In 1932, Malcolm Muggeridge, then based in Moscow for the Manchester Guardian, filed reports of what he had found out about Soviet Russia, from the food shortages and forced labour to the deaths of 3 million people following the collectivization of agriculture in the Ukraine. His copy was censored and he was ridiculed by the liberal establishment, which preferred the Webbs’ rosier view of the New Civilization in the East. Muggeridge concluded that people believe lies not because they are plausible but because they want to believe them.
In 1936, when André Gide returned from Russia having seen for himself that the great Soviet Experiment was to Utopia what Stalin’s show trials were to justice, he too learned that there is no convincing people who do not wish to be convinced. Such, since then, has been the common fate of anyone who denounces causes which endear themselves to people dazzled by propaganda, fake news and their own agendas.
Simon Leys fared rather better than most. His denunciation of the Cultural Revolution in 1971 was declared slanderous and he was blacklisted by the Paris intelligentsia, who blocked his application for a lectureship at Paris VII at Nanterre. Yet he is chiefly remembered as the Man Who Did For Mao.
He was born Pierre Ryckmans in 1935 into one of Belgium’s great families. His father was a publisher and among his uncles were a governor-general of the Congo, a specialist in Arabic epigraphy and “Bob”, an African missionary and expert in medical law. Pierre was sent to a French-speaking secondary school where he read widely, became “very Catholic”, passed his exams and developed a talent for drawing. As Philippe Paquet rightly says in this monumental biography, Ryckmans was gifted with a visual imagination which produced sketches, a vivid prose style and a standard of calligraphy admired even by the Chinese. In 1953 he enrolled at the Catholic University of Louvain to study art history (his idea) and law (his father’s).
His heart was never in law and his passion for art took an oriental turn during an extended period of wandering which lasted until his mid-thirties. He knew instinctively that “to live fully” he would have to leave Belgium. It wasn’t that being a citizen of a small country was a disadvantage: on the contrary. Writers born in large nations, he thought, have few reasons to look beyond their own history and traditions. If any are parochial, they are not those born in small countries, who inherit less nourishing cultures and graze on their neighbours’ richer pastures. Ryckmans duly devoured European literature and lived abroad for most of his adult life, in the Far East and Australia, where he spent his last four decades. Yet he never stopped thinking of himself as Catholic and Belgian.
Living fully also meant leaving his brother to run the family printing business when their father died in 1955. This he did with few qualms, for, as he later acknowledged, he had no talent for administration. Instead, he went seeking new experiences. He was fascinated by the sea (in 2003 he published a massive anthology of writings on the sea in French literature) and his first adventure was big-game fishing on the shoals of Iceland in 1953. He hitch-hiked around Scotland in 1955 and, when still only nineteen, was part of a student delegation to mainland China where his group was given an extraordinary audience of an hour with the People’s Republic’s Foreign Minister, the cordial Zhou Enlai, whom Ryckmans would later dub “the agreeable face of Chinese communism”.
That visit proved to be life-changing, for Ryckmans fell instantly in love with China, its people and its culture. On his return he wrote a series of “sincere sketches” for a student magazine that expressed his admiration for China’s Revolution which combined respect for immemorial traditions with people-centred modernization: it was “China’s age of cathedrals”. But his optimism was misplaced. What he then admired was exactly what would be destroyed by the excesses of Maoism and the Cultural Revolution.
In 1956, he spent three months in the Belgian Congo with his uncle Pierre who was its Governor General. In 1957, a visit to his old headmaster in Rome left him dazzled by the art and culture of Italy. Each autumn, he returned to Louvain to continue with his law course, to which he now added Chinese studies. He graduated in 1958 but felt no enthusiasm for a career as a lawyer and set his mind on a transhumance to China which he saw as a journey to self-knowledge. But his chances were slim: Mao’s Great Leap Forward had just begun and China was effectively closed to the outside world.
In five years, Ryckmans had learned academic discipline, experienced the exhilaration of the sea and the glories of Italian art, had made the case both for and against African-style colonialism and had got his first whiff of the old China. In that summer of 1958, he spent some weeks – recalled in Prosper (2003) – fishing for tuna in the Atlantic on a Breton trawler while he pondered his next move. In the event, it was made for him. He was given a two-year bursary to study Chinese language and civilization at the National University of Taipei, Taiwan being the closest he could get to mainland China. Ryckmans the sailor travelled there in steerage, with a fourth-class ticket on a cargo boat.
Though Taiwan under Chiang Kai-shek was a dictatorship, it was a sanctuary for classical Chinese culture and Ryckmans began to explore it systematically. He saw China as the most foreign of civilizations, the far pole of human experience, “the fundamental other”, yet he felt immediately at home in Taipei. He developed a light, delicate style of calligraphy, became fluent and literate in Chinese and delved into the history of Chinese art. He was particularly drawn to the early Qing landscape artist Shitao (b. circa 1640) and in 1961 published a translation of his treatise on painting, the Hua Yu Lu. The same year he made Shitao the subject of his final year Art History essay at Louvain. He returned to Shitao for his doctoral thesis, which he submitted in 1966.
In Taiwan, Ryckmans fell in love with Chang Hanfang, the daughter of a middle-class Chinese Catholic family. They became engaged but when Ryckmans’s bursary ended, he embarked on a round-the-world voyage by sea and land, east to west, with only a brief stop at Louvain to complete certain academic rites. He managed to find an opening at Nanyang University in Singapore in 1962. He did not last there for long. He was denounced as a dangerous communist by a student mole for reading the Chinese People’s Daily, and his contract was not renewed. Expelled from Singapore in December 1962 for political reasons, he moved to Hong Kong where he arrived in February 1963. There, on the doorstep of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), he was free to read Chinese books and began to be aware of the threat to China and Chinese culture presented by the growth of Maoism.
He was taken on as lecturer in European History and French at what would later became the Chinese University of Hong Kong. He lived a bohemian life in a shanty with like-minded friends who talked about art and life. Meanwhile, he wrote to the endlessly patient Chang Hanfang, in Chinese, but seemed unaware of the slight to her family which was implied by his seeming desertion of the fiancée he did not see for over two years until she came to him at the end of 1963. They married two months later and stayed happily together for fifty years. Chang was his “pilot”, he said, his compass, and he dedicated nearly all his books to her.
She helped him with his French translation of Fen Shu’s Fu Sheng liu ji, the autobiography of a humble, uxorious, eighteenth-century Chinese. Aiming high, he sent the manuscript to Paris, to René Étiemble, the pioneer of comparative literature and editor of Gallimard’s China series, who rejected it. It was eventually published in Brussels by Larcier, the family publishing house, where it sat oddly in his brother’s catalogue of legal books. Though it caught the eye of Jacques Lacan, who was fascinated by ideograms, it failed to make a wider impression. But it was the start of Ryckmans’s career as a literary translator, which would eventually run to six Chinese texts (including French and English versions of Confucius’s Analects) and R. H. Dana’s Two Years Before the Mast, a classic of marine literature.
After a lengthy spell in Belgium, where he was awarded his doctorate in 1966 but failed to get a permanent academic post, Ryckmans went back to his old job in Hong Kong in October 1966. It suited him well, for he was not professionally ambitious or particularly career-minded. When not translating and teaching – a duty which he took very seriously – he pursued his passions: poetry, art, aesthetics and literature. But he also listened to Chinese provincial radio stations and scoured Red Flag and other PRC dailies, an activity as attractive as “munching rhinoceros sausage”. He also sought out refugees who passed through the “bamboo curtain”. All had tales to tell. Some, silent but no less eloquent witnesses, arrived as bodies floating down through the Pearl River Delta. What he read left him dismayed: both by the destruction of traditional China and by the gullibility of so many Western China-watchers, especially in France.
It was thus that Ryckmans, who otherwise would probably have remained an obscure academic sinologist, turned into a polemicist. He set out his stall in 1971, in Les Habits neufs du Président Mao (translated as Chairman Mao’s New Clothes, 1977) whose title summarized his argument. Mao’s Cultural Revolution was neither cultural nor a revolution but “a power struggle waged at the top by a handful of men and behind the smokescreen of a fictitious mass movement”. He made his case with a detailed diary of events chronicling the political infighting, the brutal treatment of refractory particles and the forced migration of whole sections of the urban population who were sent for re-education in the country. Some reviewers, such as Claude Roy, were convinced, but most dismissed the book as unreliable Hong Kong gossip. Even so, it gave Western Maolatry a severe jolt. It made Ryckmans’s name so famous that when he was offered a six-month posting as temporary cultural attaché at the Belgian embassy in Peking in 1972, he was advised to change his name. The Chinese authorities would certainly know who he was, but a nom de plume would save face all round.
Ryckmans chose the surname of the hero of Victor Segalen’s novel René Leys (1911), who either is or poses as a knowledgeable guide for visitors to the Forbidden City. Revelling in the ambiguity of his position, he observed events and wrote detailed reports which he turned into a second polemic, Ombres chinoises (1974; Chinese Shadows, 1977). The TLS (April 25, 1975) called it “a disappointed, angry book” which would give offence. It certainly did. Simon Leys clashed publicly with Han Suyin, novelist and apologist for Mao’s grand designs, and the US-based China-watcher Ross Terrill, whose biography of Mao he shredded in the TLS (March 6, 1981). On air, during a lively edition of Bernard Pivot’s literary television show Apostrophes in 1983, he exposed the “total stupidity” of Della Cina (1971) – Holy Writ for European Maoists – a eulogy of Mao’s China by the Italian journalist Maria Antoinetta Macciocchi. He went on to call Lacan a “charlatan”, Malraux a “phoney” and Sartre a “windbag”. He ruined the party for rose-spectacled members of the Paris Tel Quel group, such as Julia Kristeva and Philippe Sollers, and slapped down Roland Barthes’s “curiously jovial” account of totalitarian violence in the China of Mao, a leader who “broke eggs but never made an omelette”. They played with words: he had counted the corpses.
But Leys proved to be an accidental rather than an ideological polemicist. He had settled in Australia in 1970 and after his years in the spotlight went back to lecture rooms and the corridors of academe. Based in Canberra and later in Sydney, he travelled less frequently now. He had a year at Stanford but left Australia only to attend conferences, make public appearances and receive awards and honours. But he was always ready to engage with the enemies of truth. He clashed with Edward Said over the definition of “Orientalism” and gave as good as he got in a noisy spat in the New York Review of Books over Christopher Hitchens’s satirical slighting of Mother Teresa.
From the late 1970s, the chronicle of Leys’s life is the story of his intellectual pursuits. Philippe Paquet surveys his scholarly work on Chinese art, history and literature with uncommon meticulousness. He guides us through the essays and review-articles which Leys devoted to the writers of many countries. For Leys, Hugo was the supreme giant and he preferred Stendhal to Balzac and Flaubert, and Camus, Bernanos and Simone Weil to the “new wave” writers of the 1950s and the Critical Theorists of the 1960s. He wrote about German and Russian literature but was at his most luminous on a clutch of English authors whose names have rarely appeared under the nibs of French critics. Leys republished a selection of his silkily written essays in Le Studio de l’inutilité (2012) where Joseph Conrad rubs shoulders with Bernard Shaw, D. H. Lawrence, Evelyn Waugh and G. K. Chesterton, “that inveterate scatterer of pearls”. But Leys felt closest to George Orwell who believed that “ideology kills” and that the words “totalitarianism” and “fascism” were interchangeable. He admired Orwell’s journalism because it generated ideas from facts, unlike the French intelligentsia who judged reality by reference to external authority in the shape of ideological dogma and fashionable theories. It was with fact-based, tangibly Orwellian reportages that he delivered his stinging account of Mao’s China.
But running counter to this pragmatic approach to ideas was a strong idealistic streak. Leys saw translation as an art too sacred to be corrupted by deadlines and payment, though in the real world they are what sustain translators. His ideal of a university was equally pure. He savaged the kind of American institution “with its brutish hyperspecialisation, non-humanistic approach and close, unhealthy links with government”. Instead, his ideal university was Newmanesque: no prescribed courses, no vocational or utilitarian studies, no examinations and no diplomas, merely willing students who seek truth with inspirational teachers. His absolute values are at one with Confucius’s ideal of the “gentleman”, the junzi, who seeks clarity, truth and right, through disinterested rational inquiry. If Leys had an Achilles heel, it was his deep-seated Catholicism which in 1995 led him to defend the traditional family, “the most successful experiment in the entire cultural history of mankind”, against the prospect of same-sex marriages.
Leys’s sole foray into fiction was La Mort de Napoléon (1986; English translation, 1991) an exquisitely written fable that begins with the escape to Europe of the ex-Emperor from St Helena. He takes a guided tour of the field of Waterloo (where he goes unrecognized), fails to mobilize his followers and lands up in an asylum full of men who all believe they are Napoleon. The French Emperor had no clothes either: his real defeat was not Waterloo but his failure to become a human being.
Leys’s narrative skills were also in evidence in 2003 in his “anatomy of a massacre” (translated as The Wreck of the Batavia, 2005) which tells how in 1629 some 300 Pacific castaways were exposed to a reign of terror off Western Australia. Leys shows how, given the right circumstances, a psychopath, a handful of murderous thugs and a docile population can reduce an entire people to a state of fear and abject misery. It was a micro-image of the madness – to look no further – of the Khmer Rouge and the Cultural Revolution.
Philippe Paquet’s massive intellectual biography of Simon Leys, who died of cancer in 2014, was published in 2016 in France where it won a French Academy prize and was short-listed for several others. It is not, however, a comfortable read. Paquet misses no opportunity to ram background details into every corner of Leys’s life and work, and the worlds of East and West. He leapfrogs chronology in pursuit of themes and ideas and inserts lengthy thumbnail sketches which slow the flow of narrative and blur his argument. The reader at times feels that he has been offered a rich tapestry but has to make sense of it from the back. Even so, Paquet, who is excellently served by Julie Rose’s exceptionally graceful translation, delivers a fascinating portrait of a man who was a mixture of Don Quixote, George Orwell, Mother Teresa and Confucius.
Navigator between worlds, a biography of Simon Leys, Translated by Julie Rose 664pp. La Trobe University Press. AUS$59.99.
This review first appeared in the Times Literary Supplement.