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Katow (or Katov) (1885?-1927) is a fiction character from André Malraux's existential novel Man's Fate. He is a Soviet emissary and one of the organizers of the fictitious 1927 Communist insurrection in Shanghai, China. When the revolt turns to failure and the Communists are left without ammunition, he is captured and later burned alive.
Katow one of the most ambiguous characters in the novel. There are no clear statements about his convictins nor personality. His physical appearance and his past are only very vaguely described. It can be deducted that he was born around 1885 in Russia, since it is stated that he was a medecin student in 1905, meaning he was likely to be in his early 40s while the action occurs.
Once a medical student, he dropped out after having tried to help prisoners out of the Odessa prison in 1905, for unknown reasons. He escaped to Switzerland (where he learnt French) that year, where he was a refugee until 1912, the time of his clandestine return to Russia. He was then charged with five years of forced labor in one of the least rigorous Siberian prisons, where he was rumoured to have willingly accompanied other prisoners to the lead mines, with the sole purpose of instructing them. After his return from Siberia he became a factory worker and eventually met his wife, who later died.
An initial analepsis also reveals that Katow had once served in the army in World War I. Accordingly, he fought in Lithuania where he and his troops got caught and executed. The moment of the execution, of which he seems to have very vivid memories, comes back to him at the beginning of the novel, while the taking of the Xatum takes place. The soldiers, including Katow himself, were forced to dig their own death ditch, undress in the freezing cold and were finally shot by their opposers. They missed Katow, however, along with seventeen others, who took the city the next day.
The exact chronology of his biography is impossible to specify. So is his route from there to Shanghai and the roots of his connections with the Communist uprising.
Character's personality and symbolism
Katow is very ambiguously described throughout the novel, only revealing his meaning towards the end. Physically, all that his known is that his face resembled that of a Pierrot; lively eyes, snub nose and generally inexpressive, with a tendency for an ingenuously happy grimance. His friend and leader of the revolt, Kyo Gisors, considers him the opposite of himself, and so slightly disturbing once he knew him to be not as innocent as his looks suggested.
In one of the first scenes, Tchen, the assassin, embraces a similar conclusion after the murder of Tang-Yen-Ta, when he seeks for comfort on his friends after his disturbing experience. He considers Katow to be closer to him than the other, though all Katow does is stare at him and eat confectionery from a paper bag.
This seemingly indifferent attitude, along with the implications of his inexpressive face, are either misconceptions or maybe the first glimpse we get of him, before he begins to change into what would be the most equilibrate and human of the characters in the novel.
The Lithuania episode seems to have left a very deep impression on him. The terror is evident and so is the necessary nervousness that he has ever since experienced before a political confront. Most of all, though, the fact that he had once seen the machineguns pointed at him and yet survived execution induce him into a certain sense of immunity.
The angle we got of him changes though, when he visits and tries to comfort Hemmelrich after learning of his despair towards his disabled son. It is to remark, though, that Katow stays even though he'd rather leave and go warn Tchen from the imminent failure of his plan. He tries to somewhat free the Belgian from his oppressive thoughts and loathesome ties that bind him to his disgraced family. Katow then reveals a little more about his past, as a matter of fact, his past marriage, where he confesses to have been emotionally abusive with his wife as a way of making himself feel better about his own disgraced life (notice that this happens after his return from Siberia). Still, an unexplainably loving relationship is described, where he finally surrenders and finds himself unabled to understand and fight back the true dedication and love that he finds in his partner.
To culminate this sudden plot twist in his demenour, in his final scene, Katow watches with a desperate calm detachment his friends being taken out for execution one by one, including Kyo taking his own life with cyanide right beside him. But Man can be stronger than solitude, he thinks, and choses to give his own cyanide to two terrified youngsters, includingly holding one of their hands with tenderness while the boy spasms and dies. He is then left alone and in a state of great suffering, which had been unusual in him so far.
Still, his last thought before being burnt alive is precisely "let's suppose that I died in a fire", that somehow corroborates the first impression we got of him; one of indifference towards his own life and disregard of death or suffering.
The symbolism of the character is, as is himself, too ambiguous to point out. Katow represents a certain indifference towards life, death, prison or freedom because he sort of impersonates the utmost loneliness to be found in Man; he has no family, no people who could suffer for him, he has once faced death and so no longer fears it, his medecin studies were discontinued and he felt unsuitable for a working-class job... all piles together and leads him to a strictly political life. If so, defending a political cause and fighting for it became his only way to escape the human condition, considering he had no other emotional ties.
Malraux's Katow was fiercely attacked by Vladimir Nabokov after reading the book in question. As a matter of fact, the analogy between Malraux's Katow and Dostoevsky's Schatov (a character of the 1872 novel The Possessed) leaves several doubts as to the originality of the 1927 character. Indeed, aside from punctual discrepancies, it is almost safe to affirm André Malraux sought inspiration in Dostoevsky's novel to define Katow's demenour and biography.
The first and most obvious factor are the names. Dostoevsky's character's name, Ivan Schatov, is doubtless similar to the other's, although Katow's given name remains unknown throughout the novel. This wouldn't be of major suspicion if the name in question, Katow, actually existed as it's written as a Russian name, which it doesn't.
Thirdly, both have been to Switzerland, where both learnt French.
Fourthly, both have once been married, although Schatow's wife eventually shows up. Still on the marriage theme, both are told to have had a very loving relationship with their wives, which would be unexpected for their character.