The intriguing title refers to a liminal space where great ideas are developing without reference to what the economic rationalists would arrogantly call “the real world.” In the foreword to his cornucopia, Simon Leys recalls a couple of years he spent in impoverished students’ digs in Singapore, where young, fertile minds were developing into greatness, a “hall of uselessness” at that time, because they seemed to have no applicability to practical life outside. It was the kind of germination process which the best universities today protect when they are not worrying about having to fund themselves.
The essays mainly focus on the art of the written word. Leys looks at Western literature through the works of Cervantes, Hugo, G.K. Chesterton, Orwell, Waugh, Nabokov, Simenon and some others. The Third Part, on China, is framed by regard for the written word over the spoken, and the notion of Chinese culture enduring in memory and calligraphy rather than in architecture. Even his analytical piece, “The Cambodian Genocide”, makes reference to Kafka and Primo Levi before going further into that dark place.
Other essays include an hilarious dispute with Christopher Hitchens, whose ungentlemanly title of his article about Mother Teresa prompted Leys to defend the lady in “An Empire of Ugliness.”
Simon Leys is the pen name of Pierre Ryckmans who was born in Belgium and settled in Australia in 1970. We are truly blessed to have a writer of this calibre living amongst us.