Based on his own childhood experiences, J.G. Ballard’s semi-autobiographical Empire of the Sun is a compelling war torn story of deprivation and starvation as teenager Jim Graham looks to survive the Japanese Lunghao Airfield internment camp south of Shanghai.
A life of chauffeur-driven privilege in the International Settlement of the Chinese city is permanently changed by the Japanese entering the Second World War with the destruction of the American fleet at Pearl Harbour. That same morning, two Japanese warships scuttle American and British gunboats in dock and seize control of the Yangtze River. Confusion reigns: Jim loses contact with his parents and is left to fend for himself.
Roaming free for several months, Jim survives by breaking into the homes of wealthy Europeans, living off water from the soda syphons and cocktail biscuits. But a sense of exhaustion and fear sets in, resulting in his surrender to the Japanese.
Interned in Lunghao, Jim is exposed to the deprivation and cruelty of the Japanese guards. In his three years at the camp, he faces hunger, disease and death. But in his determination to survive, Jim ingratiates himself with prisoners and guards alike to gain food and gifts to later barter for food.
It’s in the detail that Ballard shines. The evocation of the teenage boy’s inner thoughts and confusion, his desperation to avoid slipping into a sense of uselessness along with a sexual awakening in his attraction to Mrs Jenkins: we see Jim grow. He admires the American prisoners and, strangely, identifies (in part) with the Japanese – the pilots in particular. It’s this dislocation of ‘loyalty’ (he has little respect for fellow Brits and the homeland he has never been too) and Jim’s dawning awareness that, as the end of the war approaches, it is likely safer in the camp. Resourceful and wily, having attached himself to other ‘survivors’ (Basie, Dr Ransome), Jim sees the danger that comes with the confusion of the end of the war – starving peasants, rogue Japanese, Chinese communists, bandit camp-survivors. An extraordinary number die after the final days of the war – so many that Jim wanders if World War Three has begun. The dead piled up by the side of roads, bloated corpses floating in the nearby irrigation canals, the sounds of Chinese peasants strangled by soldiers.
A new order is already beginning and the last vestiges of the Empire of the Sun, of the European Empires, of the Chinese Nationalism of Chiang Kai-shek are slowly dying out. Survivors battle survivors for food, booty, a passage to somewhere.
Ballard’s novel is an extraordinary achievement – a semi-fictionalisation of his own personal experiences (a teenage Ballard was interned in Lunghao with his parents and sister). From the pool parties of the International Settlement to deprivation and starvation, from the disregard of local Chinese workers to imprisonment and abuse, Ballard has created a haunting sense of time and place.
The Empire of the Sun was shortlisted for the 1984 Booker Prize but, much to the dismay of the literary world, lost out to Anita Brookner’s Hotel du Lac.