23 January 2017

Review: Empire of the Sun by J. G. Ballard

Quick note before we get started: I have a review up of the first installment of Big Finish's Doctor Who Master trilogy, And You Will Obey Me by Alan Barnes. Enjoy!

Trade paperback, 351 pages
Published 1994 (originally 1984)

Acquired December 2015
Read August 2016
Empire of the Sun by J. G. Ballard

I wonder how many people are displaced by war vs. how many people are combatants. Empire of the Sun, the front and back covers proclaim, is a novel of the Second World War-- but not a single battle graces its pages. Which isn't unusual per se, as books like Between the Acts and Mrs. Miniver are World War II novels without any actual fighting, but all the violence in those books is offstage. Empire of the Sun is all about violence, but there are no battles.

The novel is about a young English boy named Jamie Graham, growing up as part of an English community in Shanghai. When the Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor and attack the British ships at Shanghai, Jamie becomes separated from his parents and ends up in a refugee camp. The book is a lot less orderly than this implies. What's astonishing about the book is how violent and callous everyone is. It takes Jamie ages just to get into the camp because the Japanese soldiers would rather ignore him than put effort into dealing with him. Similarly at the end of the war, the book has another hundred pages or so to go because it takes Jamie that long to find anyone who both can and will help him. It's a depressing testament to man's inhumanity to man, as Jamie grows up in an almost apocalyptic environment, helped only by those who perceive the benefits he can bring them.

Jamie experiences a lot of cognitive dissonance throughout the novel, held captive by brutal Japanese soldiers but unable to let go of his boyhood dream of being a pilot in the Japanese air force, or at one point believing himself to be dead, or at the same time forgetting what his parents look like and still believing they must be in Shanghai waiting for him unchanged, or his claim that World War III must have already started because he cannot imagine a world without war. Characters come and go in the world around him, and at times the detachment of the narrative means the book almost moves into a dreamlike state.

One of the most striking parts to me was when Jamie gets copies of magazine (Reader's Digest and Life, I think) after the end of the war, and they're full of people and things he never even heard of for all the years of the war, like Eisenhower and D-Day and Patton. Unlike Between the Acts or Mrs. Miniver, Jamie's not isolated from a war he knows about, but he's fighting an entirely different war that has nothing to do with the one we think of when we imagine "World War II." Yet for so many people, this is all the war there was, and it was ugly.

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