Analyst of Totalitarianism—Reading Simon Leys Today

By David Adler


Simon Leys was perhaps the pre-eminent Western chronicler of Mao’s Cultural Revolution, and it is worth returning to his work for its vivid first-hand accounts of life in Beijing during this period. But Leys was also interested in the process by which, under the right conditions and with the right ideology, a society can collapse into insanity and murder. His description of the Cultural Revolution showed how political hysteria and the legitimization of violence and hatred combined to ravage a nation.

These developments, however, are by no means unique to communism in general or China in particular, and Leys explored similar themes in his retelling of the harrowing true story of a ship wrecked off the coast of Australia in 1629. His book on the topic, The Wreck of the Batavia, is a short masterpiece about how the small society that the ship’s survivors tried to construct in the wake of the disaster was plunged into apocalyptic madness and murder by a psychopathic leader operating according to his own deranged totalitarian ideology. The parallels to Maoism—although Leys was too elegant a writer to belabour them—are obvious.

Leys’s work was not centered on abstractions or historical lessons. “I am not dealing here with esoteric abstractions, but with a living reality,” he wrote in the introduction to the anthology The Hall of Uselessness. He was preoccupied with the fragility of civilization, the vulnerability of human nature to the temptations of cruelty, and the complacency of advanced societies when viewing the barbarism of others.


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