Review of Empire of the Sun by J.G. Ballard

A stirring first-hand account by one of the most daring authors out there. 

 I often suffer from Ballard fatigue, which is a syndrome wherein I suddenly hate Ballard after reading two or three of his books in a row. This illness has recurred at least four times. But this fictionalized account of Ballard’s childhood is a good cure. He describes it as an eyewitness account, so I am labeling it nonfiction. I got so used to picturing Ballard as a Perrier-sipping, stiff-upper-lipped bloke of the well-heeled variety, best chums with Martin Amis, and utterly polite father figure who just happened to lead an imaginary second life as a Hollywood-film-star-worshipping, popular mechanics sniffing deviant, that I almost forgot that he spent years in an internment camp in Shanghai, where he was born. He was away from his parents as a child, picking up bits and pieces of Latin and other languages, self-teaching his spongey brain out of smuggled copies of Reader’s Digest, scraping weevils out of sweet potatoes and shoveling them into his mouth for added protein. Exactly how fictionalized the account is is hard for me to say without reading a proper biography of the author, but the Lunghua internment camp where he was kept during the WW II after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor up until he saw the flash of the Nagasaki bomb light up the sea with his own eyes, is vividly portrayed with a desperate intimacy and nonchalance characteristic of his more distant, dystopian works. You will see hints and suggestions of Crash in the young main character’s fascination with cars and fighter planes. Then you have prototype scenes from Concrete Island and High-Rise along with the future science fiction and imagistic stories wherein jaded exiles wander blasted landscapes, scraping soda crackers and cocktail sauce out of prolapsed refrigerators. The young boy named Jim, our protagonist, had to get by on scrounging abandoned suburban homes in Shanghai, dodging air raids, until finally voluntarily surrendering to the Japanese occupiers in a desperate attempt to find his parents—he has already forgotten what they look like.

In the camp, we get treated to a day-to-day drudgery reminiscent of Solzhenitsyn. The conditions are as horrible as you’d suspect. And I can’t help thinking that the ceaseless optimism of Jim is all an act, hiding a seething anger and nascent pseudo-sociopathic interest/relationship with dehumanized violence. In summation, it’s a provocative and alluring addition to the author’s impressive oeuvre. I may read the sequel? (The Kindness of Women) and the track down the film at some point.

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