June 2nd 2018

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY The Greens: the political equivalent of bilgewater

EDITORIAL Malaysian election sends shockwaves across South-East Asia

GENDER AND SPORT Transgender playing in women's football league gains attention

CANBERRA OBSERVED Beyond tomorrow a bridge too far for politicians to plan

ENERGY Why renewables destabilise the power grid

LAW AND FREEDOM Exemptions: at issue with Dr Zimmermann

INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS Behind the U.S.-North Korea rapprochement

INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS Two to tango: Where to now for U.S. and China?

LIFE ISSUES So, is this not pro-life?

POLITICS AND CULTURE The West won the world but may lose its soul

MILITARY BIOGRAPHY Commanders: the men who resolve questions of life and death


MUSIC Eurovision: Wailing and gnashing of teeth

CINEMA Superhero movies: A Chestertonian consideration

BOOK REVIEW A man for all seasons and hemispheres

BOOK REVIEW Mid-century gem of Catholic fiction



ECONOMICS Vatican document nails some of the causes of the GFC

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A man for all seasons and hemispheres

News Weekly, June 2, 2018

SIMON LEYS: Navigator between Worlds

by Philippe Paquet (translated by Julie Rose)

Black Inc, Carlton
Hardcover: 664 pages
Price: AUD$59.99

Reviewed by Brian Coman

Simon Leys was the penname adopted by the Belgian-born scholar and sinologist, Pierre Ryckmans, who moved to Australia in 1970 and subsequently became an Australian national. He died in Sydney in 2014.

The title of the book has been carefully chosen because Ryckmans was indeed a skilled navigator between three cultures: those of the “New World” (Australia), Europe and China. As it happens he was also a keen sailor and undertook many sea voyages.

It might also be said of him that he was among the last of the true European intellectuals – that is to say, a person of immense learning who greatly valued the cultural and religious heritage of West. At the same time, he developed a keen interest in China, particularly in its calligraphers and poets. He was an accomplished translator, both of Chinese and French.

China years

When he was 20 years old, the young Ryckmans undertook a trip to China with a group of fellow students and was immediately attracted to the “otherness” of Chinese culture. He was later to describe this as “the other pole” of human society.

His enthusiasm for the then fledgling Revolution in China quickly waned as the true nature of its oppression of the people became evident. In this one sees a remarkable parallel with the young Malcolm Muggeridge in the Soviet Union. Ryckmans was later to become a strident critic of the Maoist regime and an important source of real information concerning the regime when, for the most part, other journalists believed the falsehoods they were fed.

Writer and teacher, indefatigable traveller, translator and public intellectual, Ryckmans led an extraordinarily full life. So much so that Philippe Paquet took over 600 pages to deal with it adequately. For this, Paquet has been mildly criticised by some reviewers of his biography, but anything less could not have delivered an adequate account of this extraordinary man.

Ryckmans himself had said that “a good biographer basically just provides the material for a trial in which the final judgement is handed down by the reader: the mission of the first, then, is to deliver the second a file containing information that is as full and accurate as possible”. This is precisely what Paquet has attempted.

Teacher, defendant

It is true that many of the characters who appear in the book belong to a past era and to a European intellectual community with few ties to Australia. Nonetheless, it makes fascinating reading, for you begin to see just how effortlessly Ryckmans strode the world’s stage with­out any hint of self-aggrandisement. Indeed, Ryckmans normally kept a very low profile. Even though he taught in Australian universities for over 20 years (Kevin Rudd was one of his pupils) and published many important books and essays in that time, he remained relatively unknown in the wider community.

For News Weekly readers, perhaps the most important sections of Paquet’s book deal with Ryckmans’ defence of the traditional moral order associated with Christianity. I have already mentioned Ryckmans’ spirited defence of Mother Teresa of Calcutta in a recent News Weekly piece (April 7, 2018).

Pierre Ryckmans and his wife Chang Hanfang, were devout Catholics. Indeed, many commentators have drawn parallels between G.K. Chesterton (and Hilaire Belloc) and Ryckmans in this regard. He was never afraid to defend publicly the traditional notion of marriage and family, or to speak out against euthanasia. As an example, he once published an open letter to former Governor-General Bill Hayden, who in 1995 had intimated that euthanasia might be a good option to avoid what he saw as the indignity of senility.

Hayden had also spoken out against the traditional concept of marriage. This incensed Ryckmans, who spoke of the institution of marriage as “the most enduring and successful experiment in the entire cultural history of mankind”. As for euthanasia, Ryckmans supposed that its supporters (Hayden included) had “forsaken the very principles of civilisation and crossed the threshold of barbarity”.

When Kevin Rudd, as prime minister, had proposed a national referendum on same-sex marriage (defeated in 2013), Ryckmans wrote a letter to The Australian in which he proposed a startling solution. The present system, where priests and ministers of religion were able to act as marriage celebrants should cease forthwith. Secular “marriage” should be replaced by some form of legal civil union carried out solely by secular agents for the state. Such a union could be between two males, two females, two females and a male, and so on. There would be no restrictions.

To save ‘traditional’ marriage

For those people who held to the traditional, sacred nature of marriage (as did Ryckmans), they must first go through the business of a “civil union” (as a legal requirement) then immediately “go to their respective churches, synagogues, mosques and temples to receive the supernatural support they deemed essential”.

This, for Ryckmans, was the only way that the traditional notion of marriage could be saved. Marriage would then become a wholly religious affair and the various churches had every right to maintain and defend its traditional form. The state had no business in the affairs of God. For this reviewer, at any rate, the idea has great merit and I can only hope that when the Catholic Bishops of Australia meet for their much-anticipated Plenary Council in 2020, it will be high on their agenda. Alas, I fear it will not be!

The alter ego and Criticism of Mao

Simon Leys, the alter ego of Ryckmans, came into being with the publication of The Chairman’s New Clothes, a powerful indictment of the Cultural Revolution in China. Originally published in French in 1971, an English edition came out some years later.

It was probably a wise move to adopt a pseudonym. In August 1967, he had witnessed the assassination of a so-called “traitor”, Lin Pin, the host of a satirical radio show popular in Hong Kong.

The pseudonym also avoided what we might term “diplomatic difficulties” for Belgium. But even in the West, this new book by Simon Leys was to prove a hot potato. Many Western intellectuals refused to believe that the Maoist regime was as Leys had painted it. Indeed this reviewer can remember back to that era and to the popularity, on the campus of Melbourne University, of Mao’s Little Red Book.

Towards the end of his life, Ryckmans became more and more concerned at the increasing bureaucracy that seemed to encroach from all sides. It was particularly evident in the universities and this caused him, on more than one occasion, to deliver a polemic against it.

His idea of a university was similar to that of John Henry Newman’s – a place where young minds could develop. Instead, it had become merely a degree factory where intellectual achievement was less important than equality of outcome – degrees for all!

It is impossible in a short review like this, to give an adequate account of Paquet’s biography. At the end of his book, it takes six pages of tight text merely to list a bibliography of Ryckmans’ prodigious literary output. Some of the better-known titles include The Death of Napoleon (a very successful novel), The Wreck of the Batavia (a careful, historical account of the wreck and its awful aftermath), and two collections of essays, The Halls of Uselessness and The Angel and the Octopus. Unfortunately, many of his works are available only in French.

Although his talents did not go unnoticed in Australia – in 1996 he delivered the ABC Boyer Lectures – it remains a fact that his talents were much more widely appreciated in Europe. He was the recipient of numerous prestigious literary awards in France. And yet, late in life his relationship with Belgium, his country of birth, was soured by a long and painful battle over the refusal by Belgian authorities to grant a passport to one of the Ryckmans’ sons, Marc. Incredibly, this battle lasted until 2013, when the Belgian courts pronounced in the Ryckmans’ favour.

Polymath satirist

For those News Weekly readers unacquainted with the writings of Leys/Ryckmans, I recommend his essay collection, The Angel and the Octopus. This will give readers some appreciation of the enormous range of his interests, as well as introducing them to his biting satire, his wise reflections on the human condition and, not least, the sincerity of his Christian faith.

There are essays on the modern university, Chinese calligraphy, on interpreting Chinese newspaper “reports” and “facts” (in the Maoist era), on Don Quixote, Balzac, Orwell, and Evelyn Waugh, to mention just a few. There is even a reflection on cigarette smoking, which will occasion apoplectic rage in the ranks of the anti-smoking zealots.

Finally, I should pay tribute to Julie Rose for her excellent translation of the biography into English. It was no small task to produce a translation of such a detailed book. Leys, I am sure, would have approved. He himself had produced a translation, into French, of the great American seafaring classic, Two Years before the Mast, by Richard Dana.

Ryckmans’ journey through life had much of the character of a great sea voyage; for, as Hilaire Belloc was to say: “It is true of the sea, here as everywhere, that it is the symbol of life, and of our ceaseless duties, and of death. We must never expect long quiet in the business of our life, nor any long security in any passage of the sea.”

That provides an excellent summary of the life of Pierre Ryckmans.

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