Anatomy of a tyrant

Ottawa Citizen - - Opinion - DAVID WAR­REN

Si­mon Leys is the pen-name of Pierre Ry­ck­mans, a Bel­gian who mi­grated to Aus­tralia via China. I first be­came aware of him more than 30 years ago, as a si­nol­o­gist — a stu­dent of Chi­nese cul­ture, lit­er­a­ture, art — who also wrote boldly and bravely and truth­fully on the Maoist “Cul­tural Revo­lu­tion,” then in the last stages of con­sum­ing it­self. His most fa­mous book,

Chi­nese Shad­ows (1976), took my breath away. It showed what one man could do, armed only with a pen, in the face of con­sid­er­able op­po­si­tion: not merely from the func­tionar­ies of the Red Chi­nese state, but from the left-wing fash­ion­ables of the West, who used to fawn on Mao just as they have, over the years, fawned on so many to­tal­i­tar­ian mass-mur­der­ers.

Leys had got into main­land China, and got out, largely on his own terms. He had seen enough with his own eyes to know what he could credit and dis­credit from the eyes of oth­ers.

In a book of sur­pris­ingly few pages he said more, more co­gently, about the hor­ror of Mao­ism than any other au­thor. He is long since banned from en­ter­ing main­land China, for he never com­pro­mised him­self.

Al­most all “China ex­perts” — from that day to this — have com­pro­mised them­selves, for pro­fes­sional rea­sons. Which is to say, they dare not write any­thing that could cost them their next visa into China, for be­ing able to come and go is part of the China ex­pert’s cre­den­tials, and his con­nec­tions to the Chi­nese of­fi­cial class are like­wise nec­es­sary to main­tain­ing an air of smug­ness to­ward those with­out cre­den­tials.

Leys is a blessed ama­teur, not only in this, but in hav­ing a con­sid­er­able knowl­edge of more than one field. Un­like most pro­fes­sional “ex­perts” in this age of over-spe­cial­iza­tion, he is a man of broad and deep learn­ing.

And he is ridicu­lously mod­est. The book of his that fell into my hands this week (pub­lished last year) is The Wreck of the Batavia. It is a very thin book, from Aus­tralia, that had to be padded out with the au­thor’s mem­oir on an­other nau­ti­cal theme — his ex­pe­ri­ences aboard one of the last tuna-fish­ing boats un­der sail, in Brit­tany, in his youth.

In the pref­ace, he con­fesses that he took so long gath­er­ing ma­te­ri­als on the Batavia that a man named Mike Dash came along and wrote ev­ery­thing the reader needed to know about it ( Batavia’s Grave­yard, 2002), leav­ing Leys with “noth­ing more to say.” But the “noth­ing” he then says, in the next 60 pages, was worth the wait­ing.

In brief, the Batavia was a large trad­ing ship of the Dutch East In­dia Com­pany bound out­ward from Hol­land to Java in 1629 with sub­stan­tial cargo and hun­dreds of crew and pas­sen­gers. It missed its turn in the east­ern In­dian ocean, and foundered on the reefs of the Abrol­hos is­lands, 50 nau­ti­cal miles off Aus­tralia’s west coast.

Al­most ev­ery­one sur­vived, but they were stranded. The ship’s se­nior of­fi­cers made off in a long boat to Java to seek help, and a res­cue mis­sion mirac­u­lously re­turned. What they found on their re­turn was quite as­ton­ish­ing.

Jeron­imus Cor­nelisz, a young com­pany of­fi­cer who had been left be­hind, had used the lapse of author­ity to es­tab­lish a reign of ter­ror among the cast­aways. Pos­sessed by strange vi­sions that ranged from the utopian to the pu­ri­tan­i­cally re­li­gious to the con­ven­tion­ally crim­i­nal, and pos­sess­ing a gift for rhetoric, he had cre­ated a “gestapo” among his fol­low­ers, and set para­noically about ex­pos­ing and killing any­one who might dream of ques­tion­ing his author­ity. A “civil war” was in progress be­tween es­sen­tially un­armed peo­ple who had sur­vived his rule, by es­cap­ing to a neigh­bour­ing is­land, and Cor­nelisz’s hit men, armed with ship’s mus­kets and try­ing to hunt them down.

Leys, with his su­perb knowl­edge of ev­ery­thing from 17th-cen­tury ships and nav­i­ga­tion to the ge­og­ra­phy of the Abrol­hos coral is­lands (among whose sea­sonal fish­er­men he had trav­elled), tells this story in suf­fi­cient de­tail to spell out its uni­ver­sal sig­nif­i­cance.

In the fig­ure of Cor­nelisz he sketches the psy­chopathol­ogy of a tyrant, giv­ing us an in­ti­mate view not only into the Batavia af­fair, but by ex­ten­sion into what mo­ti­vates a Mao, or a Pol Pot, an Osama, or a Hugo Chavez: about what is in the hu­man con­di­tion that en­ables them to rise to power, and what can fi­nally de­stroy them.

His motto is from Ed­mund Burke: “The only thing nec­es­sary for the tri­umph of evil is for good men to do noth­ing.” David War­ren’s col­umn ap­pears Sun­day, Wed­nes­day and Satur­day.

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