Book review

A universal Belgian

By Jan Baetens

In these days of globalization, including global culture, it might be useful to recall the old humanist ideal of “universality”, that of the uomo universale (and please do not read the term “uomo” in gender-biased terms) who develops his faculties in as many fields as possible and who manages to do so thanks to the general (that is: nonspecialized) education s/he receives and eventually implements in his or her life as scholar, artist, scientist, but also citizen. Today, this ideal has come under pressure, but many examples of great men and women remain to demonstrate how challenging and necessary this ideal of universality remains in today’s society.

img768Simon Leys (pseudonym of Pierre Ryckmans, 1935-2014) is a great example of this humanist ideal. As a law and art history student in Leuven and the representative of a students’ magazine, he was offered the possibility to go to China for one month, an experience that dramatically changed his life. He started to learn Chinese and, after his graduation, left for Taiwan where he defended a PhD on Chinese painting before moving to Hong Kong and eventually Canberra and Sydney, Australia, where he became a professor of Chinese culture. Ryckmans had to take a pseudonym when publishing the book that made him world-famous, The Chairman’s New Clothes: Mao and the Cultural Revolution (1971), the first critical account of the Chinese Cultural Revolution.

It would be unfair, however, to reduce Leys’ work to his political writings. The anthology just released in the Espace Nord series, which had already reissued his best-known novel, The Death of Napoleon, gives an excellent overview of his exceptional diversity. It gathers essays on his three main passions: China (Leys is considered one the best scholars on Chinese culture and painting; he has also translated Confucius in French as well as in English); the sea (in this book one finds for instance an amazing personal testimony of his journey on an old-fashioned sail fishing vessel and thought-provoking comparisons of literary and nonliterary authors fascinated by the sea), and of course literature (a field in which Leys has worked as critic, translator, and novelist).

What strikes most in all these texts is the quality of writing as well as thinking –and it is of course the convergence of these qualities that make Simon Leys such a “universal” author. Leys’ prose is as fluent and crisp as it is jargon-free and permanently open to broader questions, while the discussion of more general issues is systematically supported by literary and cultural examples and insights. Read, for instance, the essay on his experiences as translator, which are also a great example of how to live with, and thanks to, the other (if not in service of him or her). Or take the essay on the issue of heritage in Chinese culture, which departs from a paradox, at least for us Westerners: China is simultaneously the country that succeeds in keeping its traditions alive and that systematically destroys the material traces of its past (all those interested in heritage policy should read this text in order to understand the problematic character of our Western definition of “authenticity”, which we have ridiculously fetishized).

Oh, you don’t read French? It’s never too late to learn it (as Leys himself understood very well after his first trip to China). In the meantime, you can have a preview by reading these texts in English (and Leys is smart and universal enough to repeat that the original is not always better than its translation).


Simon Leys, La Chine, la mer, la littérature. Essais critiques (Brussels : Espace Nord, 2018)

ISBN : 978-2-87568-250-5 ; 378p., 9,50 euros