Empire of the Sun
“It took a very, very long time to forget, and a very, very long time to remember,” J.G. Ballard told Claire Tomalin in an interview printed recently in the London Sunday Times. He was speaking of the period he spent as a boy, between 1942 and the end of the war, in a Japanese prison camp in China. Obviously his new book draws on memories or reconstructions of those years. At first it seems that this novel contains no hint of the science fiction he is known for—termed “apocalyptic” for its diverse visions of how the world might end in disaster or dereliction—and not very much fiction: that it is slightly fictionalized documentary, a record which (as he stated in the interview) he waited until his own children had grown up before writing down.
The preliminary picture of Shanghai and its international concessions is, in its dreadful way, magnificent: a city of wealth, poverty, vice, gambling dens, public stranglings, and business deals, where prostitutes wear fur coats, a cinema promotes The Hunchback of Notre Dame by assembling two hundred real hunchbacks from the back alleys, and rich beggars have bodyguards while the less prosperous beggar boys run alongside the Packards, Buicks, and Chryslers, crying, “No mama! No papa! No whiskey soda!” The fancy dress party that Jim’s parents are attending, with other foreigners, is a tawdry version of the “sound of revelry by night” as described by Byron in Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. The ball in Brussels occurred on the eve of Waterloo, the party in Shanghai on the eve of Pearl Harbor. “But hush! hark! a deep sound strikes like a rising knell! / …it is—it is—the cannon’s opening roar!” Shanghai then, it appears, was a shoddy and much more lurid Hong Kong; ripe for destruction, ruled by everybody, Kuomintang officials, Chinese warlords, gangsters, foreign armies, and so ruled by nobody—until the Japanese took over.
Jim, eleven years old, the son of a British cotton-mill manager, is insatiably observant, noting that the Japanese all carry photographs of their families, “little formal prints, as if the entire Japanese Army had been recruited only from the patrons of -arcade photographers.” He admires the Japanese for their bravery, stoicism, and sadness, whereas the Chinese are “cold and often cruel” and clannish: a view, one gathers, common among foreign residents in China at the time, in whose eyes the Japanese were so Westernly efficient as to qualify for the status of honorary whites. The Chinese, we may feel, have more reason for sadness, at any rate.
After watching a Japanese cruiser sink a British gunboat and capture an American one, Jim is separated from his father. He returns to the family house: it is deserted, and in the talcum spilled on the parquet floor of his mother’s bedroom there are prints of her bare feet “whirling within the clear images of heavy boots,” as though she had been teaching a Japanese officer to tango. No …