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Reading “Empire of the Sun”

1empiresun

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.

4 Responses

  1. And an anomaly in his oeuvre that doubles as a partial explanation. There’s a great introduction that mentions this in Extreme Metaphors, the collection of Ballard interviews. I shall post on this in due course. I like the comparison you draw between the 2 home lives. Was the informal version during incarceration?

    • I really need to read him. (Grin) The name keeps staring at me when I visit the bookstore only to be left ashamed that I haven’t read any. He actually referred to the incarceration in one of his interviews.

      • There’s a collection of (some of) his interviews. I’ll blog on it sometime. The introductory chapter talks about how much he liked interviews and probably saw them as a medium in their own right. Their estimated word count is similar to his own writing.

  2. His work is a gap in my reading experience, too, but i am looking forward to delving in at some point. I hope you enjoy it!

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