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.