Wednesday, September 17, 2014

EMPIRE OF THE SUN by JG Ballard (fic)

After a discussion with my son about JG Ballard, he kindly sent me this book knowing I would enjoy it more than the bleak dystopian novels Ballard is known for.  The novel was written in 1984 and has constantly been in print since then.  You may be familiar with the movie which has softened some of the very tough passages in the book.

Ballard was born and brought up in Shanghai (his father was a chemist for a British company) in the very British area known as the Shanghai International Settlement.  Even the imposing houses were copied from British country homes. Ballard draws on his own youthful experiences in this semi-autobiographical novel. The international crowd living in the fancy suburb was still carrying on as if they were in Europe even as the Japanese invade Shanghai during World War II. The contrast between the British going to a costume party on the eve of war and their being driven through the streets to interment camps the following day is startling.

 The young hero, Jim, was a mixture of precocious and naif.  As the book progresses, his character grows in strength and understanding of the true nature of men in war.  When Jim is first brought to the camp called Lunghua, he is convinced that things would get back to normal when the war has ended.  Toward the end of the novel Jim realizes that the world has changed forever and there is no returning to the sheltered live he had lived. Throughout the book, Ballard uses inversion and contrast to give forceful clarity to the feelings Jim and other characters are having.  Jim's character grows in strength and understanding of the nature of men at war as he spends four years in the camp.  Another lesson Jim learned was caring for others.  At first Jim saw opportunity in running errands and cadging food for others.  It was done with a slyness looking for what he could get in return.  In contrast,there is a lovely scene toward the end of the novel when Jim is compassionately caring for Mr. Maxted, an old family friend who is dying.  The narrator states, he finally realized that caring for others is the same as being cared for yourself.

There are a number of horrific scenes of death and suffering of the western prisoners.  Powerful and realistic scenes occur all through the novel.  As I read I could clearly picture the bleakness of the land and the destruction of the countryside around Shanghai which became an empty city of ghosts of its past splendor.  In contrast to the starkness of Jim's surroundings, Ballard uses bright sunlight which illuminates a number of scenes.  One takes place in an unused Olympic Stadium when Jim is tending to Mr. Maxted.  The Japanese knowing they would lose the war, have marched the prisoners out of the camp through hideous heat and dust into the stadium.  There they are left to die and tend to themselves.  Jim sees a fierce brightness in the sky obliterating all color for some moments, and he is later convinced he has seen the atom bomb that leveled Nagasaki when he hears people speaking about it.  Jim has other enlightened moments, one important one takes place as the war is ended and he tends to a dying Japanese pilot.  Jim looks at his hands in the bright sunlight with the dreary dark camp behind him, and he realizes that human hands can be used to save people or destroy them. He begins to understand the surrealism of war.

Besides Jim there are many memorable characters in the story.  Most modeled on real people, some are good like the brave doctor who never flags in his care of the wounded; some selfish like Basie who teaches Jim to grab what he can, which in a strange way, helped keep Jim alive.

As the story nears its end, Jim is disoriented and baffled by its sudden outcome.  He wanders back to the camp looking for the security he found there in the midst of its squalor. He had a place there, he knew how he fit in there.  Now it seemed no one wanted or cared about him.  He soon discovers the secure world he had begun to build for himself had disappeared.

Ballard is an exquisite writer.  I was thoroughly engrossed by the novel, more so knowing it was based on the author's experiences as a boy.  I thought about it and what it told us about humans for weeks after I read the last page.  I highly recommend this book, though it is difficult in its realism.

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