A movie on TV familiarizes me with the book from which it was adopted, Empire of the Sun by J.G. Ballard. I hunted down an used copy at the indie and started reading. The book was actually published in 1984, forty years after the author’s own experiences in a Japanese internment camp during World War Two in China. For the most part the novel is an eyewitness account of events Ballard observed during the Japanese occupation of Shanghai and within that camp at Lunghua.
In an interview with the UK Guardian, Ballard was frank about the difficulty in conveying the surrealism of war.
I waited 40 years before giving it a go, one of the longest periods a professional writer has put off describing the most formative events in his life. Twenty years to forget, and then 20 years to remember. There was always the possibility that my memories of the war concealed a deeper stratum of unease that I preferred not to face. But at least my three children had grown up, and as I wrote the book I would never have to think of them sharing the war with my younger self.
Knowing the movie would ruin my reading pleasure, I immediately switched off the TV. My principal is to always read the book first. I crave to hear the story from Ballard’s perspective. Even after 40 years, Ballard found it difficult to begin the novel, until it occurred to him to drop his parents from the story. They had lived together in a small room for nearly three years, eating boiled rice and sweet potatoes from the same card table, sleeping within an arm’s reach of each other, an exhilarating experience for him after the formality of their prewar home, where his parents were busy with their expat social life and he was brought up by Chinese servants who never looked at him and never spoke to him.
The interview foreshadows a poignant story. It’s more than physical survival—a mental one that mandates him to find a strength greater than all the events that surrounded him.