Obituary – not for Robin Williams – but for Simon Leys.
CNN, BBC, all newspapers around the world are full of stories about the suicide of Robin Williams. I am sorry for his death but only to a point. He choose to end his life and I respect his decision. And not only for this but also because I do not want to know all the gossips, innuendoes, weird opinions of this or that friend or colleague of him. I don’t want to know all the lurid details of his troubled life, full of problems. I think that all the blablabla’ we hear and we see it is just fuelled by vulgar human instincts propelled forward by the Hollywood movie industry. They want us to think that this personal tragedy is a universal tragedy. I disagree on this, I feel sorry for him but his legacy is negative: drugs, alcohol, so much talent wasted.
Great actors who, like him, are so capable to slip into different characters seem to have a pathological streak that made their life – no matter which their achievements can be – miserable and prone to depression. They do not possess their own personality thus they can be anybody and anything. In Italy we had a very famous actor and imitator – who look like very much Williams, also in his facial traits – called Alighiero Noschese. He was wildly popular in Italy when I was a teen and he ended up like Williams, shooting himself.
Today I want to remember a great man, who also died on the 11 of August 2014. Simon Leys, who had dyed in Australia on the 11 of August. I consider him one of the greatest intellectual, translator, sinologist, poet of our times. But the news of his passing went unnoticed by the CNN and the BBC.
His real name was Pierre Ryckmans (28 September 1935 – 11 August 2014) a Belgian by birth. I believe that one of the reason of his premature dead is the stress and frustration he felt seeing his children made stateless by a bovine law contained in the Belgian constitution. If the child of a Belgian is born abroad and he is not stating in the proper manner to his government that wants to remain Belgian when he is 21, he is automatically stripped of his belgian passport and nationality.
I have discovered Leys very late but I made up my lost time reading some of his wonderful books. Like Chinese Shadows and The Chairman’s New Clothes: Mao and the Cultural Revolution, published in English translation in 1977. Then the wonderful pearl of The Death of Napoleon, of 1986. It was made into a movie with the title The Emperor New Clothes in 2001, directed by Alan Taylor. Leys disliked its rendering, saying: “The latter avatar [The Emperor’s New Clothes], by the way, was both sad and funny: sad, because Napoleon was interpreted to perfection by an actor, Ian Holm, whose performance made me dream of what could have been achieved had the producer and director bothered to read the book.”
He wrote Chinese Shadows because he had to opportunity to work as Sinologist during a six-month stint as cultural attaché at the Belgian embassy in Bejing in 1972. One of the reason that may explain why Leys had not been on the international radar is the fact that he had never written with hypocrisy about China and Chinese Cultural Revolution. He had been proven right but at the beginning he was badly mistreated by the French gauche caviar and all their maitre a penser. He had rightly noted that:“Whoever talks about China talks about himself.” Like looking in a mirror…
He had been a strong anti-communist, but he based his opinions on facts rather than ideology combining it with a great love for the old cultural traditions of China.