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[770] Empire of the Sun – J.G. Ballard

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“Jim stared at his pallid hands. He knew that he was alive, but at the same time he felt as dead as Mr. Maxted. Perhaps his souls, instead of leaving his body, had died inside his head?” (Ch.32, p.293)

Empire of the Sun is an autobiographical novel of World War II in China. It’s the story of a young boy’s search in vain for his parents in Shanghai after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. It is based on events which Ballard himself witnessed and suffered while interned as a boy in Shanghai from 1941 to 1945.

There is a triumph of truthfulness of tone to this book. It’s not about frontline combat but concentrating on prisoners’ experience in the camp through the eyes of an eleven-year-old boy. Separated from his pants, Jim first camped out in his own empty house and then in the deserted house of his parents’ friends’ house. Eventually he’s interned for four years in the camp of Lunghua, where he performs a variety of chores under the direction of a Dr. Randsome.

But he had outgrown them and made other friends—Dr. Randsome, Basie, and the American seamen in E Block, with their ancient prewar copies of Reader’s Digest and Popular Mechanics that Jim devoured. (Ch.20, p.176)

War is war, as Ballard convinces reader. There is nothing admirable about it, even for the winning side. There are no heroes, no heroics, just war as the normal condition, and the only battle that to survive. There’s the battle against diseases and hunger. There’s the constant fear of reprisal. The driving force to live, at least for Jim, is the hope to be with his parents again. Maintaining a civil relation to the Japanese guards gets him some perks but it doesn’t ease the threat of death. Aside from the pestilent living condition, food is depleting at a rate faster than that at which people are dying. Ironically, Jim is at the mercy of some Japanese soldiers for food, while the cubicle-mates, an English couple, deprived him of his food rations.

He sucked on his knuckles, glad for even the taste of his pus, then tore stems of grass from the bank and chewed the acid leaves. (Ch.30, p.272)

This book has the authority of experience: a novel of clear moral purpose and power, but written in a detached, matter-of-fact manner like journalist reporting. Ballard didn’t write about this experience until some forty years after the war. He reflected that for the rest of his life, he found it difficult to leave food on his plate after the Lunghua years. This is perhaps the worst consequence of war—surviving and yet traumatized.

375 pp. Washington Press. Pocket Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

Reading “Empire of the Sun”

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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.