Empire of the Sun

In which I review Empire of the Sun, J. G. Ballard’s 1984 autobiographical novel about growing up in Shanghai during World War II and being interned in a prisoner-of-war.

What it’s about: Shanghai, 1941. Jim, a young English boy lives a life of luxury with his parents in the British expatriate settlement in Shanghai. After the bombing of Pearl Harbour in 1942, the Japanese invade Shanghai, and his parents are sent to an internment camp. He becomes a vagrant, living in abandoned mansions and surviving on tinned food, befriending Basie, an American racketeer who attempts to sell him to the Japanese. When food supplies run out, Jim and Basie surrender to the Japanese army and are sent to an internment camp for three years. As the Japanese military campaign collapses, food supplies run short and Jim nearly starves to death. With American forces approaching, the remaining prisoners are forced on a death march to Nantao. Jim escapes and takes shelter in an abandoned sports stadium, witnessing the white flash of the atom bomb dropping on Nagasaki. He is saved from starvation by air drops from American bombers. After several near-death experiences, he makes a long and dangerous journey to Shanghai, and is finally reunited with his parents. The novel ends with a teenaged Jim and his family leaving Shanghai by boat for England, a homeland he has never seen or known.

Why it’s a classic: Until Empire of the Sun was published in 1984, J. G. Ballard’s literary work was primarily speculative fiction – a dislocated, often nightmarish imagining of then not-so-distant future and the chilling, often ultra-violent intersection of humans with technology. In The Drowned World, he imagined a post-apocalyptic flood where survivors are forced to live in the top floors of tower blocks; in Crash, he described a sub-culture of deeply damaged outsiders who re-stage celebrity car crashes for sexual gratification, re-shaping their bodies through repeated injury. By contrast, Empire of the Sun was a realist work, styled as fiction but based heavily on Ballard’s childhood experiences in World War II China, and his nearly four years of imprisonment in labour camps. The book was an international bestseller, launching Ballard to a new level of celebrity and introducing him to a wider readership, and was followed by Steven Spielberg’s successful film adaptation (starring a young Christian Bale playing Jim).

Ballard said later that the story was one that he always intended to write, but that he wanted to wait until his own children were grown up before revealing his dark memories. What’s most striking about Empire of the Sun is how similar it is in theme and tone to his earlier dystopian narratives: a clear-eyed, unsentimental focus on images of death and destruction; a terrifyingly calm understanding of how easily the veneer of “civilisation” can be stripped away, revealing chaos and savagery; and an enduring fascination with cars, airplanes and other machines of mass destruction. For those readers familiar with his work, Empire of the Sun is the latter-day creation myth that explains Ballard’s apocalyptic view of the world.

Empire of the Sun also provided an important contribution to the hefty annals of British World War II literature. Set far away from Europe in a little-understood chapter of the war and told through the eyes of a vulnerable child whose desperate fight for survival, it’s worlds away from the stiff-upper-lip myths of British endurance during the Blitz. Ballard never takes an obvious side or wears his political colours, and it would be a stretch to call Empire of the Sun a “post-colonial novel”, but it offers a quiet critique of the futility of Britain’s colonial presence in China. Much of the novel’s humour comes from descriptions of the British, clinging haplessly to tradition in the face of war: dressing for a costume party on the night Pearl Harbour is bombed, and packing tennis racquets and golf clubs to take to the internment camps. Towards the end of the novel, Jim reads British and American newspaper reports about the war in Europe: “Unlike the war in China, everyone in Europe clearly knew which side he was on,”  and wondered “if he himself had been in the war at all.” Ballard’s novel, by its very existence, offers a corrective to that sanitised version of war history.

Bouquet or Brickbat: An atom-bomb sized bouquet. It’s hard to describe just how deeply strange this novel is, or the hallucinatory power it exerts, even when describing scenes of horrific violence and cruelty. With total confidence and a lack of sentimentality, Ballard leads you through a vision of hell that’s more terrifying than his dystopias because it describes what has been (and what very well may be again), while somehow never losing its poise or seeming gratuitous. Much of this is due to Ballard’s cool, distanced narration, which zooms in and out on Jim like a camera lens. At times we’re right under Jim’s skin, reacting alongside him to the violent new reality he lives in: his initial belief that he has caused the war by being naughty feels heartbreakingly plausible. As Jim gets older, his enthusiasm for the machinery of war and adaptability to his new circumstances keeps the narrative buoyant. At other points, Ballard takes control, observing Jim as if through a petri dish and providing war correspondent-like coverage of the war. One senses Ballard, rightly or wrongly, trying to put some distance between his own experiences and Jim’s story. This allows him to do more interesting things with the narrative – whereas Ballard lived with his family throughout the war, he makes Jim only child and separates him from his parents, giving the story significantly more dramatic scope. One also senses a very British Dead White Male attempt to not get too emotional, and avoid the queasy intimacy of a first-person narrative.

The novel is at its weakest when Ballard tells us what Jim feels: he creates much more emotional power through close observation of the horrors Jim experiences. Ballard’s descriptions of Jim’s hunger, his desperate hunt for food and the random twist of events that lead to his survival are utterly engrossing, rendered in some of the most astonishing imagery I’ve ever read in a work of fiction. Ballard’s metaphors seem to work in counterpoint, finding weird beauty in death: “[H]undreds of soldiers sat side by side with their heads against the torn earth, as if they had fallen asleep together in a deep dream of war”, while “[c]louds of flies rose from the decomposing body of a Chinese coolie lying in the sugar-cane…. hover[ing] around the pilot’s mouth, tapping his lips like impatient guests at a banquet”. Elsewhere, he creates atmospheres of un-ease in what should be comforting and familiar places: “Even the house seemed sombre, as if it was withdrawing from him in a series of small and unfriendly acts” and “There was something sinister about a drained swimming-pool, and he tried to imagine what purpose it could have if it were not filled with water. It reminded him of the concrete bunkers in Tsingtao, and the bloody handprints of the maddened German gunners on the caisson walls.” Even the sun is described as a malevolent force, “drawn nearer to the earth, as if to scorch the death from its fields,”foreshadowing the “soundless light” of the atom bomb “that filled the stadium and seemed to dress the dead and the living in their shrouds.” 

What’s especially daring about Empire of the Sun is Ballard’s cynicism about the role of family and society. Jim spends most of the novel searching for or dreaming about his parents, and he attaches himself to a series of surrogates, nearly all of whom fail him: Basie exploits Jim at every opportunity, with “a bland, unmarked face from which all the copious experiences of his life had been cleverly erased.” Mrs Vincent is quietly resentful of Jim taking up space in their sleeping quarters, and even the valiant Dr Ransome is unable to protect him. Even when Jim returns to Shanghai, his house seems “unreal… as much an illusion as the sets of the Shanghai film studios”, and he feels estranged from his parents: “his mother and father had been through their own war. For all their affection for him, they seemed older and far away.” Ballard’s portrait of a young man separated from himself and his society, unable to be protected by those who are meant to protect him, has more in common with Existentialist philosophy than most of the “triumph of the human spirit” narratives popular in war literature.

Ballard also, in his quiet unobtrusive way, lays siege to the myth of the hero in war fiction. While we can admire Jim for his persistence and bravery, we’re also aware that he is a child, and that his survival is mostly due to a series of random near-misses, almost none of which were in his control. For much of his imprisonment, he imagines himself as dead: “Jim’s soul had already left his body and no longer needed his thin bones and open sores in order to endure. He was dead… Everyone in Lunghua was dead. It was absurd that they had failed to grasp this.” Ballard dramatises Jim’s poignant attempts to revive a dying Japanese soldier, and his mistaken belief that energy surges through his fingers, “the same energy that powered the sun and the Nagasaki bomb”. At the novel’s conclusion, Jim leaves for England “[y]et only part of his mind would leave Shanghai. The rest would remain there forever, returning on the tide like the coffins launched from the funeral piers at Nantao.” Far from acquiring a new respect and gratitude for life, he appears to be horribly traumatised, imagining that “he had seen the start of World War III” and predicting that “[o]ne day China would punish the rest of the world, and take a frightening revenge.” I admire Ballard for his courage in refusing to prescribe a happy ending to his story. Jim’s story is a jolting reminder that being alive is all that matters, and also the most horrifying thing in the world.

Quotable Quotes: “For so long he had invested all his hopes in this young pilot, in that futile dream that they would fly away together, leaving Lunghua, Shanghai and the war forever behind them. He had needed the pilot to help him survive the war, this imaginary twin he had invented, a replica of himself whom he watched through the barbed wire. If the Japanese was dead, part of himself had died. He had failed to grasp the truth that millions of Chinese had known from birth, that they were all as good as dead anyway, and that it was self-deluding to believe otherwise.”



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