Empire of the Sun by J G Ballard

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Empire of the Sun by J G Ballard

Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Jill Murphy
Reviewed by Jill Murphy
Summary: It's not really possible to sum up Empire of the Sun in just a few words if not to simply say, Don't miss it. It's a book about war. It's about more than just the fighting. In fact, there isn't any fighting. It's beautifully written. It's mesmerising. It provides a revealing background to Ballard's later novels. It's a great definition of that made-up word, dystopia. Oh, just don't miss it. Ok?
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 352 Date: February 2006
Publisher: HarperPerennial
ISBN: 0007221525

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Sometimes, re-reading a favourite book, one suddenly makes a new connection, gains a new insight and this will add another piece to the jigsaw in one's mind. A little bit more of the overall pattern, the big picture slips into place. What one thinks, how one sees things, becomes just a little clearer. Do you know what I mean? When it happens to me, it makes me smile.

So it was when I finished re-reading Empire of the Sun. As I reached the final page, I was thinking of the similarities between Ballard's mesmerising, autobiographical novel of the Second World War and Boy, the memoir of childhood written by Roald Dahl. At first glance, these books have nothing in common. Yet, if one looks a little deeper, then they are as close as two best friends are. Both great writers in their fields, both concerned with dysfunction and regarded as subversive, Ballard and Dahl have produced books that, with searing honesty, illustrate the whys and wherefores of their bodies of work. These books are Empire of the Sun and Boy. They share too a startling difference to anything else each author has written. It seems to me that these books are both benchmarks, by which we may understand their others. Where Boy explains the questioning of authority and the distrust of powerful adults in Dahl's books, Empire of the Sun explains the Ballard dark, gallows humour and view of a world distinctly out of kilter.

Jim is a small boy, living with his parents in pre-war Shanghai. His is a rich, indulged life. He attends an ex-pat private school to which he is driven each morning by Yang, the chauffeur, one of a dozen servants employed by his parents. Ex-pat life in Shanghai is luxurious, full of swimming pool parties, cocktails and lavish dinners. Jim's preoccupations are those of many small boys, though, regardless of privilege. Jim's interests are exploring on his bicycle and aeroplanes, particularly military aeroplanes. While he pursues these hobbies, his are the daydreams of every young lad: bravado; adventure; heroism. Jim is a great admirer of the Japanese soldiers thronging Shanghai in the uneasy atmosphere of those pre-war days. Jim thinks the mysterious Japanese soldiers are far more interesting and inspirational than the stiff-upper-lipped, socially conscious British or the brash Americans or the frightened, cowed Chinese. When war finally breaks out, Jim is separated from his parents in the panic and the violence and the crush. For a while, he roams Shanghai, foraging for food among the once rich, now deserted houses of the International Settlement. But after a while, the inevitable happens, and he is interned at Lunghua Camp, where he spends the rest of the war.

Always hungry, often ill, Jim spends the war in a haze. Sometimes, it is the haze of a small child separated from its parents, in the midst of great events and understanding little. Sometimes, it is the haze of malarial or starvation euphoria. And sometimes, it is the haze the mind makes when to see in sharp focus would be more than the mind could bear. For the most part, Jim still admires the Japanese - despite his fear - because small boys always admire the winning side, do they not? Used by some, abused by others and protected by a few, Jim's memories of his home, his previous life and his parents begin to fade, replaced by a swimming mirage of hunger and disease. As he looks out at the Lunghua Airfield, at the runway the Chinese prisoners are building, and that the English prisoners will help to build, these are his thoughts:

He knew that the Chinese soldiers were being worked to death, that these starving men were laying their own bones in a carpet for the Japanese bombers who would land upon them. Then they would go to the pit, where the lime-booted sergeants waited with their Mausers. And after laying their stones, he and Basie and Dr Ransome would also go to the pit... Jim hoped his parents were safe and dead.

Heartbreaking.

Empire of the Sun is breathtaking. It is beautifully written. It is hypnotic. It is one of the greatest books about war written in this century by a British author. Yet there are no battles, no combatants, no heroes and ultimately, no real villains. It is just the story of one little boy. It is a strange book and unsettling, because the writing is so moving, so lyrical and yet is utterly without sentiment. It is grim, it is dour, it is often man at his worst. Yet it is never gruesome or savage. Sometimes, it is even funny in a sad, bitter, terribly ironic way. Perhaps this is because it is truly double-layered - not a mere plot device, a clever artifice by author, but a genuine, real presence of two people; the boy Jim and the man Jim, struggling - and failing - to find a vision of a world in which the basic virtues of truth, humanity and justice can apply. I could read it again and again, such is its power. I wonder often if the man Jim can see past this view of a world slipping and sliding its way to anarchy. I wonder if he has spent a lifetime warning us - through his novels - of the dangers we court if we turn our faces away, as did the British in Shanghai before the war. I wonder if he thinks that we are all fiddling while Rome burns. I wonder too, if rather he is trying to find a way for the boy Jim to put it aside and, through black humour, to laugh at last.

Jim Ballard is not for everyone. His novels are cruel, uncompromising and full of the sick puppyisms that give him cult status. Undeniably though, he is one of the best novelists that this country and this century have produced. Empire of the Sun is so very different to his other work in that it is accessible to all those who want to read it, especially those who find him too unsettling otherwise. As our war machines go rolling on, though, perhaps you might find it more relevant than ever, both to Ballard's other books and to the political climate in which we find ourselves. Are you looking to include or exclude? Is your vision one of utopia or dystopia? Jim's story - from both man and boy - may well make you think very carefully about your choices, and your opinions.

Me? I'd like to think we stand a chance. I'm not sure what Jim thinks.

If you like this book you might also enjoy Johnny Got His Gun by Dalton Trumbo.

Booklists.jpg Empire of the Sun by J G Ballard is in the Top Ten Biographies and Autobiographies.
Booklists.jpg Empire of the Sun by J G Ballard is in the Top Ten War Novels.
Booklists.jpg Empire of the Sun by J G Ballard is in the Top Ten Adult Books That Teens Should Read.
Buy Empire of the Sun by J G Ballard at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Empire of the Sun by J G Ballard at Amazon.co.uk.


Buy Empire of the Sun by J G Ballard at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Empire of the Sun by J G Ballard at Amazon.com.


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lechateau1962 said:

I trawled through this book all the time thinking it must get better but unfortunately it never did.Then I watched the film and that was just as bad.