the fo­rum

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents - Greg Sheri­dan

IT is a won­der­ful thing when a writer you love turns out to love the other writ­ers you love. A cou­ple of months ago, Pierre Ry­ck­mans, the great Bel­gian Aus­tralian Si­nol­o­gist, died of can­cer, aged 78. The trib­utes to him were rich, var­ied and en­tirely jus­ti­fied. On any mea­sure he was one of the great­est in­tel­lec­tu­als, one of the great­est writ­ers, to have lived in Aus­tralia.

Pierre would have hated that kind of de­scrip­tion. He was the en­emy of pomp, cant and sel­f­re­gard. He was fa­mous be­cause of his work on China, but re­ally he was a fig­ure like George Or­well or GK Ch­ester­ton, a thinker of pierc­ing di­rect­ness who pen­e­trated all man­ner of hu­man re­al­ity, and a writer at once straight­for­ward and ex­traor­di­nar­ily orig­i­nal. Above all, he was fear­less.

This is slightly dif­fer­ent from be­ing brave. Cer­tainly he was brave as well. But he didn’t go look­ing for dragons to slay. Rather, he just wrote the truth with­out re­gard to its con­se­quences for him­self, with­out fear.

He be­came fa­mous ini­tially for ex­pos­ing the bru­tal­ity of the Chi­nese Cul­tural Revo­lu­tion. I read only three of his books but each was lifechang­ing. The first, Chi­nese Shad­ows, was a bit­ter, as­trin­gent visit to Beijing after it had been ef­fec­tively ran­sacked by the Chi­nese com­mu­nists who were at war with China’s cul­tural in­her­i­tance, an in­her­i­tance Pierre loved.

Years later I read The Burn­ing For­est, a book of es­says about China, in­spired by the im­age of doves car­ry­ing wa­ter on their wings in re­sponse to the raz­ing of their habi­tat. And then fi­nally I re­viewed his mag­nif­i­cent trans­la­tion of The Analects of Con­fu­cius, which made that supreme book read­ily ac­ces­si­ble to a mod­ern Western au­di­ence.

I loved Pierre’s splen­did ir­rev­er­ence and di­rect­ness. Though the most civilised and cour­te­ous of men, he re­sponded to Christo­pher Hitchens’s ab­surd at­tack on Mother Teresa by la­belling it a form of “solid waste”. When forced, equally ab­surdly, to re­spond to the non­sen­si­cal the­o­ries of Ed­ward Said that Western schol­ars can know noth­ing of the Ori­ent be­cause of their Western back­ground, Pierre was equally di­rect.

“Ori­en­tal­ism could only have been writ­ten by a Pales­tinian scholar with a huge chip on his shoul­der and a very dim un­der­stand­ing of the Euro­pean aca­demic tra­di­tion,” he wrote.

I was priv­i­leged to in­ter­view Pierre a few times — he gen­er­ally es­chewed in­ter­views — to visit him at his home, to at­tend some of his lec­tures and, most pre­cious of all, to re­ceive the odd note and mes­sage of en­cour­age­ment. This was mainly be­cause we dis­cov­ered a common de­vo­tion to three writ­ers — Or­well, Ch­ester­ton and Eve­lyn Waugh, who in­ci­den­tally all had a great re­gard for each other.

Pierre’s trans­la­tion of Con­fu­cius con­tains a mar­vel­lous in­tro­duc­tory es­say and of­ten hi­lar­i­ous foot­notes. They are full of read­ings of Con­fu­cius that show that, in lan­guage, Con­fu­cius, in Pierre’s view, shared Or­well’s pas­sion for clar­ity and for con­crete think­ing.

With Waugh, he was fas­ci­nated by the dilemma of the civilised man adrift in a bar­baric civil­i­sa­tion. But I think his spirit was clos­est to Ch­ester­ton’s. It was when I wrote about th­ese au­thors that Pierre some­times got in touch with words of en­cour­age­ment. He ti­tled his own lec­ture on the great GK as “Ch­ester­ton — the poet who dances with a hun­dred legs”. Pierre was alive to all the vast Euro­pean in­flu­ence of Ch­ester­ton, how his pro­foundly disturbing book, The Man Who was Thurs­day, in­spired Franz Kafka, for ex­am­ple.

He shared with Ch­ester­ton, and with Or­well, a love of phys­i­cal things and a sense of spir­i­tual and in­tel­lec­tual in­te­gra­tion that not only made sense of the whole world but was open to the whole world. Ev­ery­thing was of in­ter­est to Pierre, in­clud­ing the Aus­tralian ver­nac­u­lar.

He told me of see­ing a man who suf­fered an in­jury on a beach and was bleed­ing. Another man ap­proached him said: “Mate, you’re mak­ing a bit of a mess of the beach.” Pierre re­alised that this was not in­sen­si­tive but ac­tu­ally an ex­pres­sion of sol­i­dar­ity. He was de­lighted and in­trigued by this. Pierre’s world was full al­ways of the sheer joy of such dis­cov­er­ies and a thank­ful­ness to God.

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