F Block, Lunghua Camp, V-J Day, 1945
"I think the character of Jim is fairly true to the boy that I was. The whole point of the book, really, is that he's learning to love the war."
JG Ballard discusses Empire Of The Sun with James Naughtie.
First broadcast on BBC4, 3rd February 2002
Transcribed by Mike Bonsall
James Naughtie: ...about the book Empire of the Sun. At the start of the book, the war in Europe is under way, but in Shanghai they're still waiting what will the Japanese do? Jim's a child of the well-to-do foreign mercantile class there; a world that's going to be dismantled pretty quickly by the war. And very soon he's on the run: separated from his parents, taken on by a couple of American crooks, fending for himself, falling in with the Japanese, finally landing in an appalling prison camp after a transit camp. And it's behind those bars that the story has its heart. Jim's life is a description of imprisonment, really, he rediscovers his parents, they're in another camp and relatively safe. But after escape at the end of the war, he discovers, somehow, that life outside is rather less like home than prison life had become. It is an autobiographical novel, in part; Jim Ballard was brought up in Shanghai and was interned from the age of 12, though along with his parents. And for this novelist who was celebrated in the science fiction world before Empire of the Sun came along in the early 80s it is quite a conventional novel. He's with us to talk about it now. How different was it turning to an autobiographical subject in the novel form from the way you had approached your previous novels?
JGB: Strangely, I don't think it was different at all. People who'd read my earlier fiction from the early 60s onwards assumed that it was a huge jump, imaginatively and in terms...
JN: Because it was very different in style.
JGB: Yeah, in fact, I treated it as exactly as I treated much of my earlier fiction. Partly because there was so much of my Shanghai experiences in my earlier novels, without my realising it at the time.
JN: It's almost as if you had to write a few books get a few books under your belt before you really could put that story of yourself in a fictional context and make it work. Is that fair?
JGB: Yes, I think there were all sorts of psychological strands running. I think part of it was that I'd come to England in 1946 and three years later, the Chinese communists overran Shanghai and I knew I would never go back there. So I had to make a new life for myself: I got married, had children, and there was no point really in remembering the wartime Shanghai. I dunno because no one in England knew anything about it, they were obsessed, understandably, with the war in Europe.
JN: So time had to pass?
JGB: A lot of time passed. I think I wanted to forget too, you know, I've said, 20 years to forget Shanghai and the war, and then another 20 years to remember it. Because it did take me a very long time something like 40 years before I got around to writing Empire of the Sun.
JN: And, did you find that you were storing little pieces away in the back of your mind: remembered smells, and sights, and people, and streetcorner feelings, and all the rest of it. And they were there, they were just waiting to be, sort of, taken out of a locked trunk?
JGB: Yes, that's true. I think that's absolutely true, I think. I've written quite a lot of fiction quite a lot of novels, and a great number of short stories before I wrote Empire of the Sun. And I was constantly drawing on, you know tremendous flooding in my first novel, The Drowned World was a straight transcription of the annual floods that drowned Shanghai; the drained swimming pools that are sort of, one of my little signatures I mean, Shanghai was full of drained swimming pools.
JN: The empty swimming pools, because of the water rushing out...[McGrath note: he obviously doesn't get it]
JGB: So I was using little bits from my past, but I don't think I was aware of it, as I did so in the 60s and 70s.
JN: Let me ask our readers here how they reacted to it, as a novel. Did you feel that it was fundamentally, an autobiographical story set in novel form, or was it a piece of fiction that revealed something about the author? Which way round was it, how did you take it?
Questioner 1: I was quite surprised by the mixture of the biographical and the historical. And I was amazed, actually, how you managed bring in some of the rather gruesome sides of the situation, and yet not dwell on them too much.
JGB: Yes, many people who read Empire of the Sun when it first came out said: Ugh it's so horrific, it's so gruesome! In fact, I think I rather downplayed the truth of the reality of wartime Shanghai it was a terribly brutal and cruel place.
JN: You talk of the corpses every 200 yards, and so on.
JGB: Yes, but that was going on, you know, from 1937 onwards. In '37 the Japanese invaded China and they occupied all the coastal cities, including Shanghai, except for the international settlement. When I went to school in the mornings my parents had a chauffeur-driven car and I'd look out and, you know, you could see bodies lying in the streets, small coffins with a few flowers over them. Children that had died in the night, parents too poor to arrange for a funeral, they just put the coffin by the roadside. Very difficult to imagine that happening in Wimbledon, let's say, or Weston-super-Mare it was a big shock.
Questioner 2: I was really intrigued by your attitude to yourself, as the main character in the book. Because it seemed to me that you were very tender in your treatment of Jim, showing things very indirectly, not telling what he was like, with his limited point of view and his problems. I found that very, very powerful. I'm wondering, in terms of how long it took you to get round to writing it, whether it had to do with the evolution of the way you thought about yourself, or remembered yourself. Jim's very, sort of, warts-and-all, he makes mistakes, and he's got problems and you can see his attitudes are, kind of, shaped by his situation.
JGB: What you're saying is that he's not altogether likeable, and I think there's a germ of truth in that...
Questioner 2: He is very likeable, I mean, that's the thing, the way you showed that made him very likeable. I'm not saying he's a wicked character...[McGrath note: he's not listening]
JGB: He's got a sort of desperate imagination, that probably sums me up as a human being, and as a writer. I think as a child I was a bit hyperactive, I got into tremendous danger on a lot of occasions. I look back having brought up three children of my own and I think: my god, if any of those things happened in this country, I the parent would be, you know, hauled up in front of the magistrates. I think the character of Jim is fairly true to, you know, the boy that I was. The whole point of the book, really, is that he's learning to love the war. Because the war represents security, and that's a, sort of, nightmare truth about war. And however unpleasant things are, people get used to it, and they begin to rely on it even people in prison camps, people under enormous physical and mental pressure. You know, it's the Stockholm syndrome in a kind of way, you begin to love your captors because they represent security. I think there's a strong element of that in Jim's character.
Questioner 2: The way he kept returning to the prison afterwards is, sort of, an example of what you're...
JGB: I did that. I remember walking, one day I think the war had just ended, though we weren't sure that the war had ended this was the very peculiar thing. Well, I thought: the war's ended, so I climbed through the barbed-wire fence and set off, across the paddy fields to Shanghai, which was about eight miles very dangerous. I found our house eventually. There was a Chinese soldier in one of the puppet armies that fought with the Japanese guarding the house, which had been occupied by a Chinese puppet general; he'd fled leaving this young soldier behind. And I, sort of, took command of the house, pushed him aside and said: this is my house. And, after a while I remember finding it was odd I didn't like it so I walked all the way back to the camp and I was happy there.
Questioner 3: You mention security. I wanted to ask about the sense of freedom that Jim starts to feel in the camp to have certain ideas. How important was that in your experience, the sense of freedom from what you'd experienced in your previous life?
JGB: Both in Jim's life, and in my own life, I think we both, as it were, experienced a tremendous feeling of freedom. The camp was like a huge shanty town, really, and in shanty towns, it's the teenage boys who have the most freedom; they run wild, nobody can control them. Life in pre-war Shanghai, in the British community, had been so formal really. I'd never met any adult men, apart from schoolteachers, and one or two of my father's friends, and most of whom were much too grand to talk to a 10 year old. And in the camp I met a huge number of adult males.
JN: So the world opened up for you, in imprisonment?
JGB: Hugely, of course, because I was running around all day doing errands, playing chess, you know, stealing this, and swapping that. I met a huge number of people I would never have met otherwise.
JN: I love, for instance, in the book the American crooks, with whom Jim falls in, at one point. I mean, he casts them aside, but there's a good example of that kind of serendipity of the sort of character that you meet, in those circumstances who otherwise he probably would never have come across.
JGB: No, I mean, I would never would have been allowed, in pre-war Shanghai, to meet anyone like that. I mean, parents go to enormous lengths to make sure their children only meet the right sort of people. They don't do it so much today, but they certainly did it, I can tell you, 50 years ago.
Questioner 4: I found it a bit difficult to come to terms with, or accept, the boy's ongoing admiration of the Japanese. Well before he himself becomes a prisoner. Despite the fact of all the descriptions that you give of the Japanese invasion of China, which the boy also himself witnessed within his own city of Shanghai. And then, in that context, there is this sentence, which particularly disturbed me, and I quote: 'he liked their bravery and stoicism and their sadness which struck a curious chord with Jim who was never sad.' I cannot understand how a boy who witnesses such atrocities cannot be sad never mind him being sad within other contexts as an only boy in his family, and just everyday life.
JGB: That's an example of one of the terrifying paradoxes of wartime experience, and it's absolutely true to my own experience. Small boys hero worship winners, and the Japanese were the winners in the war at first, against the Chinese, and then, for the opening year or so, in the war against the Americans. They were quite obviously the bravest soldiers I'd ever seen. They were stoical. They would fight right to the last man, and this is the sort of thing adults don't admire, but small boys definitely admire. As for the brutalities they committed of course, the Chinese were also committing appalling brutalities brutality was part of war. I got to know the Japanese in the camp extremely well, the guards would invite me into their one of their bungalows, and I put on their kendo armour and fenced with them. Many of them were not much older than I was, they were probably 18 or 19; farm boys who were lonely and, probably knew their lives would soon end. And there is a strain of sadness in the Japanese, I think the Japanese actually enjoy being sad, in a peculiar kind of way. And I think that appealed to me, it gave them a sort of dignity which, you know, many Europeans didn't have. And it's one of the main themes of the book how you identify yourself with the enemy and this allows you to enter a strange sort of world. I think what I've tried to show in the novel is that, in its strange way, ordinary life went on for this small boy my own younger self as it did for most of the...
JN: His fantasies were just played out on a more exotic canvas.
Questioner 5: One of the things that particularly intrigued me, was that Jim seems to be the character of Jim seems to be a classic survivor. He's surviving, you know, at all costs, to himself, and everyone around him. And given the social and economic life that Jim had in Shanghai, it just really intrigued me that he was able to have those instincts. Did you yourself have those instincts, and if you did, how did they come about?
JGB: I did share them, but of course there was a big difference between myself and the Jim in the novel and that is my parents were with me in the camp that's an important difference. At the same time, they didn't have very much control over me, and I think a certain estrangement sprang up between myself and my parents, which I never really recovered from I think. And I think the reason is that as everyone here who's had children knows family life is a matter of constant negotiations, little bribes are offered little pressures are brought to bear. Parents offer treats, and they offer stability and security; it's the parents who put three meals a day on the table.
Now my parents couldn't do that, in the camp, they had no levers to pull, they lost their authority, I think. I think that's also true of all the adults in the camp, they all lost their authority in my eyes. I saw something, in the camp, that children very rarely see. And that is, I saw adults under stress, that's not something that most children ever see. The adult world is careful to screen itself from children parents may be rowing but they try to do it out of the earshot of their children. I saw my parents under stress and I saw other adults under stress, and it was a great education but it was alienating and I think I never really was ever close to my parents again.
Questioner 6: I was wondering whether the experiences you, personally, went through, had skewed your after-life in any way. You obviously found it difficult to settle down to a job for example: a Covent Garden porter, a medical student. But did you find your relationships with people were difficult?
JGB: I think that's probably true. I think I found England a very, very strange place, but that was to be expected because it differed from the Shanghai I'd known in almost every conceivable way. The England I came to in 1946 was exhausted; the English talked as if they'd won the war but acted as if they've lost it. The middle-classes in particular had lost their confidence. And I found it very difficult, I think, to feel at home here and I'm not sure that I do, really, to this day. If the whole thing, sort of, vanished suddenly I think I could cope with it, strangely enough. I think it did skew me there's no doubt about it but I think in many beneficial ways. I realised that we take too much for granted in everyday life and much of it is just a stage set it only needs the smallest pressures, you know: a rail-strike, or a devastating hurricane, to see, you know, reality just collapse.
Questioner 7: In the novel we read passages of dreadful atrocities and sights that Jim views, that he describes in a, matter-of-fact, quite unemotional way. I was wondering how a child of that age was it the sheer volume of everyday the atrocities that made him quite cold about these things or did the real Jim secretly have different ways of dealing with the awful sights that he saw?
JGB: Shanghai particularly during the Japanese occupation from 1937 onwards was a very, very brutal place, and I don't think the reactions of my younger self were any different from those of other English boys, or French boys, or German boys, in Shanghai at the time. You know, one's got to think of this violent city where human life counted for absolutely nothing where if you fainted with hunger and fell to the pavement you lay there until you died, and no one paid the slightest attention to you. It's very difficult to realise that moral indignation is a rare quality, and it needs a base of great human security in order to flourish. Once you actually are exposed to the relentless tide of human evil, you no longer make judgements about it, and I think the book tries to be truthful to that fact.
Questioner 8: Yes, on that point I think that happens to the reader, as well. Initially, the first deaths, particularly the little coffins floating, are quite distressing and disturbing, but like Jim, by the end of the book I thought this was brilliant really we've got the coffins again, but we're almost used to it, we're almost expecting it, and it's just a part of what's been going on.
JGB: True, I think that's one of the points I was trying to make. That one accepts these things as part of the realities of war. I imagine I wasn't here, obviously, but I mean, during the blitz Londoners who survived, must have seen dreadful examples of children, and the old, killed in the bombing. And I dare say, after a while they became, tragically, used to it outraged and indignant, yes morally resentful, probably not.
JN: On the question of how your attitudes changed. We've talked about the feeling that Jim has for the Japanese or the understanding that he has. After the war, when you learned much more about some of the atrocities that occurred, in the camps, on the railway, and so on. Did your attitude to the Japanese personally change, from the one you had during your own experiences?
JGB: Oh yes, I mean as an adult I don't have any of the sort of hero worship of the Japanese that I had as a boy, there's no question about that. I think the Japanese military behaved in the most atrocious way to the Chinese civilians. From '37 onwards they murdered millions of them in the most ghastly way, and the treatment of Allied POWs, was criminal. Yes, in their way, they were extremely brave and fanatical soldiers, but I certainly don't admire them in anything like the way that I did as a boy.
Questioner 9: You said that you've actually been back to Shanghai, bearing in mind all those experiences you've had as a young boy, was that a painful or a joyous experience?
JGB: I want back in 1991, in fact, with a BBC arts programme, and spent about a week there. I saw my own house, and Shanghai itself, and then we went out, we discovered the camp which was a huge effort and I found my own room, in fact. I recognized everything in Shanghai, in the camp, in my own in our old house as if it had been the day before yesterday. But I didn't actually feel very moved, I mean the emotions I think had died. Whereas if I go back to somewhere like Cambridge, which I disliked intensely, the emotions are extremely strong. And perhaps hostile emotions, sort of, last longer than others. The curious thing is that despite what readers of Empire of the Sun may think really, if I'm honest, I enjoyed the war, I had a wonderful time even though I was probably ill much of the time, because about half the people in the camp suffered from malaria despite all that I was happy. I was with this enormous nuclear family and I was a teenage boy running wild wonderful.