Friday, May 30, 2014

Empire of the Sun by JG Ballard

Title: Empire of the Sun
Author: JG Ballard
Publisher: Gollancz (1984)

The bad news is, winter has truly set in for us here in the Southern hemisphere. The good news is, it's perfect reading weather. We actually got some snow on Monday! But then, the high yesterday was 15C (60F) so you just never know. "Four seasons in a day" is a common refrain from Dunedin-ites. The fire is going again tonight, though, so we're back to good reading weather. Despite my love of reading, anyone who wants to send some sunshine my way is more than welcome. This month's pick was actually perfect for me here, a light summer read it is not.

For those that are new to our monthly series, this is when Michael reviews a film adapted from a book which gets a review here.

Click here for Michael's film review of Empire of the Sun

Jim is an 11 year old Shanghai resident born of British parents. When Japanese troops begin the occupation of the International Settlement in Dec 1941, he becomes separated from his family. For several weeks he manages to reside in abandoned suburbs but he is eventually interned at the Lunghua civilian detention center where he will remain until the war is over.

It's immediately apparent that Jim is a clever child with a boundless imagination. He's also cunning, ambitious, vulnerable and supercilious. The point of view is probably best described as third person close and it's used to great effect in that Jim hasn't yet learned to hide (or modify?) certain aspects of his personality. So you meet him, warts and all, at a time when he is still pushing the boundaries of what is socially acceptable for his particular culture group. At one moment you're appalled by his cruelty and the next heartbroken by his vulnerability. It is an unsettling dichotomy that remains until the final page and, somewhat unexpectedly for this reader, becomes integral to Jim's ability to survive.

Because the point of view is so entwined with Jim's perspective it can be hard to know how reliable his interpretations are. I like to think this was a deliberate choice by Ballard to allow the reader a hint of the daily instability Jim experienced. He is a capable survivor who is always willing to try new strategies to obtain food or allies (transient though they may be). He forms several attachments but, as all his other fragile forms of security, they are tenuous and likely to be abandoned when needs must. And, inevitably, needs must.

This autobiographical novel is presented in four parts but focuses heavily on Jim's experience with other ill prisoners trying to get to Lunghua (where, it is thought, conditions will be better) and his last weeks in Lunghua before the war ends. As such, he and his fellow prisoners are severely ill and/or malnourished. The extraordinary lengths the mind will go to survive horrific experiences are often seen in parallel with the lengths the body will go to accommodate deprivation. It is not a book that is easy to read while eating or before trying to go to sleep.

Parts of his mind and body frequently separated themselves from each other.

Empire of the Sun is the first book in a long time to make me want to read it again even before I had finished. This, I think, is directly related to the unreliable nature of a child's interpretation of what is going on around him. Jim is canny and quick to react to circumstances but he is not always able to parse motives.

...and face up squarely to the present, however uncertain, the one rule that had sustained him through the years of the war.

There are several instances of leaving Jim's perspective. They are as glaring for their oddity as for their departure from what is otherwise a technically superior piece of writing. I eventually got used to them but, if I do end up reading this one again, I'll be paying more attention to when and how they are used. It's hard for me to believe they aren't on purpose. It's just too good of a book for something like this to be accidental.

There are several reasons I can see myself re-reading but two things in particular stick out to me. A British doctor, Dr. Ransome, becomes something of a father figure to Jim in the camp. During several of their interactions there is a tacit recognition of a "hunger" in Jim. It's nothing to do with food but choosing the word "hunger" when "desire" might have worked heightens its importance as something vital to Jim's life. At a glance, it seems to be a hunger for his own death. Even though that was my initial response I quickly discarded it. If anything, he was plagued by his inability to not try to survive. In time, I came to think it was a hunger for any death not his own as he has been forced to see every life in direct, intimate competition with his. I would have liked to quickly discard such an attitude for anyone, much less a young teen, but I never could. War is a fucking nightmare.

Lastly, I was fascinated by Jim being immediately referred to as Jim in the text though his family and friends call him Jamie. It's not until he meets Basie, a sometime ally of Jim's despite Jim's enduring distrust, that he is christened Jim. In less subtle hands the switch from Jamie to Jim might have been used to represent loss of innocence, etc but readers are introduced not to Jamie but to Jim. It's that peculiar mix of cruelty and vulnerability that stretches from beginning to end. It's quite possibly a suggestion that he already had the qualities needed to take him through the war.

He resented Jim for revealing an obvious truth about the war, that people were only too able to adapt to it.

Now about that movie... Don't forget to check out Michael's post.

rating: 5 of 5 stars

Coming up next:
The Bourne Identity by Robert Ludlum


  1. Wonderful book review for a unique novel, Rachel. Like many, I’d seen the film before ever reading the source material. Fascinating work. Not what I’d have expected, a good thing, and more grim and desperate than what’s portrayed in the film. Though, I really appreciate what was done to translate it to the cinema.

    Things you note in the book, and especially of the lead character, are spot-on. Jim is an absorbing protagonist for all those traits described. Irritating and insufferable at times, too, till you take into account this was a privileged boy, and naive. What it takes to pull himself through something as horrendous as Japanese Army occupation and internment (history, and other POW testaments, speak to how cruel it could be) is sobering.

    Glad you so enjoyed the novel, as did I. Though, I can’t say I’d want to jump in for a reread anytime soon. I found the autobiographical novel and experiences a tad grueling to imagine, but because it was also easy to become enveloped by it all. Thanks for this, Rachel :-)

  2. Hi Michael, I thought it was quite grueling myself and why I didn't immediately start reading again. Any other material and I would have. I will probably have to give this one sometime before I think of reading again.

    The further interesting thing about Jim is I think it's quite possible he's also generous, loving (probably not forgiving yet, he's young after all:), and thoughtful but this was not the story for those qualities to be explored or even seen as more than a hinting glimpse. It was an amazing portrayal for its simultaneous depth and pinpoint focus. I will definitely be looking out for more of Ballard's work.

    Thanks again for suggesting this one. It's quite possible I would not otherwise have read it and I'm so glad to not have missed this one.