Tuesday, September 1, 2009

237. Empire of the Sun – J.G. Ballard

July 2009
History: Published in 1984, it is essentially fiction but draws extensively on Ballard's experiences in World War II.
Plot: The novel recounts the story of a young English boy, Jim Graham (Ballard's first and middle names are James Graham), who lives with his parents in Shanghai. After the Pearl Harbor attack, the Japanese occupy the Shanghai International Settlement, and in the following chaos Jim becomes separated from his parents.
He spends some time in abandoned mansions, living on remnants of packaged food, but is soon picked up by the Japanese and interned in the Lunghua Civilian Assembly Center.
Although the Japanese are "officially" the enemies, Jim identifies partly with them, both because he adores the pilots with their splendid machines and because he feels that Lunghua is still a comparatively safe place for him in these times.
Towards the end of the war, with the Japanese army collapsing, the food supply runs short. Jim barely survives, with people around him starving to death. He witnesses the atomic bomb from faraway while sitting in a stadium.
Eventually, he is reunited with his parents, goes back to live in Shanghai, and eventually is sent to England to live.
Review: This is an account of JG Ballard's childhood in Shanghai during World War II when he was imprisoned in an internment camp away from his parents but just knowing that alone tells you nothing about the book. Yes, it takes place in WWII but that's almost irrelevant to the book, Jim is barely aware of the war as far as most people would conceive it and the entire war seems to take place mostly on the periphery . . . if it doesn't affect him directly than he doesn't care. On one level this is a nicely detailed account of life in Shanghai, especially in the beginning. Ballard is a good enough writer that he can describe such mundane events with enough flair that they take on another ambiance entirely. This becomes more pronounced as Jim winds deeper into the war itself, with the book becoming almost dream like in its quality. A lot of people I think object to the actions of Jim, which are very much what we don't expect. He's fairly self centered and makes a lot of weird rationalizations but I had no trouble understanding
Opening Line: “Wars came early to Shanghai, overtaking each other like the tides that raced up the Yangze and returned to this gaudy city all the coffins cast adrift from the funeral piers of the Chinese Bund.”
Closing Line: “The flowers formed a wavering garland around the coffin as it began its long journey to the estuary of the Yangtze, only to be swept back by the incoming tide among the quays and mud flats, driven once again to the shores of this terrible city.”
Quotes: “Wars always invigorated Shanghai, quickened the pulse of its congested streets. Even the corpses in the gutters seemed livelier.”
Rating: Okay.

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