EMPIRE OF THE SUN by J. G. Ballard


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Ballard (The Unlimited Dream Company, Concrete Island), one of Britain's most compelling ""new wave"" science-fiction writers, here turns to autobiographical fiction--with a cool, starkly detailed account of his boyhood experiences, 1942-45, as fugitive and prisoner during the Japanese occupation of Shanghai. Jim is eleven on the eve of Pearl Harbor, precocious/morbid son of well-to-do English expatriates in Shanghai--where corpses and mutilations are an everyday, matter-of-fact street scene that only seems to change slightly with combat, (""Wars always invigorated Shanghai, quickened the pulse of its congested streets. Even the corpses in the gutters seemed livelier."") Separated from his parents during the first Japanese assaults, Jim remains cheerfully adventurous at first: living alone in the city's posh colonial section, subsisting on scavenged cocktail-treats, bicycling around, even running errands for a Japanese patrol. Soon, however, the mood shifts from Huck-Finn-ish to nightmarish--as the now-starving Jim hooks up with a couple of desperate US merchant seamen (who vainly try to sell him). Next, captured by the Japanese, the boy passes from a miserable detention center to Lunghua prison-camp, along with other stranded European civilians. And then: it's three years later, with the 14-year-old Jim now strangely contented in the wretched world of the Lunghua Camp. His busy days include smuggling potatoes, Latin lessons with Dr. Ransome, eager observation of daily air raids, grave-digging, chess-playing. He is a flinty survivor, attracted to the power of the Japanese soldiers, seemingly blasÉ about the horrors around him, thriving on the ""guilty excitements"" of war. In fact, Jim has come to dread the peace that's obviously imminent--frolicking among the corpses ""to cover the insecurities of the coming world beyond the camp."" But the greatest war horror is still to come: the prisoners' forced march from the camp to the dockyards at Nantao, with starvation-deaths, ruthless executions, and Chinese enemies quickly replacing the decimated Japanese. . . while Jim's American cronies prove themselves equally bestial. (""All the deaths and starvation were part of a confused roadside drama seen through the passenger window of the Buick, a cruel spectacle like the public stranglings in Shanghai which the British and American sailors watched during their shore leaves."") Bleak, chilly, fiercely unsentimental: an oddly unaffecting but undeniably harrowing record of grisly atrocities and benumbed survival--recalling, if never quite matching, the neutral power of some Holocaust testimonies.

Pub Date: Oct. 25th, 1984
ISBN: 0743265238
Publisher: Simon & Schuster