Before I arrived on this continent these many years ago, the image of Australia to me as depicted via Private Eye was the comic strip Barry McKenzie written by the brilliant Barry Humphries. In fact, the first movie I saw in Australia was the second of the Barry McKenzie films. It more or less fixed the image that had commenced with Monty Python’s Australian Philosophy Department. What radically then changed my view of Australia was to discover that Simon Leys, the author of Chinese Shadows, lived in Canberra and taught at the ANU. He has now passed away, on August 11. I would not have known except for the notice in The Australian today written by Theordore Darlrymple, a writer I have almost as much affection for as Leys, a Belgian whose real name was Pierre Ryckmans. This is from the notice. The first sentence below can only ever be stated once in this day of the internet. It is incredible, but not misguided, that Darlrymple says what he says:
I admired Simon Leys more than any other contemporary writer. He was, in fact, my hero, in so far as I have ever had one. Although he had previously written discerningly about Chinese art, I first read his books about the Cultural Revolution. Leys, of Belgian origin, was a passionate lover and connoisseur of Chinese culture and viewed its barbarous destruction with horror during the Revolution; he abominated Maoism at least two decades before it became obligatory for all right-thinking persons to do so. From the very first page — no, from the very first sentence — of all his books and essays it is obvious that Simon Leys always knew what he was talking about.
Leys’ guiding star was cultivation (in a broad sense) and his betes noires barbarism, stupidity and humbug. There was no better sniffer out of humbug, the besetting sin of intellectuals, anywhere in the world.
I have always been taken by his notion that universities should not award degrees so that only those who truly wish to learn would bother to go. The final line of the notice reads, “Australians should be proud that he chose Australia as his home for the last 44 years of his life.” I feel exactly the same.