This is a golden book, a book to be read and re-read and then kept close to our desk. A book that should have been printed as a hard back, folio format, using thick handmade paper, like the Good Book.
Here we are dealing with a wonderful work overflowing with wisdom, art and battle-hardened life. Few books I have read in recent years have open a wide crack into my soul like this one, a crack that, I know, will never close.
Simon Leys is the pen name of Pierre Ryckmans, a Belgian Sinologist who had been teaching in Australia since 1970 writing in an impeccable English a large number of essays which we now find here, gathered like flowers, into this book. Leys is also the author of several books, like Chinese Shadows, The Death of Napoleon, The Wreck of the Batavia & Prosper, and of a great translation of the Analects of Confucius, the best available in my opinion and perhaps here I know what I am talking about, having translated the same book into Italian a long time ago.
Simon Leys was in his youth a Hong Kong resident and the title of this collection comes straight from that period, from a poor hut where he had been living. It was placed in a Kowloon’s squatter area, a flophouse he had called home for two years, as guest of a former Taiwanese schoolmate, a calligrapher and seal carver. They were sleeping in the same miserable room with an historian and a learned philologist. A sign was hanging over them Wu Yong Tong The Hall of Uselessness. These characters were chosen by the philologist, and were inspired by The Book of Changes ‘in springtime the dragon is useless’ the meaning is that young people with talents should remain hidden. In that hovel, in the company of his three friends, Leys had been happy. That had been his real university – yes, among leaking tin roofs and fat rats – in his opinion that should be a model for a future’s university, taking the rats away. Not institutions cranking out people who know a lot but understand little but men and women with courage to stand by their ideals.
This collection comprises essays about world literature and in particular French literature that Leys master extremely well. The red thread uniting them all is Ley’s deep and unorthodox views, which caused him many troubles over the years. Several of the so called maître a penser and academics based in Paris, New York and London had picked on him and his views but at the end Leys had been proven right and they wrong.
I have found particularly interesting his 1997’s essay on the bombastic and fraudulent André Malraux. In a famous interview with Chairman Mao Tzetung, which made news all over the world, almost everything was made up by the devious Frenchman. This becomes evident looking at the transcripts of the Chinese interpreter as well as the French interpreter. Not only Malraux cheated and invented but even managed to miss the real news that Mao was giving him: the Cultural Revolution, before it was even launched!
We find several essays on Oriental art, history and politics, which form the largest part of this book and which should not be missed. They are dealing with China’s past and future. And, as Orwell said in his Nineteen eighty-four if you can control the present, you control the past. If you control the past, you control the future.
Simon Leys The Hall of Uselessness. Collected Essays. New York Review of Books, New York, 2013.