welcomes them like her children, but you can only do that so long.” (LJ 112). When Malaquais let the French speak, they double the exteriority of the foreigners, recalling that they are foreigners “not from our country” (LJ 197). The nationality of the foreigner is there aggregated with an unknown, worrying and menacing dimension, leading to racism, as witnessed by the discourse of an anonymous French xenophobe:

Wops, Ruthenians, Bulgarians, Turks, come on, they’re all norafs [pejorative word for people originating from North Africa] not from our country. Yes, they’re born from a woman them too, they must, but on the roadside like they’d say, that’s why they’re races without documents nor anything. Note, we ain’t trying to mess with them, not even, to proof we’re welcoming and all, but me, the Macedonians-Bosnians-Simians, confess that we’re fed up with ‘em.
I confesses, I confesses. (LJ 197)

As previously explained, by forgetting that the characteristic of being a foreigner is not natural but cultural, one tends to reject otherness. Therefore, the French citizens of Vaugelas reject these stateless people, while Malaquais reminds us that it is not by choice they endure this status, but because of the historical and political situation: “This Alabnian, once an Austro-Hungario-Romainian subject according to the Treaty of Vienna, now subject of nothing according to the Treaty of Versailles, can list in the Czecho or Slovako or Yougo style -- that is up to you -- one hundred ways of shagging borders under the very nose of border coppers.” (LJ 197). Malaquais reminds us that those “strangers of Java” (LJ 24), being opposed in a manichaean and superficial way to “true French people” (LJ 24), suffer from their statelessness. A parallel can be drawn today with migrants who are denied access to Europe: they suffer as much as the emigrants of the inter-war period a situation they have not wished.

Photograph of Syrian refugees in Budapest, asking to go to Germany. Taken on September the 2nd, 2015. Put in the public domain by the author. Source.

Malaquais also reflects on the working conditions of these working class emigrants of yesterday, and today, this subject is sensitive in Europe, where the disparities in living standards prevent and destroy the very idea of a social and united Europe. It may be recalled that:

The right of residence of an immigrant is entirely conditional to his job which is the only “raison d’être” he is granted: he is considered as an immigrant at first, but very rapidly as a man - but with his human status subordinated to his condition of immigrant14.

Javanese are used for the most difficult and dangerous work: “Not often that a French would slave away at that. Not that stupid.” (LJ 105). The work description at the mine illustrates the heavy work imposed to the emigrants:

It was an old dilapidated and neglected mine. The rock cutting was haphazard, feeling the stones was done in spite of the danger[...]. It was a damn bad mine, the riches were directly drawn on, without order, planning nor economy. 15

The trope of the accident in the mine, which Émile Zola already wrote on in Germinal, starts as follow in Les Javanais: “And the men went in. Masses were fluttering, the stone was slamming, tunnels were dug.16” The past continuous (the imparfait in French) gives an air of fatedness because it expresses repetition. This description of the moments before the accident could fit any other day in the mine since years ago. There is nothing in particular announcing the catastrophe, nothing to prevent it. Malaquais describes in this way the fatalism inherent in the miner’s work. We can also observe that the objects, “masses”, “stones”, “tunnels” become the subjects of the sentence: the Earth affirms its superiority to the men. The accident, that will kill two miners, keeps its freshness if we think of the dangerous and underpaid work that immigrants are often reduced to take, even today.

Nevertheless, Malaquais’s novel does not lose hope and proposes real solutions for the future. First, it valorizes the strength of a collective identity when faced with the egocentrism of the individualist capitalist society. This symbol of solidarity is expressed through the representation of the Javanese community, coming from all countries, but where people manage to understand each other, talking a language mixing all the native idioms of the miners, a plurilingualism that includes the otherness rather than trying to exclude it, showing then the fraternity between all humans:

What to do in an island of Java, floating island, bastard island stuck to the tail of the devil? Me cago in Dios, soliloque the Javanais if it’s espingo. Ruskoff, il soliloque yob twaïou douchou. Same words, same pious groans from one language to the other. Henri Lebous, unique and true Frenchman on the island of Java, ogle the rear of the female Javanese. What a fucking damned shithole. (LJ 51)

Java is an “island” welcoming the stateless, the exiles, the ones rejected from the whole world, without requiring neither passport nor visa, a true “paradise on earth: everyone was welcomed, tall and short, strong or sickly, christian or not.” (LJ 74) And above all, Malaquais’s novel, particularly its 1995 rewriting, is a novel where humor is omnipresent, despite tackling the very serious topics of statelessness and exile. The Javanese live in illegality, under the threat of expulsion, don’t earn much, but keep their good mood, and the narration is often spiced up with surprising linguistic pearls and humor, such as this Javanese remarking, because he doesn’t understand well the accent of the English mine boss that “on top of being inglese, the direttore only has one arm, and that, we know, cut your means in half and is detrimental to eloquence.” (LJ 31)

Malaquais draws his strength and his hope from international solidarity, because “suffering together is suffering less17”. We can take these lessons from the Javanais, written in the thirties but still topical today, and apply them to the European Union. Europe today doesn’t manage to integrate everybody because it lacks (among other things!) a true federalism, a true common social policy, the sort Malaquais promoted to Gide in 1944: “[...] an European federation, with political and economic unification18” is for him one of the only way to pacify Europe and spare much useless suffering.

The European Union has been a first step forward in the path to a fraternal solidarity between all humans. This first step is not sufficient anymore today, and the Greek crisis has clearly demonstrated a lack of European democracy. Moreover, with the “undesirables” of yesterday (for instance, the Polish, Spaniards and Italians of Java) integrated in the European Union, other undesirables have been created, reproducing the errors of the past. The national, racial or religious exclusion is reproduced and transferred on others Javanais in search of a refuge. The European Union must bear its responsibilities and actually put in practice the values that it embodies, become a light against obscurantism, a plurilingual and multicultural federal state, and could then be the first step to a world more just and solidary, even though the road is still long. Let us conclude with this note of hope, typically Malaquaisian and Javanese, which could help us imagine tomorrow’s Europe:

Whatever the point of view of the characters, what we can reckon is that Les Javanais let us peek at a sort of concrete utopia. Some characters are not fooled, those who see in their island of Java a “miracle” where the cops “don’t bite”. But Java represents in the eyes of many a “paradise”, an “asylum”, an “oasis”. It is a modern Babel, where one bickers, fights and quarrels, but is understood. We live there together, and, in the end, rather well. This embodied dream is not meant to last, it was too fragile, too precarious, too miraculous to have a hope of lasting. Living place, in constant motion, isolated place, Java belongs to the Javanese. When they leave, when the exode happens, they take Java with them “bearer of germs… gone to swarm other islands”. Java is a phoenix, ready to be reborn anywhere. Java is an embodied utopia 19.

Demonstation in Berlin. Text: Refugees, welcome. Source.


  • GIDE, André, MALAQUAIS, Jean, Correspondance 1935-1950, Paris, Phébus, 2000.
  • MALAQUAIS, Jean, Journal de guerre, followed by Journal du métèque, 1939-1942 [1943], Paris, Phébus, 1997.
  • MALAQUAIS, Jean, Les Javanais [Paris, Denoël, 1939], Paris, Phébus, 1995.
  • MALAQUAIS, Jean, Planète sans visa [1947], Paris, Phébus, 2009.

Complementary readings

  • ARENDT, Hannah, Imperialism [1948]. Translated by LEIRIS, Martine, under the title L’Impérialisme, in Les Origines du totalitarisme. Eichmann à Jérusalem, Paris, Gallimard, 2002, pp. 367-608.
  • BADIE, Bertrand, SADOUN, Marc (ed.), L’Autre, Paris, Presses de la fondation nationale des sciences politiques, 1996.
  • CALOZ-TSCHOPP, Marie-Claire, Les Sans-Etat dans la philosophie d’Hannah Arendt : les humains superflus, le droit d’avoir des droits et la citoyenneté, Lausanne, Payot, 2000.
  • JULLIEN, François, L’Ecart et l’entre. Leçon inaugurale de la Chaire sur l’altérité, Paris, Galilée, 2012.
  • KOESTLER, Arthur, Scum of the Earth, London, Jonathan Cape, 1941.
  • NAKACH, Geneviève, Malaquais rebelle, Paris, Cherche-Midi, 2011 [Biography of Jean Malaquais].
  • SAYAD, Abdelmalek, L’Immigration ou les paradoxes de l’altérité. L’Illusion du provisoire [1991], Paris, Editions Raisons d'Agir, 2006.
  • SEMPRUN, Jorge, “Le Retour en fanfare des Javanais”, Journal du dimanche, 24th of September, 1995.
  • SULEIMAN, Susan, “Choosing French. Language, Foreignness, and the Canon (Beckett/Némirovsky)”, in Christie MCDONALD, Susan SULEIMAN (dir.), French Global. A New Approach to Literary History, New York, Columbia University Press, 2010, pp. 471-487.
  • TROTSKY, Léon, “Un nouveau grand écrivain : Jean Malaquais” [1939], in Littérature et révolution [1900-1939]. Translation by FRANK, Pierre, LIGNY, Claude, MARIE, Jean-Jacques, Paris, 10/18, 1964, pp. 333-346.

If you want to follow the news about Malaquais, read the website of the Société Malaquais (in french).


  1. Read on this topic the article by Susan SULEIMAN, “Choosing French. Language, Foreignness, and the Canon (Beckett/Némirovsky)”, in Christie MCDONALD, Susan SULEIMAN (ed.), French Global. A New Approach to Literary History, New York, Columbia University Press, 2010, pp. 471-487. 

  2. Bertrand BADIE, Marc SADOUN (ed.), L’Autre, Paris, Presses de la fondation nationale des sciences politiques, 1996, p. 17. 

  3. François JULLIEN, L’Ecart et l’entre. Leçon inaugurale de la Chaire sur l’altérité, Paris, Galilée, 2012, p. 17. 

  4. Guillaume LE BLANC, Dedans, dehors. La Condition d’étranger, Paris, Seuil, 2010, p. 33. 

  5. From the title of the book by Arthur KOESTLER, Scum of the Earth, London, Jonathan Cape, 1941. 

  6. Jorge SEMPRUN, “Le Retour en fanfare des Javanais”, Journal du dimanche, Septembrer 24th, 1995. 

  7. Geneviève NAKACH, Malaquais rebelle, Paris, Cherche-Midi, 2011, p. 101. 

  8. Internationalism is an ideology opposed to nationalism. The internationalism issued from workers' movements advocates a solidarity between all humans, a universal fraternity in a world without borders. It calls for both the unity of the proletarians of the world and the establishment of a system without classes, states, and borders everywhere in the world. 

  9. André GIDE, Jean MALAQUAIS, Correspondance, 1935-1950, Paris, Phébus, 2000, p. 25.  

  10. Id., p. 26. 

  11. Jean MALAQUAIS, Les Javanais [Paris, Denoël, 1939], Paris, Phébus, 1995 [Abbreviated to LJ]. 

  12. Hannah ARENDT, Imperialism [1948]. Translated by Martine LEIRIS under the title L’Impérialisme, in Les Origines du totalitarisme. Eichmann à Jérusalem, Paris, Gallimard, 2002, pp. 367-608, p. 563. 

  13. Marie-Claire CALOZ-TSCHOPP, Les Sans-Etat dans la philosophie d’Hannah Arendt : les humains superflus, le droit d’avoir des droits et la citoyenneté, Lausanne, Payot, 2000, p. 12. 

  14. Abdelmalek SAYAD, L’Immigration ou les paradoxes de l’altérité. L’Illusion du provisoire [1991], Paris, Editions Raisons d'Agir, 2006, p. 50. 

  15. Jean MALAQUAIS, Les Javanais, Paris, Denoël, 1939, p. 75/76. 

  16. Id., p. 142. 

  17. André GIDE, Jean MALAQUAIS, Correspondance, op. cit., p. 116.  

  18. Id., p. 179. 

  19. Yann MARTIN, “Jean Malaquais internationaliste”, pp. 67-81, in Cahier Malaquais n°1, 2010, p. 79.