JG Ballard – Empire of the Sun

Posted on | June 29, 2011 | 6 Comments

Empire of the SunWorld War II literature is a genre that interests me tremendously. It would be wrong to say that I find it enjoyable, but the fact remains that I actively seek out books on WWII. So far though, most of the WWII fiction (and non-fiction) I’ve perused has taken place in Europe, so Ballard’s much acclaimed Empire of the Sun intrigued me immensely.

The book is a personal not-completely-accurate-and-somewhat-romanticised account of Ballard’s childhood where he was living the war, in a war-ravaged Shanghai (which was occupied by the Japanese at the time). The account begins in 1941, and continues till the horrific bombing at Hiroshima on August 6, 1945 and the subsequent devastation in Nagasaki three days later. Jamie, the protagonist, is eleven years old at the start of the story, and we see the War unfold in Shanghai through his innocent eyes. Occasionally child-like, occasionally grown-up, somewhat disoriented, predominantly emotive.

Jamie gets separated from his well-to-do expat parents during one of the Japanese strikes, and eventually, after scrounging around for food at various houses, looking for his parents, or in fact, any Briton, all alone, finds himself at a prison camp, living the survival of the fittest adage. He befriends those who will protect him, continues his schooling thanks to some of the adults at the prison camp, and tries to make the best of the awful situation by finding comfort in the smallest of things, be it having the biggest sweet potato or pocketing one slyly, just in case he needs it in the future, when the paucity of food may become a real issue.

His views are slightly skewed (maybe this is just retrospection talking), as he advocates the Japanese, and in fact, at one point, states that he would like to pilot one of the Japanese aircrafts. A little tentative of change, he gets nervous when the war is drawing to a close, and just wants some kind of stability in the turbulence.

He ate every scrap of food he could find, aware of the rising number of deaths from beri beri and malaria. Jim admired the Mustangs and the Superfortresses, but sometimes he wished that the Americans would return to Hawaii and content themselves with raising their battleships at Pearl Harbour. Then Lunghua Camp would once again be the happy place he had known in 1943.

It’s really sad; the rationalisation and the innocence. The prison camps didn’t sound as horrific as the concentration camps in Europe, but irrespective, for anyone to live through that is shocking… and for a child, even more so. What… is the point? What was achieved?

But a flash of light filled the stadium, flaring over the stands in the southwest corner of the football field, as if an immense American bomb had exploded somewhere to the northeast of Shanghai. […] Jim smiled at the Japanese, wishing that he could tell him that the light was premonition of his death, the sight of his small soul joining the larger soul of the dying world.

“Kid, they dropped atomic bombs. Uncle Sam threw a piece of the sun at Nagasaki and Hiroshima, killed a million people. One great flash…”

“I saw it.”

All said and done, this book was quite harrowing. What made it a bit of a strange experience, though, was how, at times, it almost read as a documentary – stating facts, narrating events – almost as though the writer was an observer, not an actor. Perhaps that is completely valid, if one thinks about it. Why focus on emotions when the story is powerful enough to evoke extremely strong reactions to the war, its perversity, and the trepidation, monstrosity and futility of it all. It really does fill me with immense despondence and sadness… and even those words feel extremely trite.

Do you recommend any other books set in Asia during the second World War? Or, any other books set during WWII? What is it about that genre that just…. beckons? I almost feel masochistic. Sadistic would be equally apt.


6 Responses to “JG Ballard – Empire of the Sun”

  1. Bellezza
    June 30th, 2011 @ 12:58 am

    You’re right about so many of the WWII books, that I know about anyway, are from an American or European perspective. I think that this would be fascinating to read in the Asian point of view, and I like how you said it’s very factual (as opposed to emotional).

    The only ones I know of to be highly lauded, but not yet read by me, are those of Herman Wouk: Winds of War and War and Remembrance. I keep hearing fantastic things of them, that he writes a very compelling historical saga. Have you read either of those?

  2. Jackie (Farm Lane Books)
    June 30th, 2011 @ 12:55 pm

    I wasn’t wowed by this book and you sort of explain why. It did feel a bit like a documentary at times and I felt the writing style was so detached that I never got emotional about the events I read about. I have perhaps read so many books on this subject that I am no longer emotionally affected by just reading about them. I need that human connection too.

    if you are interested in WWII then there are loads of books out there. I can’t recommend any set in Asia (have read a few, but this was probably the best) but for ones in Europe I don’t know where to start. Have you read The Book Theif? I also love The Kindly Ones (but it is the most disturbing book I’ve ever read, so be careful!) I also love The History of History. Enjoy your WWII phase!

  3. JoAnn
    June 30th, 2011 @ 2:46 pm

    I’m finishing up UNBROKEN by Lauren Hillenbrand now…the story of of US Olympic runner and his WWII experience. When his plane is shot down, he survives in a raft in the Pacific only to end up in a horrific Japanese POW camp. This is not the type of book I usually choose (too intense), but it is a book club selection. Can’t say I’m ‘enjoying’ it, but I’m glad I’m listening.

  4. The Book Whisperer
    July 3rd, 2011 @ 7:17 pm

    I have had this book on my shelf for a while now but for some reason I never seem to get round to reading it. I am still curious though as I have been to Shanghai. Thanks for the review.

  5. Kathleen
    July 5th, 2011 @ 4:00 pm

    WWII? I recommend Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair.

  6. anothercookiecrumbles
    July 10th, 2011 @ 11:54 pm

    @Bellezza: I haven’t read either of them, unfortunately, but my curiosity is piqued, and both have been added to my to-read list. I hadn’t even heard of either till your comment, so… Thanks.

    @Jackie: I loved The Book Thief (read pre-blogging). To be honest, I can’t think of a single WWII book which was sub-par or “gimmicky”. which is quite impressive. I haven’t read the other two you suggested, so both have been added to the list. The WWII phase has an element of perpetuity to it…

    @JoAnn: Thanks for that suggestion. I’ve added it to my list, and hopefully, will read it asap. I can imagine it being very very intense, but… it does sound absolutely captivating as well.

    @The Book Whisperer: Hope you enjoy it if/when you eventually read it :)

    @Kathleen : Thanks! I’m still to read Greene… that’s kind-of embarrassing, but let’s change that with your suggestion! :D

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