The Sincere Indignation of Simon Leys

Josh Freedman reviews Philippe Paquet’s biography of the iconoclastic sinologist

If there is a single climactic moment in Philippe Paquet’s exhaustive, colorful account of the life of the writer Simon Leys, it occurs on a staid French television show about books. It was 1983, and Leys had recently published his fourth collection of acerbic essays on China’s ruling party; yet the host of the popular show Apostrophes had to work hard to cajole Leys into coming to Paris to talk about his book on the air. Leys had no interest in doing publicity for his books, and rarely granted interviews to the media; plus, in this instance, he knew that any discussion on the show would inevitably stir up controversy. Paris had been the epicenter of pro-Maoist sentiment in the 1960s and 1970s, and Leys had spent more than a decade as one of the few critics unswervingly standing up to the tide of revolutionary fervor in the Francophone world. He was, for many Parisian China-watchers, public enemy number one.