"Newsweek", 28th January 1985
Prisoner in Shanghai
David Lehman with Donna Foote in Shepperton, England
Stint not on the superlatives: "Empire of the Sun" belongs on anyone's short list of outstanding novels inspired by the second world war. J. G. Ballard's "eyewitness account" of life in a Japanese prison camp somehow combines the exactness of an autobiographical testament with the hallucinatory atmosphere of twilight-zone fiction. The action takes place in and around the overcrowded no man's land of Shanghai. As he focuses on the British and American civilians in the city -- guilty bystanders as well as innocent ones -- Ballard not only evokes the horror and the chaos that came with the territory; he also gives us a Bildungsroman. "Empire of the Sun" is first and foremost a novel about the growth of a young person's mind -- the decidedly unsentimental education of a child of war.
For Jim, Ballard's precocious hero, history divides into before, during and after his internment in the Lunghua prison camp outside Shanghai. Part one of the novel describes the tempest before the storm. Touring the city in his parents' chauffeured Packard, the 11-year-old boy notes the incongruities, cruelties and poverty around him: 200 hunchbacks as walking advertisements for the movie "The Hunchback of Notre Dame," public stranglings in the old city. Then comes Pearl Harbor. The Japanese takeover of Shanghai leaves Jim metaphorically shipwrecked, separated from his parents for the duration of the war. At first he survives by going from house to deserted house and scavenging for "the few leftovers of cocktail food from [a] fifty-year-long party." Soon he realizes he would be safest as a prisoner of war.
Three years have gone by when we enter the middle section of the novel. Within his "familiar and reassuring" barbed-wire enclosure, Jim's education proceeds apace. In a tellingly sardonic aside, Ballard compares Lunghua to an English boarding school -- just as "repressive" in its fashion. Under the tutelage of Dr. Ransome, one of his few fellow prisoners capable of heroic behavior, Jim learns how to classify plants ("invisible encyclopedias lay in every hedge and ditch") and how to conjugate the Latin verb to love. For a math lesson, he uses his heartbeat to time the shadows of American bombers streaking across the sky.
Camp life is full of anomalies. After the prisoners' cigarette supply is exhausted, condoms become currency; their value as poker chips "continued to rise even though almost all the prisoners in the camp were either impotent or infertile." Jim, who has spent "the happiest year of [his] life" in a condition of extreme deprivation, finds himself almost rooting for the Japanese to prevail -- so that Lunghua can be saved. In Jim's moral confusion is the germ of prophetic wisdom. Release from the camp results in a forced march reminiscent of Bataan -- and in the apocalyptic rumblings heard in the last section of the novel.
"Empire of the Sun" compels us, with its visionary conclusion, to see a double meaning in the book's title. Beyond all the skirmishes between Kuomintang and Communists, warlords and coolies, lurks a threat far more ominous than Japan's short-lived empire of the rising sun. The bomb over Nagasaki yields an intense "flash of light" that Jim sees -- or thinks he sees -- on the outskirts of Shanghai over 500 miles away. He has witnessed the future, and it looks like a rehearsal for World War III. "A white light covered Shanghai, stronger than the sun," he reports. "I suppose God wanted to see everything."
At home in a quiet, gray suburb of London, James Graham Ballard, 54, looks far too well fed ever to have experienced the travails of the small urchin hero of "Empire of the Sun." But as he settles himself in a swivel chair in the little back room where he writes and begins to reminisce, we're face to face with a survivor -- a man who, like Jim, endured the prison camp at Lunghua and lived to tell the harrowing tale.
Ballard has written 17 previous books, mostly science fiction. He has a loyal following in Britain, but his lyrical nightmares have been only grudgingly received in the United States. "Empire of the Sun" has begun to broaden his appeal in both countries. Now in its fifth printing in England, the book hit the British best-seller charts the first week it was published last September. There it remains, over four months and 45,000 clothbound copies later. "I'm a absolutely thrilled," Ballard says. Vindicated too. "I've always had absolute confidence in my obsessions, which have led me on a merry chase."
Children: Why did Ballard turn to his singular wartime experiences only after turning 50? "It took a long time to forget, so I suppose it took a long time to remember," he says of his boyhood years in Shanghai. Like Jim, he was born to British parents in 1930. Somehow he felt that he couldn't write about his perilous adolescence until his three children had safely weathered theirs. "In order to write the book I knew I would have to re-expose my adolescent self to all those dangers," he explains. "While children are adolescent, they need to be protected." Ballard's protectiveness is more than metaphoric: he raised his children
single-handedly after his wife's death 20 years ago.
Unlike Jim, Ballard wasn't separated from his parents during the war; they were all sent to Lunghua. But "the background and settings are as accurate as memory permits," he adds. "Only the foreground events are invented." It's ironic that "Empire of the Sun" - Ballard's first fictional foray into the past - has earned him accolades denied to his earlier "disaster novels," since it has more in common with them than immediately meets the eye. Like its predecessors, the book explores the zone of "inner space" that Ballard sees as "the true domain of science fiction." And its somber conclusion -- that, as he tartly puts it, "World War III began on the installment plan about 1945" -- lifts "Empire" from an act of memory to an act of imaginative vision. "Maybe," muses Ballard, "'Empire,' the last book I've written, is father to all those that came before."
Empire of the Sun. By J. G. Ballard. 279 pages. Simon and Schuster. $16.95.