BOOKS / Mao to Bonaparte, Ryckmans to Leys: The winner of the Independent's pounds 10,000 award is a first novel. Isabel Hilton reports: 'The Death of Napoleon' by Simon Leys, translated by Patricia Clancy and the author, Quartet Books, pounds 12.95.

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This is the second annual Independent Foreign Fiction Award; the prize is shared between author and translator. Last year's winner was 'Immortality' by Milan Kundera.

WHEN Pierre Ryckmans, the man behind the pen-name Simon Leys, heard that he had won the Independent's Foreign Fiction Award, he dispatched a message of thanks.

'After each performance,' he wrote, 'the child Mozart used to ask his listeners: 'Do you love me? Do you love me?' In a way, every artist, however grown-up, remains forever thirsting for a similar reassurance.

'A writer's condition is particularly lonely. To write is to ride a manic roller-coaster: the peaks of inspired ecstasy are cruelly few and far between; they are always preceded by long, slow, dreary climbs and invariably followed by dismal dives into dark abysses of self-doubt. If one were to say that literary prizes are a mere lottery, then when we publish a book we are buying a lottery ticket. When we hit the jackpot, why should we conceal our delight?'

It was a characteristically self-deprecating message from a man who had just made an extraordinary debut in fiction. Though The Death of Napoleon is his first novel, Ryckmans has long been celebrated among Sinologists for his ability to weave scholarship, wit and insight into critical essays on Chinese culture. He is professor of Chinese culture at Sydney University and has published 15 acclaimed books on literature, art and - in an area in which he once professed a complete lack of interest - Chinese politics.

Ryckmans was born in Brussels in 1935 and studied first law, then the history of art at Louvain University . His life changed direction in 1955 when he visited China and felt 'so stupid not being able to communicate with people without the help of interpreters that I decided to learn Chinese - and never stopped since. Malraux said that 'China is the other pole of the human experience.' As I happen to be human myself, I would not have wished to have missed half the experience.'

He began to write about Chinese politics, he says, by chance. 'The important events in our lives always happen by chance . . . I witnessed the entire Cultural Revolution from the vantage point of Hong Kong. The contrast between the gruesome reality, bluntly exposed under our very noses, and the rosy myths of the Maoist gospel that was then being developed in Europe, was simply intolerable.'

He wrote The Chairman's New Clothes, a devastating critique of the Cultural Revolution, which he describes as an 'irrepressible scream of indignation (and of plain common sense) - just like the child's candid shout in Andersen's fairy tale.'

Why had he embarked on fiction? 'Don't we all need to express ourselves, at times, in different ways, in order not to suffocate? My Napoleon has nothing to do with politics, nor with the historical Napoleon, who always appeared to me as a rather unpleasant and vulgar character - whereas I hope that my readers may eventually feel some sympathy and compassion for the fictional Napoleon.

'It's meaning is that most of our lives are wasted in the pursuit of trifles - and we miss the essential. Now and then, by accident, by surprise, we may get a glimpse, a hint, a sudden intuition that what really matters is something else entirely.'

The rest he is happy to leave to the reader: 'The meaning of an essay is determined by its author. The meaning of a novel is determined by its readers.'

(Photograph omitted)

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