Review: Simon Leys: Navigator Between Worlds
Author: Philippe Paquet
Simon Leys is the pen name of Pierre Ryckmans, historian, novelist, critic and expert on Chinese culture. Belgian in origin but an adopted Australian, he taught at Sydney University and the Australian National University (where Kevin Rudd was one of his students). He was one of our most perceptive and firm-footed public intellectuals and writers, and he was one of the first to write about the horrors of China’s Cultural Revolution.
Most of the literati in Europe were praising Mao and the rebels as bringing utopia to China, largely because they had an affinity with the ideology without taking a careful look at its consequences. Instead, Leys boldly pointed to the naked ruthlessness underneath, as the title of his book had it, ‘the chairman’s new clothes’.
For Leys, dialogue was not the same as agreement. It was his deep interest in and understanding of Chinese history and art, as well as love of its people generally, that caused him to critique the Communist rulers. Alternatively, it was the love of ideology and not of the Chinese people that inspired his leftist critics and caused them to avoid the critical questions.
Leys was wary of group-thinking, and it is not surprising that he was a fan of George Orwell. He had a gut reaction to and a talent for unmasking propaganda, where a well-turned phrase hid malodorous thinking. It was not just because he was Catholic that Leys criticised Christopher Hitchens’ famous attacks on Mother Teresa.
Leys’ faith sustained him during the long period of his estrangement from European intellectual circles. He also conscientiously avoided publicity’s glare, even if he could be formidable in public debate, and let his books be judged by their writing alone. In them, too, he could be scathing. Like Chesterton he could use the well-chosen analogy to uncover the flimsy underpinnings of an opponent’s arguments.
His biographer, Philippe Paquet, retrospectively cheers him on, while also constantly setting Leys in context so that the biography becomes also a substantial work of history, literary criticism and even philosophy. Paquet is able to tie together the various strands of Leys’ interests. Leys was also well known as a historian of the sea. Paquet shows how Leys’ book on the Batavia shipwreck and tragic story of its survivors is linked to his work on China, not to mention Leys’ novella on Napoleon, by his loathing of dictatorship. This extended also to Leys’ criticism at the end of his university career of the way economics dictates over education in the modern higher education system. To the end he championed clear thinking in aid of the individual over the trampling effect of ideology.