Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Empire of the Sun - J.G. Ballard

With the recent focus on Natascha Kampusch, the Austrian girl who was kidnapped and held prisoner for eight years, I have been thinking of the best book I know on the Stockholm syndrome: J.G. Ballard's Empire of the Sun. In my opinion, it is also the best novel in English about the Second World War and is tied with Penelope Fitzgerald's brilliant The Bookshop for the title of greatest book to lose the Booker Prize. Based on J.G. Ballard's own internment in a Japanese camp at age eleven, the novel is the story of James (Jim) Graham, the son of a British businessman living in Shanghai, who is seperated from his parents in the rush to escape the city after Pearl Harbor. Jim survives under Japanese occupation, in the city and Lunghua Camp & Airfield as well as on a death march back to Shanghai, and he turns desperation, the adaptability of youth, a love of aviation and a life-long eccentricity into identification with his captors.

Of course, Jim identifies with everybody; critics have frequently noted that the author's non-central characters in every one of his works seem to be dream-like reflections of the protagonist, always a Ballard stand-in. Before and after Empire of the Sun, Ballard was a science fiction writer who made "the alien planet is Earth" his motto, and in many ways I would be unsurprised to learn the novelist hatched out of an egg from a distant world. Jim/Ballard is one of the great oddball characters in modern literature: isolation and psychological trauma made flesh, he is a very dislikable boy who you somehow end up loving and admiring. He has two mentor foils, the clever thief Basie and Dr. Ransome, who is my favourite character of the book. The latter, like Jim, works both feverishly and emotionlessly to survive; he tutors Jim while slaving to save people long past saving, to bring hope to a community after he has lost his own. The portrait of the Japanese, with both their casual brutality and their fierce dignity, is fascinating. (For more reading on the subject of the kamikaze pilots, check out the last chapter of Ivan Morris's tragically out-of-print The Nobility of Failure: Tragic Heroes in the History of Japan.)

A word on the very underrated Spielberg film adaption: an excellent, beautiful and moving tribute, it demonstrates extremely well the problems of making a movie from a great book. Penned by Tom Stoppard, starring John Malkovich, Miranda Richardson and an absolutely astonishing thirteen-year-old Christian Bale, it was so mesmerizing that it somehow offended fans of the book by competing with their visual memory of the story. (The most memorable scenes of the movie are dialogue-free). I love the early shots of Bale as Jim, living a joyfully destructive few weeks in his abandonned home compound. Two of the marvelous later moments of both the book and the movie, however, seem just a little off in the latter, forced almost: when Jim sees the atomic bomb go off far to the east of Shanghai and when he tries to resurrect the dead Japanese boy in the paddies near the airfield. The problem is, how are you going to compete with this?:

"It faded within a few seconds, but its pale sheen covered everything within the stadium, the looted furniture in the stands, the cars behind the goal posts, the prisoners on the grass. They were sitting on the floor of a furnace heated by a second sun. Jim stared at his white hands and knees, and at the pinched face of the Japanese soldier, who seemed disconcerted by the light. Both of them were waiting for the rumble of sound that followed the bomb-flashes, but an unbroken silence lay over the stadium and the surrounding land, as if the sun had blinked, losing heart for a few seconds. Jim smiled at the Japanese, wishing that he could tell him that the light was a premonition of his death, the sight of his small soul joining the larger soul of the dying world."


At 8:40 p.m., Blogger Thom said...

Haven't read _Empire_, unfortunately. I absolutely LOVE Ballard's _The Atrocity Exhibition_, so I will have to check it out.

At 1:21 p.m., Blogger Erin said...

I've read a few from Atrocity, but never the whole thing. There's something *I* will have to check out. I have a feeling that Empire of the Sun is very different in subject (if not in psycho-setting) than the other works.


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