The Hall of Uselessness: Collected Essays
Simon Leys is the pen name of Pierre Ryckmans, a Belgian Sinologist who has been living, teaching and writing in Australia since 1970. He is the author of several books, such as Chinese Shadows, The Death of Napoleon, The Wreck of the Batavia & Prosper, and of a great translation of the Analects of Confucius; having translated the Analects into Italian myself, I can say with some assurance that Leys’s translation is the best available.
In this collection of Leys’s essays, The Hall of Uselessness, he writes about literature—English, Spanish and French—which he had studied in depth. Although this is not an Asian book per se it contains also several essays on Oriental art, history and politics. Leys writes about Zhou Enlai, the Cambodian genocide and China’s attitude to the past. The thread uniting this collection is the unorthodoxy of Leys’s views, which have caused him considerable difficulty over the years. Although ostracized and attacked by several of the so-called maîtres a penser and academics in Paris, New York and London, in the end Leys has been proven right on all fronts and his critics wrong.
The title of the collection comes from Simon Leys’s years in Hong Kong, living in a Kowloon squatter area. This was his home for two years, a guest in the flophouse of a former Taiwanese schoolmate, a calligrapher and seal-carver. Shades of an Eastern Scènes de la vie de bohème perhaps, they shared a miserable room with a young historian and a philologist. A sign hung over them, reading Wu Yong Tong, or “The Hall of Uselessness”. These characters were chosen by the philologist, inspired by The Book of Changes: “in springtime the dragon is useless”, i.e. young people with talent should remain hidden. In that hovel, in the company of his three friends, Leys had been happy and content among leaking tin roofs and fat rats. It served as a real-life university that should, in his opinion, be (minus the rats ) a model for future universities: not institutions cranking out people who know a lot but understand little, but rather men and women provided with the courage to stand by their ideals.
Particularly interesting is Leys’s 1997 essay on André Malraux, the sometime icon of the French leftist establishment who was nevertheless also bombastic and fraudulent. In Malraux’s famous interview with Chairman Mao Zedong, which made headlines around, almost everything was made up. This becomes evident looking at the transcripts released by both the Chinese and French interpreters present at the meeting. Not only did Malraux put words in Mao’s mouth but he even managed to miss the real news that was being served to him: a pre-announcement of the Cultural Revolution!
Leys has this to say about another giant of Eastern reporting, Edgar Snow:
Some misunderstandings acquire historical dimensions. In the celebrated interview he granted Edgar Snow, Mao Zedong allegedly described himself as “a lonely monk walking in the rain under a leaking umbrella.” With his mixture of humorous humility and exoticism, this utterance had a tremendous impact on Western imagination, already so well-attuned to the oriental glamour of the Kung Fu television series. Snow’s command of the Chinese language, even at its best, was never very fluent; some thirty-odd years spent away from China had done little to improve it, and it is no wonder that he failed to recognize in this “monk under the umbrella” heshang da san evoked by the Chairman a most popular joke…
Snow had made a serious mistake. What the Chairman meant was not an humble utterance but was instead something rather close to “I hold no law, I hold nothing sacred.”
Those who are not familiar with Leys might, as I did, discover in him a sort of learned elder brother we never knew existed, one who writes with affection about the authors we also love. The Hall of Uselessness is an extraordinary book, a wonderful work overflowing with wisdom, art and life hardened by (intellectual) battles. It is a book to be read, re-read and then kept close to hand.
This book should be printed as a hardback, folio format, using thick handmade paper. Few books are as likely as this one to split open a reader’s soul with a crack so wide that—in my case at least—I know it will never close.
Angelo Paratico is an Italian journalist living in Hong Kong. He is author of several books in Italian and English, the most recent of which Nero: An Exemplary Life; his website is angeloparatico.com.
Reprinted with permission from The Asian Review of Books