bookspluslife

July 7, 2017

Book: Empire of the Sun by J G Ballard

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , — krishnafromtoronto @ 10:50 pm

imageA really different story from the normal fare I read.

 

Fair Warning : The story is brutal in its details and this review also has some stark and strong descriptions. If you cannot stomach that, please do not read further.

 

China – Shanghai – during the Second World War and the world of expat Brits. Jim, a boy is caught up in it. They describe the evacuation of the expats and Chinese alike. There is a whiff of colonialism in the narration : the ‘superior’ British vs the ‘inferior’ Chinese and Japanese, without using those specific words. The Sikh police nonchalantly whips the ‘natives’ to bring order in the street. Who is he? A traffic cop!

 

But J G Ballard is known for this brutal portrayal in both his science fiction and this fiction inspired by his own childhood events.

 

Initially it is shocking. Americans and Europeans seem to go to a scene of battle and seem to stroll around as if in picnic among the dead Chinese soldiers slaughtered by the Japanese as a part of the war.

 

Jim witnesses, through his hotel window, the attack of HMS Petrel by a Japanese military ship. His father and he are separated in a hospital in different floors and his pa is arrested by Japanese military. He escapes the sweep of arrests of all Britishers by accident and is left alone to fend for himself in the aftermath of the Japanese occupation of China.

 

Jim is chased by a crazed Chinese man, who is after his watch and coat in a crowded tram and manages to elude him. He finds that his parents have been arrested by the Japanese military (his mom too) and his house is deserted.

 

The book gets better thereafter. He is partly safe because he looks like the Germans and Italians, who are safe during the Japanese occupation but looks like a vagabond because he is living off of the streets. For a while, a Japanese group of soldiers ‘adopts’ him and feeds him scraps but that too stops shortly afterwards.

 

He falls into the clutches of Frank and Bessie, two unsavoury Americans. When they are about to abandon him, failing to sell him to anyone, they get captured along with him by the Japanese military and he goes to a POW camp as a seven year old boy.  The detention camp is for the hopeless cases which will die, and Jamie is put in there when he becomes very sick but survives and fights his way “into” the POW camp. The descriptions are stark and brutal.

 

The people are forever near death with flies feasting on their wounds and with little bladder control. The scene where Jamie is taken by a truck from prison camp to prison camp only to be told to ‘go away’ because there is no space there, is touching.

 

He adopts to the life in camp so much so that he is afraid to go back to England and home. He has forgotten the names of his parents and wants Japan to win the war actually. When Japan lost the rations were cut in the camp in revenge.

 

The images are stark and revealing – I know I have said this multiple times but if you are faint of heart, this book may not be for you. The prisoners, when advised of their freedom don’t know what to do with it. Their whole world has shrunk into just a  fight for food and worldly possessions. Many of them die due to disease and workload during starvation under the uncaring eyes of Japanese soldiers. They talk of the tittering of Chinese when terrified and a man, knowing he will be executed – beaten to death with paddles by the military – bursts into a song which goes higher in pitch the more he is hit until he is dead.

 

Dr Ransome, a camp physician and Mr Matthews who chivvies James up as he gave up several time despite the former’s total exhaustion are some of the characters that populate this. There is an imperious family of Mr and Mrs Pearce, who share a room with James with partitions made of old clothes.

 

When they are taken back to Shanghai camp, many of the camp mates cannot go on and simply sit down on the way, left behind for God knows what fate. There is a faint suggestion that they were killed rather than let go, but never explained fully.

 

The imagery is stark but the descriptions are lovely, including the similes. Consider this description of the Englishmen who lay down and died while walking to the camp out of pure exhaustion in all kinds of directions “as if they were dropped from the sky in random poses”. Or another group killed in a field with spent shells shining yellow “as if they had looted a treasury in the final moments before they were killed”.  A dead body’s mouth is open ‘as if he was waiting for the last morsel of food’. Nice.

 

The description is raw and gritty. If you are queasy, do not read the book. It talks about a lot of maggots, flies, rotting corpses. More gore needed? Also in supply. A dead body is discovered with the face mashed into a pulp because after the war a Japanese soldier was killed by ex-prisoners by repeatedly beating his head with a blunt weapon. A rotting corpse’s skull is exploded by running a car over its head.  J G Ballard is a fan of the gruesome alright.

 

The imagery stays with you. If this is anything like what the author himself suffered or saw when he was a child (in China, he was a prisoner of war with his parents during the Second World War and left for England after the war, just like Jim), the conditions were pitiable indeed for those Westerners caught in the conflict.

 

It looks like death repeatedly stares Jim in the face of death but manages to wriggle out just in time, not without pain and injuries in many instances.

 

A very different novel that describes war from a totally different angle but still brutally honest in descriptions for all that.

 

7/10

–  –  Krishna

 

 

 

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