Anatomy of a tyrant
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.