“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 one will accept his surrender, and he squats in a succession of houses in the foreign concessions, whose owners have been interned, feeding himself from tins since the contents of the refrigerators are already smelling bad. (Shades of some post-holocaust science fiction novel here. But realism too.) Adopted briefly by Japanese soldiers for whom he runs errands, he later joins up with a couple of Americans, former cabin stewards, who make their way by bartering portholes, stair rails, gold teeth.
The partners are captured while looting an abandoned house, and, after an interval in a detention center, Jim is moved to Lunghua camp, on the site of a teacher-training college destroyed during the Sino-Japanese fighting of 1937. Ballard himself spent three years in that same camp, or “Civilian Assembly Center,” at the same age, with the difference that his parents were interned there too. It is essential to the novel that Jim should be unattached, except sporadically to the doctor, Ransome, that he should be a “free spirit,” driven by “restless energy” to wander here and there, a considerable trial to the other and mostly apathetic or fearful inmates. He is obsessed with planes and airmen, looking forward to the day when he too will be a kamikaze pilot; he almost faints as he visualizes an “archangelic figure” tumbling out of the sky into the paddy-fields. More coolly, he observes of the dead, buried above ground since the living are too weak to dig, with loose soil heaped on them, that when the monsoon rains softened the mounds “they formed the outlines of the bodies within them, as if this small cemetery was doing its best to resurrect a few of the millions who had died in the war.”
Apart from—and indeed in company with—his inquisitiveness, Jim is preternaturally cold, unflappable, callous even, hardly noticing the pervading stench of urine and vomit, of dead and dying missionary ladies. Yet if he were sensitive, how could he survive? And we do want him to, as we want the young Jona Oberski in his recent book, A Childhood,* to survive and not to suffer too horribly in Belsen. (The fact that both youngsters lived to write their accounts somehow isn’t sufficient to reassure us.) And it is true that Jim, born in Shanghai, has grown up in the knowledge that human life, Chinese in particular, is cheap. In Lunghua the prisoners drop rather more readily than the flies that swarm everywhere—but Jim was quite accustomed to the heads of Communist soldiers stuck on pikes along the Shanghai Bund, and corpses left lying in the gutters. We should be happy that in this case the “shades of the prison-house” afford a sort of adventure playground for the growing boy.
The description of life (if that’s the word) in Lunghua is vivid and—an achievement in prison-camp literature—original; and, with the help of Jim’s matter-of-factness, thankfully tolerable. Collaborators are not only respected but considered brave, since they can wheedle extra rations or bandages out of the guards. Patriotism soon loses all meaning, and escape is barely possible and totally undesirable, for savage bandits and starving peasants roam the outside world. At best the food consists of thin wheat gruel full of weevils (but weevils are nutritious), and yet villagers try to force their way into Lunghua, only to be clubbed to death. The camp is a refuge, and even as they slide toward their deaths the prisoners look forward with fear to the end of the war.
Jim finds that the American sailors, though “not as strange and challenging as the Japanese,” provide the best company. They are better able to cope with reality than the British expatriates who, as if they were off for a weekend’s sport, carried with them into captivity their tennis rackets and cricket bats. Moreover, the Americans have copies of Life and Time and Reader’s Digest, in which Jim reads with fascination of another war, heroic and more clear-cut, going on in Europe, with its strange terminology: Eisenhower, Himmler, Belsen, jeep, GI, the Bulge, AWOL…. The stock of cigarettes having been exhausted, the camp’s main unit of currency is the condom, used by the sailors as poker chips, and the number in circulation remains roughly constant during the three years. As Dr. Ransome remarks, the irony is that the value of the condom rises despite the impotence or sterility of the inmates.
The excitement of the narrative, its suspense, trails off once the war has ended. We would like Jim to be promptly restored to his parents, who have survived in another camp, even though he scarcely remembers them, and there to have an end to it, a happy ending. Instead he falls in with a deranged gang of assorted looters, American, Australian, French, and Chinese, and the writing declines into Ballard-style science fiction, not at its best but at its more pretentious. Jim’s seeing the flash of the Nagasaki bomb, across more than four hundred miles of the East China Sea, can be interpreted as a hallucination caused by the boy’s physical and mental condition, albeit a weirdly well-timed hallucination. What I am thinking of is the dreamlike, shimmering, and consciously though obscurely “symbolic” depictions of crashed and bombed planes, and the mystique or aestheticism surrounding corpses and Jim’s growing obsession with them. For instance, the dead Japanese pilot lying on a canal bank: “His lips were parted around his uneven teeth, as if expecting a morsel of pork to be placed between them by his mother’s chopsticks.” When Jim tries to slip a slice of Spam into the man’s mouth,
the chipped teeth closed around his finger, cutting the cuticle…. He wrenched his hand away, aware that the corpse of this Japanese was about to sit up and consume him…. The pilot’s mouth opened in a noiseless grimace. His eyes were fixed in an unfocused way on the hot sky, but a lid quivered as a fly drank from his pupil.
But these are minor objections to a truly impressive book, in human importance far exceeding Ballard’s previous work. The later pages accommodate insights, fresh or confirmed, which we wouldn’t want to miss, such as Jim’s feeling that “peace had come, but it failed to fit properly,” and his mounting certainty that, now the Second World War had ended, the Third had begun. Artistically apt but morally alarming, the book ends with its tail in its mouth: the Bund once again is packed with rickshaws, limousines, American and British servicemen, pickpockets, touts, prostitutes, “the evening citizenry of Shanghai in all its black silk, fox fur and flash.” The eve of yet another Waterloo?
Its people being too weak to indulge in such luxuries, there is very little sex in Empire of the Sun. D.M. Thomas’s Swallow wallows in its alas finite variety. Variety there is; as Donne has it in “Going to Bed”: “Before, behind, between, above, below.” Thomas sets our hair rather than our flesh upright, which according to the poet’s theology makes him an evil sprite, not an angel. Or perhaps just a bad case of satyriasis—not of the imagination (which doesn’t always rise to the occasion) but of the pen finger.
The title can point to a number of things, besides the inconsequent definition—a KGB agent specializing in the seduction of foreigners—given in the blurb. The reader is asked to swallow quite a lot; and the novel itself swallows up its predecessor, Ararat, and may well be swallowed in turn, and regurgitated, by the further “improvisational novels” promised by the author. For this is the empire, at best, of fun, and at worst of exasperating tricksiness. As Robert M. Adams remarked of Ararat, it should be labeled “For Game Players Only”—and not exactly for Gentlemen.
The scene is a lake within a lake, in Finland, where the finals of the Olympiad of literary improvisation are being held. (Within the improvisations we shall find improvisations by the improvised characters.) On the opening page the Italian improvisatrice, Corinna Riznich, is relaxing by the inner lake when she is approached by a Japanese youth who craves one night of love and is prepared to die at daybreak. Day is due to break in ten minutes. Consenting to what must be a sexual haiku, Corinna bares her body and spreads her legs. “And she felt, indeed, seventeen touches.” The youth then performs hara-kiri, with improbable expeditiousness, in far fewer than seventeen touches. But no matter, it turns out that Corinna has been dreaming.
In waking life Corinna was made pregnant by her father, who then committed suicide or else (the reader can take his pick) was killed by her with a scythe. She has also slept, but only once, with her sixteen-year-old son. Or so she says. Corinna’s public improvisation, “The Seven Veils,” spilling over from Ararat, occupies the greater part of the book, along with those other activities suggested by her remark, to a young Swedish reporter thereafter found in the undergrowth with her: “Improvisation is sex, and sex is improvisation.” (She has also likened spontaneous creation to the flight of a swallow.) At one stage in her story, the odious hero Sergei Rozanov, who has been sleeping with a blind woman, Olga, out of curiosity, perversely copulates with an “unbelievably ugly” Mongolian waitress in their hotel room. Poor Olga asks him, “Do you always exercise before breakfast?” The Olympic spirit must have degenerated even further than we had feared.
The contribution of the Russian contestant, Igor Markov, is a skillful Pushkinian poem of some eight hundred lines, called “The Crossing,” and it rhymes diligently: “lewd” and “screwed,” “boring” and “whoring,” “boobs” and “Rubik cubes.” Less admirable, sometimes excruciating, is a shorter verse narrative spoken by the British contestant, Southerland, where the meter, like an ill-tempered metronome, is persistently at odds with the natural stress. Southerland is eventually disqualified, not for his bad verses, but for cheating: his “White Nights” is virtually a carbon copy of a piece of prose autobiography (by D.M. Thomas) already printed in a glossy American magazine, and tediously reprinted here. As elsewhere in the book, Thomas is having private fun at the nominal expense of those who accused him of plagiarism, or of writing under unacknowledged influences, in his best seller, The White Hotel. (No one accuses worst sellers of plagiarism.) Presumably by way of livening up the replay, passages from Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines are interpolated, “scandalously amended” says the author’s note, but in effect this is little wittier than sticking out one’s tongue or some other organ.
Far more inventive is the interview that the poet and liberal Marxist, Victor Surkov, a friend of Rozanov, is granted with the president of the United States, an ex-actor called O’Reilly. Surkov is alarmed to notice the words “Hope abandoned” on a television screen in the Oval Office. Nadezhda Mandelstam’s banned book! Is it a trap? The president explains that the Bob Hope Classic in Florida has been called off because of bad weather. More alarming is the president’s habit of replying to the last question but one, a medical condition known as logotarditis, it seems. Thus, asked, “Do you think wisdom comes with age?” he says, “No, I don’t feel that,” actually responding to the previous question: “Do you ever feel that you’re too old for the Presidency?” The screen announces: “Soviets attack Dallas.” Happily this merely means that Izvestia has published an attack on American values as exemplified in the TV series, and the quotes have been left out. Unhappily it then appears that the message was right the first time, and Boston, San Francisco, Detroit are also being hit. Happily all this is only another extemporization.
Amusement is provided too by the deliberations and disagreements of the eleven international judges, who find in the various performances “verbal skill, a flashy brilliance,” “lyrical moments,” “the pornography of violence,” “summits of tastelessness,” while “The Crossing” is deemed by one of them “a powerful, moving poem” which (although improvisations rarely survive on the page) “would not be disgraced if it were to appear in print.” Thomas spikes his enemies’ guns and blows his own trumpet in the same move. The White Hotel tried to be entertaining about totally unamenable subjects, but the free-floating fun the author is having in Swallow is in some degree contagious. There being so many of them, the summits of tastelessness subside into something resembling a more than usually intemperate bedroom farce. The book is light reading, excessively dependent on private jokes, Nabokovian allusiveness, and what might be termed interlewds. Anyone who takes it more seriously, whether admiringly or otherwise, is a chump or an academic critic.
November 22, 1984