torsdag 9. mars 2023

Simon Leys — the cosmopolitan scholar who broke the rules of Sinology

‘There’s a new book about China by a fellow called Simon Leys,’ said my history tutor, the late Norman Stone, at the end of one testy supervision in the 1970s, ‘you should go and get it.’ Professor Stone, who seemed to think he had a teenage Maoist on his hands, felt it would improve his student’s perspective.

The book was Chinese Shadows. I hurried back from Heffers bookshop clutching the Penguin paperback, a mere 80 pence, and as I settled down in my college room Habsburgs and Ottomans receded into the Cambridge mists and a strange civilisation crept into view, captured on the book’s cover in a blurry picture of cyclists, red flags and monumental buildings.

Chinese Shadows could not be categorised. Politically pungent, full of asides on an unknown world (to me) of painting, literature and poetry, it mixed the essay, the travelogue and the pamphlet. It was one of a trilogy on China published first in French, then in the author’s own translations (such was his polymathy) to both criticism and acclaim.

At the time Western readers had a stream of anti-Communist literature out of the Eastern Bloc. But there was no Chinese Solzhenitsyn. Such was the isolation of the People’s Republic that few writers got in and none got out. Its drama was left to a handful of outsiders to chronicle, a task this new author took up with vigour.