Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Empire of the Sun - by Lezah

There are three books that I never get tired of reading, and re-reading, and re-reading.  They are Harper Lee's 'To Kill a Mockingbird', James Dickey's 'Deliverance', and J. G. Ballard's 'Empire of the Sun'.

I just re-read 'Empire of the Sun' once again last weekend.  This is a novel that was 1984's winner of The Guardian Fiction Prize and was also short-listed for The Booker Prize.  Frankly, I can't imagine which book could have won the Booker that year over Ballard's offering- I'll have to look it up, and it had better be good, otherwise I'll be very, very angry, as Marvin the Martian would say.  Without even looking it up, I know Ballard was robbed - he should have won.  'Empire of the Sun' is definitely the best book of that year, if not the entire decade.

This is a book about war - World War II, to be exact.  And it was turned into a movie (by Speilberg) which I have never seen (I've been told the movie is little more than a pale imitation of the book, so I have gladly boycotted it).  Anyway, I also wanted to add that I'm not a war-monger - I can't even watch 'Saving Private Ryan' all the way through.  Seeing 'Gallipolli' did that to me - the whole humans-as-cannon-fodder, man's -inhumanity-to-man thing - I just can't bear it.

But while the setting of 'Empire of the Sun' is post-Pearl Harbour China during WWII after Shanghai is seized by the Japanese, the plot deals with so much more.  It's an absolutely compelling book.  The protagonist is Jamie, an 11 year old British boy who has never actually been to Britain; his parents are well-to-do Brits living the high life in their schizophrenic adopted land.  Jamie describes their life in the International compound just outside of downtown Shanghai, where the residents are protected, physically and otherwise, by their chauffeurs, their amahs, their status, their high fences, their money.  He tells of the day when the beggar who lives outside of the gates has his foot run over and crushed by Jamie's Packard.  Jamie reports this event in an unemotional, dispassionate way.  He simply reports what he sees, but little he sees breaks through him at an emotional level.  He is used to ordering his amah around, telling the servants that he will kill them if they don't follow his orders, to seeing the chauffeur use a whip on the beggars who crowd around the car on their trips off the compound.  To Jamie, these people are not people, they just are.  And what happens to them, happens to them.  It's as simple as that, and he gives it no more thought than that.

However, the day the Japanese attack the British warships in the Shanghai harbour is the day Jamie's life is turned on its head.  Life as he knows it disappears in an instant, and Jamie is forced to fend for himself in a cruel and heartless world.  With nothing more than the clothes on his back and reserves of boundless energy, Jamie lives out the rest of World War II behind barbed wire, and the experiences he has change him in unimaginable ways.

One thing in particular that I like about the book is how it's written on two different levels:  narrated by an 11 year old with an 11 year old's understanding of the way things are, we as adults are able to read so much more into what he reports.  Because of this, I find the time that Jamie spends with two US Merchant Marines who 'rescue' him to be the most suspenseful of the whole novel.
'Empire of the Sun' is an absolutely mesmerizing story of survival, and it is, to either a greater or lesser degree (my guess is greater), at least partially autobiographical - Ballard himself spent many of his childhood years in civilian POW camps in China after his family was captured by the Japanese.

My advice is, if you haven't read this book - do.  Now.   

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