Saturday, July 29, 2023

the second-last book I read

Empire Of The Sun by JG Ballard.

It's all right, living in Shanghai - nice weather, nice house, swimming pool out the back, chauffeur, all the sesame prawn toast you can eat. At least, that's Jim's Shanghai lifestyle, thanks to being part of a well-off expatriate family - his father is a businessman of some ill-defined sort. Jim is vaguely aware that some people live less privileged lives, but at the age of eleven he's far too busy zooming around pretending to be an aeroplane to care too much about all that.

There are some tensions bubbling under even now, though, since much of China, including Shanghai, has been under Japanese occupation for a few years. The uneasy truce that has allowed Shanghai's expatriate community to go about their daily lives fairly normally during this period ends abruptly when Japan enters World War II with the attack on Pearl Harbour in December 1941, and shortly afterwards the Japanese step up their occupation of China more aggressively and start imprisoning foreign nationals. During the chaos and confusion of this process kicking off in Shanghai Jim becomes separated from his parents. Escaping being taken away to the internment camps, Jim returns to suburban Shanghai and spends a few weeks living in various abandoned houses (including his own), living on the gradually-diminishing remains of the stored food. 

After a brief interlude with a couple of slightly shady Americans, Frank and Basie, Jim is eventually picked up by the Japanese and taken to an internment camp, or rather a series of camps, with the internees travelling between them either by being forced like cattle into uncomfortable trucks or being made to march on foot, with the gradual attrition of numbers as some of the weaker individuals die along the way and are unceremoniously hoofed into a ditch by their captors. Eventually the convoy arrives at its permanent destination, Lunghua. Jim befriends a few people - his room-mates at Lunghua Mr & Mrs Vincent, medic Dr Ransome, his old neighbour from Shanghai Mr Maxted - but basically spends a lot of his time exploring the camp, chatting with his Japanese captors, watching the planes of various nationalities go overhead and monitoring the progress of the runway that is being built using the internees as slave labour; this means occasionally working them to death, but hey, bury them in a shallow grave and replace them with someone else.

Over time (there is a wibbly-wobbly dissolve in the middle of the book where three years pass) Jim becomes aware that there is a wider conflict going on involving the British and Americans as well as the Japanese and Chinese, and that the side he really ought to be rooting for is probably going to win, though not before a lot of blood has been shed on both sides. Jim isn't too sure how he feels about this - he's fascinated by aeroplanes, but not too fussy about whose they are, and he has struck up a tentative friendship with a couple of the younger Japanese guards. As the war starts to go badly for the Japanese there is a sense that they don't really know what to do with the internees, and there are some further episodes of pointless piling onto trucks and marching around the countryside before Jim is abandoned by his captors, who presume that he is too weak to walk. Jim is actually pretty much OK, though weakened by hunger, and sets off on some further random wanderings through the blasted countryside, littered with plane wrecks and bayoneted corpses, eventually ending up in the vicinity of Lunghua, where he finds a supply drop from an American aircraft containing Spam, chocolate and copies of the Reader's Digest. Revived, he makes his way back to the camp where further supplies have been hoarded, is reunited with some of his former camp-mates (the ones who haven't died, anyway) and, eventually, his parents. 

Empire Of The Sun is famous for being something of an outlier in Ballard's oeuvre - a fictionalised retelling of his own childhood experiences as a prisoner of war in Shanghai, rather than the wild speculative and dystopian fiction he's more famous for. Outside of the actual narrative presented here one thing that is interesting is to pick out repeated themes from his later work that are foreshadowed by real-life experiences here: abandoned houses and swimming pools, aviation and space travel and in particular crashed and derelict aircraft, a generally lower level of interest in people and their emotions. 

It could certainly be argued that not a great deal actually happens here once Jim is separated from his parents (this is one part that's explicitly fictional; in real life Ballard and his parents were interned together), but that's partly the point - the great sweep of events is something that's happening elsewhere and Jim is only dimly aware of it while being shuttled around from camp to camp. Jim's general deadening of affect is a factor here as well - the people being bludgeoned to death for walking too slowly or being left to starve to death would presumably feel quite strongly that something fairly important is happening to them, but Jim is more interested in deciding whether he should support the Japanese or the Americans based on who has the cooler planes. 

Empire Of The Sun was nominated for the Booker Prize in 1984; it's hard to think of another Ballard novel, as excellent as they generally are, that could plausibly have been considered (and indeed this was his only ever nomination). Hotel Du Lac won that year and I have now read five of the six nominees, which is a record; four in both 1989 and 2001 is my best performance elsewhere. It was also famously filmed in 1987 by Steven Spielberg and featured Christian Bale as Jim in his first major film role. 

Anyway, it's very good and manages to be recognisably Ballardian while also an unusual outlier (though not completely unique as he wrote a loose sequel, The Kindness Of Women, in 1991). If you want something a bit more "out there" but still with a recognisable real-world setting, I'd recommend Empire Of The Sun's immediate successor The Day Of Creation or the later set of rich-people-going-berserk novels that includes Cocaine Nights and Super-Cannes. After those you may possibly wish to move on to the more piquant delights of things like High-Rise, Crash and The Atrocity Exhibition, plus the short story collections. 

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