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Empire of the Sun

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The classic, heartrending story of a British boy’s four year ordeal in a Japanese prison camp. One of the ten books – novels, memoirs and one very unusual biography – that make up our Matchbook Classics’ series, a stunningly redesigned collection of some of the best loved titles on our backlist. Based on J. G. Ballard’s own childhood, this is the extraordinary account of a The classic, heartrending story of a British boy’s four year ordeal in a Japanese prison camp. One of the ten books – novels, memoirs and one very unusual biography – that make up our Matchbook Classics’ series, a stunningly redesigned collection of some of the best loved titles on our backlist. Based on J. G. Ballard’s own childhood, this is the extraordinary account of a boy’s life in Japanese-occupied wartime Shanghai – a mesmerising, hypnotically compelling novel of war, of starvation and survival, of internment camps and death marches. It blends searing honesty with an almost hallucinatory vision of a world thrown utterly out of joint. Rooted as it is in the author’s own disturbing experience of war in our time, it is one of a handful of novels by which the twentieth century will be not only remembered, but judged.


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The classic, heartrending story of a British boy’s four year ordeal in a Japanese prison camp. One of the ten books – novels, memoirs and one very unusual biography – that make up our Matchbook Classics’ series, a stunningly redesigned collection of some of the best loved titles on our backlist. Based on J. G. Ballard’s own childhood, this is the extraordinary account of a The classic, heartrending story of a British boy’s four year ordeal in a Japanese prison camp. One of the ten books – novels, memoirs and one very unusual biography – that make up our Matchbook Classics’ series, a stunningly redesigned collection of some of the best loved titles on our backlist. Based on J. G. Ballard’s own childhood, this is the extraordinary account of a boy’s life in Japanese-occupied wartime Shanghai – a mesmerising, hypnotically compelling novel of war, of starvation and survival, of internment camps and death marches. It blends searing honesty with an almost hallucinatory vision of a world thrown utterly out of joint. Rooted as it is in the author’s own disturbing experience of war in our time, it is one of a handful of novels by which the twentieth century will be not only remembered, but judged.

30 review for Empire of the Sun

  1. 5 out of 5

    Adina

    "Wars always invigorated Shanghai, quickened the pulse of its congested streets. Even the corpses in the gutters seemed livelier." I “hated” this book. I thought to abandon it so many and to forget about its existence. Every page was a chore to read, thank god for the short chapters because sometimes I could not stomach more than one. Why, you might wonder I gave four stars to a novel that caused me so much pain? The thing with good books is that I do not have to enjoy reading them to appreciate "Wars always invigorated Shanghai, quickened the pulse of its congested streets. Even the corpses in the gutters seemed livelier." I “hated” this book. I thought to abandon it so many and to forget about its existence. Every page was a chore to read, thank god for the short chapters because sometimes I could not stomach more than one. Why, you might wonder I gave four stars to a novel that caused me so much pain? The thing with good books is that I do not have to enjoy reading them to appreciate art. The Empire of the Sun is an excellent novel, it took me right in the middle of the gore, stanch and hardship of internment bases in Shanghai together with Jim, the child hero of this story and his sick/dying/hungry colleagues in despair. "The Chinese enjoyed the spectacle of death, Jim had decided, as a way of reminding themselves of how precariously they were alive. They liked to be cruel for the same reason, to remind themselves of the vanity of thinking that the world was anything else." J. G. Ballard is better known as a post-apocalyptic SF writer but this book is non of that. The Empire of The sun is a fictionalized account of the author’s own experience in Shanghai’s Lunghua internment camp as a child during the WW II after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. The account is not completely true but the events he added (the Death March, the separation from his parents) helped to make the story more dramatic and more understandable for the reader. Ballard's war experience influenced his whole life and work and his fans will probably better understand his source of inspiration reading this book. Although the prose is simple, sterile at some points, with lots of repetitions (swarms of flies were mentioned over and over again) the result is powerful and multilayered. I could see/feel/smell the reality of trying to live in those camps. The tone of the narrator was matter of fact, like the ordeal of the war was no big deal and in a way I believe this is the massage the author tried to convey. Humans can adapt to anything to survive, they can overlook crimes and change their moral compass in order to get ahead, even only to get a bit more food. It is especially true for Jim, a pre-adolescent boy that is still building his personality. The way he adapted to the war, the effects of war on the boy’s psychology and that he eventually found safety in the camps was overwhelming. Moreover, the boy developed an admiration for the Japanese, a sort of Stockholm syndrome which separated even more from his co-nationals which he considered weak. ‘Are you still interested in aeroplanes, Jim?’ Mrs Philips asked, as she and Mrs Gilmour emerged from the hospital courtyard. ‘You’ll have to join the RAF.’ ‘I’m going to join the Japanese Air Force.’ “He had formed his only close bond in Lunghua with Dr Ransome, though he knew that in many ways the physician disapproved of him. He resented Jim for revealing an obvious truth about the war, that people were only too able to adapt to it” “Poor fellow, you’ll never believe the war is over.’

  2. 4 out of 5

    Manny

    A few days ago, I learned a new Japanese word. Nijuuhibakusha means literally "twice radiation-sick individual", and refers to the few people who, through staggering bad luck, managed to be present both at Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, and then at Nagasaki three days later. The article I read was an obituary for Tsutomu Yamaguchi, the last surviving nijuuhibakusha. I was not surprised to discover that Mr. Yamaguchi was strongly opposed to nuclear weapons, and had spent a substantial part of his A few days ago, I learned a new Japanese word. Nijuuhibakusha means literally "twice radiation-sick individual", and refers to the few people who, through staggering bad luck, managed to be present both at Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, and then at Nagasaki three days later. The article I read was an obituary for Tsutomu Yamaguchi, the last surviving nijuuhibakusha. I was not surprised to discover that Mr. Yamaguchi was strongly opposed to nuclear weapons, and had spent a substantial part of his life campaigning against them. But it's funny how everything has a flipside; after reading the article, I also thought of this book. Young Jim Ballard was one of many Westerners who were interned after the Japanese took Shanghai. He grew up in a POW camp; his descriptions of life there are horrifying, more than anything else, because of the matter-of-fact way in which he presents them. This is simply how it was: inadequate food, arbitrary punishments and killings. Nothing to get excited about, after the first few months. The war is going badly for the Japanese, and it's becoming clear that they will lose. There is even less to eat than before. One day, the inmates are told that they are going on a long march to a different location. They don't have the strength for this. Jim realizes, without much emotion, that he's going to die. But a miracle happens. Over the dark waters of the bay, he sees a flash. It's a long way off, but he suddenly knows that he's been saved. The atom-bomb will make Japan surrender now, not months in the future, and he'll get out. After this, Ballard always has warm, fuzzy feelings for nuclear weapons. In the sequel, he describes the Vulcan bombers he sees at the Cambridgeshire base near where he then lives. He imagines the megatons they're carrying, and gives them a little pat on the head. There are few authors who can make me quite as disoriented as Ballard.

  3. 4 out of 5

    J.L. Sutton

    JG Ballard's Empire of the Sun is a compelling and engaging novel written from the perspective of a boy held prisoner by the Japanese during WWII. Really fantastic storytelling! Not sure I was prepared for the power of this book. It's both understated and profound in its insights. I ended up reading 4 JG Ballard novels this April. Empire of the Sun couldn't have been more different from these other novels: Atrocity Exhibition, High-Rise and Concrete Island. I'm not even sure I can reconcile JG Ballard's Empire of the Sun is a compelling and engaging novel written from the perspective of a boy held prisoner by the Japanese during WWII. Really fantastic storytelling! Not sure I was prepared for the power of this book. It's both understated and profound in its insights. I ended up reading 4 JG Ballard novels this April. Empire of the Sun couldn't have been more different from these other novels: Atrocity Exhibition, High-Rise and Concrete Island. I'm not even sure I can reconcile Empire of the Sun and The Atrocity Exhibition as works written by the same author. I will probably continue to think of Ballard as the innovative author of speculative or dystopian literature, but Wow, Empire of the Sun makes its own mark. Some parts seemed a bit more drawn out than necessary, but still a fantastic story about Ballard's experiences (and about war and survival)! 4.5 stars.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Fabian

    This outstanding novel seems to be so out of line with Ballard’s other notoriously magical/maniacal work—& this detail is fantastic. He is soon to become one of my all-time favorites—his prose is as crisp and perfect as Graham Greene’s. For a prophetic writer to go back to his roots, all the way back to Shanghai being wholly obliterated in the second World War—this guile is the type required to write your magnum opus. &, although I haven’t read all his work (though MOST I have), I can This outstanding novel seems to be so out of line with Ballard’s other notoriously magical/maniacal work—& this detail is fantastic. He is soon to become one of my all-time favorites—his prose is as crisp and perfect as Graham Greene’s. For a prophetic writer to go back to his roots, all the way back to Shanghai being wholly obliterated in the second World War—this guile is the type required to write your magnum opus. &, although I haven’t read all his work (though MOST I have), I can safely say that this one is it. “Empire of the Sun” looks at the terrors of war through the eyes of a very authentic, very endearing boy. His observations are spot on—he quickly becomes useful to many out on the war fields; he notices that, sometimes, being under the dragon’s wing is precisely the tactic needed to survive; he thinks in tragic terms, digesting the horror for us amply, becoming a truly unforgettable character through it all. Like “Suite Francoise”’s Irene Nemirovsky, Ballard’s own personal involvement in WWII embellishes & fulfills the authentic aspect of the book. If they had not survived the war (although, tragically, Nemirovsky did not), we would not have their fine FINE work. And this would not be a J. G Ballard with no looming prophecy. The last page (SPOILER!!) contains the following Nostradamus-like statement: “One day China would punish the rest of the world and take a frightening revenge.”

  5. 4 out of 5

    William2

    A gem of a memoir. Richer than Spielberg's film (though he did an excellent job with the material). Mesmerizing from start to finish.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Bradley

    I don't know whether it's a mistake to read all the other things this great SF author has read first and THEN read this brilliant WWII novel of a young kid lost in Shanghai during the Japanese occupation or whether it might be best to see all the wildness of his short stories, longer fictions, and utter fascination with flying and emotional deadening in the middle of tragedy FIRST. Or whether everyone and anyone with even a slight interest in reading one of the very best novels of the war should I don't know whether it's a mistake to read all the other things this great SF author has read first and THEN read this brilliant WWII novel of a young kid lost in Shanghai during the Japanese occupation or whether it might be best to see all the wildness of his short stories, longer fictions, and utter fascination with flying and emotional deadening in the middle of tragedy FIRST. Or whether everyone and anyone with even a slight interest in reading one of the very best novels of the war should drop everything else on their list and jump right into this. I admit I watched the Spielberg film back in the day, utterly fascinated and totally identifying with Jim, the main character, who just happened to be played by a young Christian Bale, admitting that while this kind of movie was NOTHING like the kinds of movies or books I preferred, and yet falling for it completely... ...right down to the dead-eyed stares after so much starvation, death, and Jim's last vestiges of innocent wonder and miracles retained throughout the very worst that humanity has to offer. I've seen the movie like four times. And yet, I only just now read the book AFTER having read several others by the same author AND the complete short story collection. I FEEL LIKE A DAMN FOOL. Maybe I should have started with this. It's brilliant. No two ways about it. I broke down into tears and was amazed by how much further the book takes it even after KNOWING what to expect from the movie. I'm not exactly NEW to this genre. I shouldn't have been affected this hard. I shouldn't have had to stop the book for several minutes at a time because I couldn't breathe right. It was just... almost... too much for me. Emotionally. I'm wrecked. Sure, the movie is a good intro or perhaps a companion to this brilliant novel, but by NO MEANS should the novel be skipped. It's just one of those brilliant classics that may be regarded as timeless. No pressure, right?

  7. 4 out of 5

    Megan Baxter

    Hmm, three or four stars? This was good, but I don't think I'll read it again. On the other hand, that particular feeling does not say that this was a mediocre book. But that personal gut reaction is what I tend to use for star ratings - four stars means I would like to or wouldn't mind reading it again. Five stars are books I feel the need to own. So this is a three star review, but it is probably a better book than that. Note: The rest of this review has been withdrawn due to the recent changes Hmm, three or four stars? This was good, but I don't think I'll read it again. On the other hand, that particular feeling does not say that this was a mediocre book. But that personal gut reaction is what I tend to use for star ratings - four stars means I would like to or wouldn't mind reading it again. Five stars are books I feel the need to own. So this is a three star review, but it is probably a better book than that. Note: The rest of this review has been withdrawn due to the recent changes in Goodreads policy and enforcement. You can read why I came to this decision here. In the meantime, you can read the entire review at Smorgasbook

  8. 5 out of 5

    K.D. Absolutely

    I should have listened to my brother. He said last year that because Crash (1973 published) elicited strong, even if negative, reaction from me, then it meant J. G. Ballard (1930-2009) was a genius. That book was disgusting. I hated almost everything about the story. Up to now I cannot get over the characters that hurt themselves by crashing their cars and there is that part where the hole in the body is bleeding and to stop the blood from flowing, an erect penis has to be inserted. Holy cow. I I should have listened to my brother. He said last year that because Crash (1973 published) elicited strong, even if negative, reaction from me, then it meant J. G. Ballard (1930-2009) was a genius. That book was disgusting. I hated almost everything about the story. Up to now I cannot get over the characters that hurt themselves by crashing their cars and there is that part where the hole in the body is bleeding and to stop the blood from flowing, an erect penis has to be inserted. Holy cow. I had no second thought when I clicked a lone star rating. Here’s to you, Ballard! Hmmpf. This is my second novel by J. G. Ballard (1930-2009) and I still clicked a lone star but four turned into yellow. Here’s to you, Ballard!, but this time, Wow! , it is with full of admiration to his talent (God bless my brother. He is right: J. G. Ballard is a genius) and to what he had to undergo during his 3-year stay as a child in Lunghua Concentration Camp in Shanghai during WWII. Yes, this novel about Ballard as an 11 year old boy, a son of a wealthy British businessman in Shanghai, who got separated from his parents and had to endure 3 years surviving all by himself in various camps. What makes this quite different from the war stories seen in a child’s perspective is Ballard’s prose. It is so detailed yet it is devoid of commentaries. Ballard only describes what the child Jim sees almost without emotions. There is just a single scene when Jim sheds a tear and it is mentioned only in a single short sentence. It feels like Ballard would like his reader to experience Jim’s sad and dangerous flight in a child’s perspective rather than an adult's with built-in biases and prejudices. Ballard was British but he neither depicted Japanese nor Chinese as evil and British nor American as good men. In fact, Jim feels safer with Japanese soldiers (ironic really from an Allied adult’s perspective) than being with British or American. Japanese soldiers ignore his surrender and feed him food while he roams starving around Shanghai, he thinks that Japanese soldiers are braver than British because Shanghai was captured, he dreams of becoming a pilot and thinks that his young Japanese friend will teach him how to fly… War in the eyes of a child. Think Anne Frank not in the hiding but in an open concentration camp. Jim did not die even if he stayed 3 years in Lunghua. His desire to see his parents again was just so strong that he held on to this dream and it made his body strong despite of the extreme hunger (surviving in boiled rice and sweet potatoes), disease (malaria, dysentery, infections, etc), loneliness and physical abuse. As always, the book is better than the movie. I remember that in the movie, there is that boring part inside the concentration camp. The reason is that it is impossible for Spielberg to capture those small details in that part without probably extending the movie to maybe five hours. However, the ending in the movie, in my opinion, is better than the book. I don’t want to put a spoiler so I will not tell you why.

  9. 5 out of 5

    B Schrodinger

    'Empire of the Sun' is by far the best war book I have read. Not that I am a big reader of war books at all. I tend to avoid the fiction books as I have found over the years that no matter the imagination of the author, war was entirely more gruesome, graphic and even funnier than anything that could eventuate from one human mind. I find most war fiction embarrassing and trite. However, while 'Empire of the Sun' could be classed as a memoir, the author freely admits that his experiences are not 'Empire of the Sun' is by far the best war book I have read. Not that I am a big reader of war books at all. I tend to avoid the fiction books as I have found over the years that no matter the imagination of the author, war was entirely more gruesome, graphic and even funnier than anything that could eventuate from one human mind. I find most war fiction embarrassing and trite. However, while 'Empire of the Sun' could be classed as a memoir, the author freely admits that his experiences are not exactly the same as young Jim, the protagonist of this tale. I guess most memoirs stretch the truth and make adjustments from reality to suit the format, J.G. has just admitted that he went a little further. Here Jim loses contact with his parents early in the novel during a siege on the city and we know that J.G. was interned with his parents in real life. Maybe there is more fiction than non-fiction here and I may need to eat my words. There is so much to love in here, but I think this book may not be for everyone. Firstly, this book is pretty graphic in it's description of Jim's surroundings. There are realistic descriptions of corpses, death and disease throughout. But it's never gratuitous and it's always frank. It's not a novel with an uplifting tale of adversity. Yes, you could make a great guess that Jim survives the ordeal, but does he or anyone overcome adversity? Not at all. This is definitely not a rallying book. You do not cheer on the good guys. And despite what Hollywood would make you think, you do not cheer on the end of the war. And I think that is one of the big messages of the book. War does not start on a declaration and it does not end with a surrender.You do not flip the war coin to find peace written in shiny silver letters. It seems to be that the happiest years of young Jim's life were when he was eating one sweet potato a day, slowly wasting away, getting every disease that came his way all the while running around an internement camp idolising the Japanese pilots and ingratiating himself to the Japanese officer in charge of the camp. Throughout the book Jim wants the Japanese to win the war and does not see how they can lose it because they have the bravest soldiers in his opinion. J.G. really does capture the naive innocence yet canny and literal understanding that children have. Adult speech is littered with sarcasm, exaggeration and metaphors that children take literally. Only their observations of the world around them hold true. Jim knows when someone is about to die in the camp hospital as they were given the one and only mosquito net. And yet he could not understand when the war had ended nor could he understand why the next war hadn't started when everyone in the camp was saying "The next World War will start soon" in reference to the communist rising. The fact that Jim adapts to his life much more than any adult is unsurprising. So, for me, this is a damn magnificent read. I valued the look at war from a child's perspective. I also learnt that the end of war can be worse than war itself and the story is far from over when the diplomats shake hands and documents are signed. I listened to this on Audible. It was narrated by Steven Pacey (same last name as one of the main characters) and he did a brilliant job.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Jan-Maat

    I read Ballard's semi-autobiographical account of his interment as a child and teenager in a Japanese camp outside of Shanghai while I was still at school and before I had read any of his fiction. As I later read a few of his novels I had a slow and growing sense of how his adult fiction drew upon that early experience described in this memoir in both the world-turned-upside-down story which resurfaces in several of Ballard's later novels and the oddly half affectionate tone of the child narrator I read Ballard's semi-autobiographical account of his interment as a child and teenager in a Japanese camp outside of Shanghai while I was still at school and before I had read any of his fiction. As I later read a few of his novels I had a slow and growing sense of how his adult fiction drew upon that early experience described in this memoir in both the world-turned-upside-down story which resurfaces in several of Ballard's later novels and the oddly half affectionate tone of the child narrator for the Japanese even in the internment camp - there is an incident when he is being taught trigonometry and he asks the Doctor who is teaching him if he should show the Japanese guards his sums so that they could improve their targeting of incoming American bomber planes, more striking is the strange atmosphere as the young Ballard watches Kamikaze pilots walking about the airfield that borders the internment camp before they depart on their missions. Novels like The Drowned World and The Drought reinterpret the childhood experience in a way to make it explicable to adult readers who didn't grow up in Shanghai before the Second World War and didn't live through the collapse of seemingly concrete family and power structures, the complete transformation of one way of life for another, the metaphor that Ballard has used is that this is like a set change, and therefore the way that familiar, everyday life is just a piece of theatre. If it appears permanent and unchanging this is only because the curtain hasn't fallen yet. Perhaps something of this idea underlies the popularity of a certain kind of disaster literature and drama whether of vampires, zombies or alien invaders - that there is a more true fundamental set of values beneath the surface of everyday modern life in which problems can be resolved directly and in a natural manful way by shooting at them. It can follow that there is even an eagerness for a disaster, any disaster provided it is destructive enough, to clear away contemporary civilisation. I think Ballard's view is slightly different. His point, I suspect, is that the world of the camp is as (in)substantial as the international community of 1930s Shanghai or of post war south-west London. When the Yangtze river flooded, the young Ballard could see that the land around Shanghai had became an inland sea, once the flood waters had ebbed Shanghai was surrounded once more by arable land. Both conditions were equally real, both subject to the functioning of the environment. Nudge that environment, and you see that glistening cityscape as a house of cards.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Whitaker

    The interesting thing about The Empire of the Sun is the time period Ballard writes about. I don't mean the period of the protagonist's incarceration. In fact, the book pretty much skips most of the four years that Jim spends in the POW camp. We are with Jim at the start of the war when he is 10 years old and he fights his way to get into the POW camp, and we are with him again at the end of the war when he is 14 years old and he fights his way from the chaos of a countryside filled with ragged The interesting thing about The Empire of the Sun is the time period Ballard writes about. I don't mean the period of the protagonist's incarceration. In fact, the book pretty much skips most of the four years that Jim spends in the POW camp. We are with Jim at the start of the war when he is 10 years old and he fights his way to get into the POW camp, and we are with him again at the end of the war when he is 14 years old and he fights his way from the chaos of a countryside filled with ragged bands of starving survivors to get back into the empty POW camp which offers at least some measure of safety. Unlike When the Emperor Was Divine, this book is not about the protagonist's experience as an internee in a camp. Instead, it is about what you would be willing to do to stay alive. And this is why, I think, Ballard leaves out the bulk of the period when Jim is in the POW camp: that is the period when there is relative order and prosperity. The prisoners are fed regularly and are kept in reasonably good health. It is only in the period before the imposition of order and authority and after it's disappearance that staying alive is less a statement than a question. So, here's a series of questions to ask yourself about what you might or might not be willing to do if you found yourself in a war-torn zone with no food: ● Would you try to surrender to the enemy because at least you'd have the possibility of getting fed? ● Would you deliberately lead your dubious allies-of-circumstance into a trap so that their capture would also allow you to get captured too? ● Would you steal food from the common pot even though it would mean less for the others so that you can ensure that you will get enough to eat? ● Would you collaborate with the enemy so as to get more food for yourself or your children? This is the perennial state of affairs for Jim:Now that he felt stronger, Jim realized how important it was to be obsessed by food. Shared equally among the prisoners, their daily rations were not enough to keep them alive. Many of the prisoners had died, and anyone who sacrificed himself for the others soon died too. The only way to leave the detention centre was to stay alive.The thing is, I've seen this type of behaviour before. Similar survival instincts kick in during retrenchments when the pool of resources (money or jobs) runs low. Then it's whatever dirty trick will work so that it's not your head next on the chopping block. Morality counts for very little. And that visceral drive to live is what Ballard is interested in, what he—ultimately—respects. It informs, as well, I think, his support of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki: over and above his own personal survival (he recounts how the Japanese planned to march the POWs north to shoot them but the surrender intervened) it meant that more Allies lived. By that measure, morality be damned. We don't often think of this, but for many in Africa, China, India, Latin America, and latterly in Europe, that's their daily life. "Morality" (and I do mean those inverted commas) is a luxury I am glad to be able to currently afford, but that doesn't mean that I am never unaware that it is very much a luxury.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Vicky "phenkos"

    This book, first published in 1984, is about a young boy's life in the Lunghua camp, an internment base set up by the Japanese to accommodate American, British, and other European civilians during World War II. The book has been described as the best British novel about the Second World War, and I think with some justification. Jim, the main character of the book, is only eleven when he is caught up in the Japanese assault against the British navy in Shanghai, and, separated from his parents, This book, first published in 1984, is about a young boy's life in the Lunghua camp, an internment base set up by the Japanese to accommodate American, British, and other European civilians during World War II. The book has been described as the best British novel about the Second World War, and I think with some justification. Jim, the main character of the book, is only eleven when he is caught up in the Japanese assault against the British navy in Shanghai, and, separated from his parents, tries to eke out a miserable existence in the face of extreme adversity. Everything he knew collapses around him: no parental figure of authority is there to guide him in a world that's turned upside down. He can't find enough to eat, cannot find protection from dangers, and when he decides his only hope is to surrender himself to the Japanese, he finds it impossible to do so. Eventually, after months of roaming the streets, he is interned, initially at a detention centre near Shanghai and then at Lunghua, where he will stay till the end of the war. Though based on J.G. Ballard's true experiences as an internee in the camp, the book is not an autobiography but a fictionalised account of the events. The book's strength is its focus on the effect of war on the psychology of a young boy who sees things he never should have and becomes exposed to situations that would be altogether traumatic and unbearable for anyone, let alone a child. Young Jim starts to adore the Japanese, admires their strength of character, wants to be a pilot himself, and when asked by a fellow internee whether he'll join the RAF, he answers: 'No. The Japanese air force'. Abuse and humiliation by the Japanese is turned into a special kind of admission ritual, such as when Jim puts on a Japanese officer's kendo armour only to have his hearing badly damaged by the blows he receives. Jim is not a fool. When, for example, he finds himself in the company of two American crooks, he understands full well that these ruthless types would have no qualms using him for their own benefit (or dumping him if no benefit was forthcoming), however he becomes attached to them for the sake of survival. This attachment is also emotional; Jim develops a connection to one of the crooks, Bassie, just as he develops an emotional investment to the Japanese that run the camp, bowing to them, trying to become useful, ingratiating himself (as he puts it). For me, this was perhaps the most horrible aspect of the book (or of war, generally); not the atrocities Jim bore witness to, but this complete sense of powerlessness that meant forming attachments to people Jim understood perfectly well only wanted to take advantage of him. This powerful attachment to the Japanese annoys other (adult) internees who are able to see things from a distance. Dr Ransome, for example, 'resented Jim for revealing an obvious truth about the war, that people were only too able to adapt to it' (p. 180). Towards the end of the book, when the war is about to end, Jim comes back again and again to the next war, World War III, a war that in some sense, had already started (as was becoming obvious in the scramble for the control of China). Despite the hunger and the humiliation, Jim finds in Lunghua a kind of safety that he's unwilling to let go of. Ballard portrays Jim as both less and more far-sighted than his fellow prisoners. He understands better than them the safety that Lunghua represents, and yet, this sense of safety is also the result of an emotional immaturity, a manifestation of 'Stockholm syndrome' where the traumatised person develops an attachment to those who are responsible for his current state. The subtlety of the book is in presenting this attachment as altogether rational: a highly evolved survival mechanism that damages Jim emotionally at the same time as it allows him to survive. I have a couple of criticisms of the book. The last 30 or so pages before Jim manages to get to Shanghai are full of needlessly gory detail that does not, in my view, help the plot along. I also wanted to know more about the effect of war on Jim's relation to his parents. This is not explored in the book, but I'd have loved to know more about how these terrible experiences would have affected the relationship. Overall: an important book that I'd recommend to everyone with interests in the effect of war of the human psyche.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Kim

    I remember one Saturday afternoon during the winter of 1987/1988 when my friend Chuck and I decided that instead of hitting the mall we would take in a movie. Our choices weren’t great… Rent-a-Cop, Return of the Living Dead Part II , Braddock, Missing in Action Part III. Yeah, so, we opted for Empire of the Sun. I had no real inkling to see it. I really didn’t care. I remember that the movie had these big gaps of silence. Shots of Christian Bale running around an internment camp, flying a toy I remember one Saturday afternoon during the winter of 1987/1988 when my friend Chuck and I decided that instead of hitting the mall we would take in a movie. Our choices weren’t great… Rent-a-Cop, Return of the Living Dead Part II , Braddock, Missing in Action Part III. Yeah, so, we opted for Empire of the Sun. I had no real inkling to see it. I really didn’t care. I remember that the movie had these big gaps of silence. Shots of Christian Bale running around an internment camp, flying a toy bomber, hunting for food. I think that’s mostly what I remember of it. That and Chuck’s reaction. You see, Chuck was the stereotypical ‘skateboarding stoner’, and I’m not joking or being flippant. He relished that label. He’d put Jeff Spicoli to shame, really… Yet, he was completely engrossed in this film. I mean, elbows on knees, leaning forward, shushing ME, kinda engrossed. It was… off-putting to say the least. I found out later, that he went back to see the film another half dozen times. This is a boy that worked at Wendy’s and spent all his money on pot. Go figure. So, now, 20 some odd years later, I’m reading this book and trying to use my adultified brain to figure out what exactly mesmerized Chuck so. The story is poignant, made more so when you read that it’s based on JG Ballard’s childhood experiences during WWII. From the get go, I was amazed at the detachment exhibited by Jim regarding death. It was constantly surrounding him and he could shrug it off and continue his make believe games of flying bombers and wounding the enemy. Of course, it’s hard to say who is the enemy while living in Shanghai in 1942. The book has much more power in that we get to hear Jim’s thoughts and observations, it fills those silences with awe striking clarity and numbing accounts of soldiers stacked along the roadside and how the skin of a sweet potato can taste like the best chocolate imaginable. It lends resonance when he’s confused about his sexual feelings towards a fellow prisoner and roommate, Mrs. Vincent, and the absolute dissolution when he watches fellow prisoners perish from disease and hunger. It’s achingly effective. There is a scene, towards the end, the war is over, he’s trying to get back to Shanghai to find his parents but he happens across a Japanese pilot that had offered him a mango days before. Jim has always felt a kinship to this pilot, a boy not much older than himself and has fantasies of a camaraderie that, of course, never comes to fruition. The pilot’s mouth opened in a noiseless grimace. His eyes were fixed in an unfocused way on the hot sky, but a lid quivered as a fly drank from his pupil. One of the bayonet wounds in his back had penetrated the front of his abdomen, and fresh blood leaked from the crotch of his overall. His narrow shoulders stirred against the crushed grass, trying to animate his useless arms. Jim gazed at the young pilot, doing his best to grasp the miracle that had taken place. by touching the Japanese he had brought him live; by prizing his teeth apart he had made a small space in his death and allowed his soul to return. Jim spread his feet on the damp slope and wiped his hands on his ragged trousers. The flies swarmed around him, stinging his lops, but Jim ignored them. He remembered how he had questioned Mrs. Philips and Mrs. Gilmour about the raising of Lazarus, and how they had insisted that far from being a marvel this was the most ordinary of events. Every day Dr. Ransome had brought people back from the dead by massaging their hearts. Jim looked at his hands, refusing to be overawed by them. He raised his palms to the light, letting the sun warm his skin. For the first time since the start of the war, he felt a surge of hope, If he could raise this dead Japanese pilot he could raise himself and the million of Chinese who had died during the war and were still dying in the fighting for Shanghai, for a booty as illusory as the treasury of the Olympic stadium. I have to admit that before this, I was clinging to the book, reading it like I was reading a diary of events. Because who am I, a woman who has no inkling what war is like except what I see on CNN, to be able to extract the emotion of this boy from a different time? Then I imagine this 15 year old boy playing Christ, trying to raise the souls of all the people, family, that he had watched perish… wow. I still wonder what attracted Chuck to this. Was it the ‘little boy lost’ theme? The growing up and discovering who you are amongst a war that was real or imagined? The detachment? I wish I knew where he was so I could ask him… it might shed light on what was behind the ‘skateboarding stoner’ that I thought I knew so well.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Alex

    Part of my Fall 2017 Best Of Chinese Literature project; more here, and a cool list of books here. "The reality that you took for granted was just a stage set," is what JG Ballard has to tell you. He learned it as a child, when World War II came to his home in China. "Anyone who has experienced a war first hand knows that it completely overturns every conventional idea of what makes up day-to-day reality." This semi-autobiographical book is about that overturning. Young Jim adapts immediately, Part of my Fall 2017 Best Of Chinese Literature project; more here, and a cool list of books here. "The reality that you took for granted was just a stage set," is what JG Ballard has to tell you. He learned it as a child, when World War II came to his home in China. "Anyone who has experienced a war first hand knows that it completely overturns every conventional idea of what makes up day-to-day reality." This semi-autobiographical book is about that overturning. Young Jim adapts immediately, and that's the thing about people according to Ballard, who's always written about "whether we are much different people from the civilized beings we imagine ourselves to be." (Well, that and carfucking.) Ballard is unsentimental about Jim, who unsettles everyone around him just by how quickly he acquiesces to the new reality. He's gross, in his shameless hustling and scheming and stealing, and in his actual, emaciated, infected body. It's not just that he refuses to die; it's that he seems comfortable as an animal. As we age we start to think that we really are civilized, and adults in these internment camps in WWII needed to think it would all be over someday, that they'd be able to return to civilization. Jim shrugs civilization off so easily that everyone else gets vertigo. Here's a startling detail about this book: the major thing Ballard changed from his own life was that he wrote his parents out of it. In Empire of the Sun Jim is immediately separated from them, but the young Ballard never was. The reason is that their presence screwed up the truth of the book; Ballard couldn't find a way to convey how unable they were to protect him in the internment camp. I don't know if that blows your mind as much as it blows mine: a reality so savage that parents are irrelevant. So Ballard is the Toto to civilization's Oz: he saw behind the curtain early, and he's talented enough to write down what the wizard looks like back there. It's gross. Quotes are all from an interview at the back of my edition. I can't find it online, sorry.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Jean-Marc Bonet

    This was my second reading of 'Empire of the Sun' as the first time was many years ago, I only remember it being near perfection, and had everything I look for in a novel. Moving, beautiful written with many tense, nervy moments and a heartbreaking finale. Considering some of Ballard's other works were utopian, futuristic and darkly disturbing in nature, this is certainly his most humane story and represents a turbulent time in China's history that doesn't get much of a look in in regards to This was my second reading of 'Empire of the Sun' as the first time was many years ago, I only remember it being near perfection, and had everything I look for in a novel. Moving, beautiful written with many tense, nervy moments and a heartbreaking finale. Considering some of Ballard's other works were utopian, futuristic and darkly disturbing in nature, this is certainly his most humane story and represents a turbulent time in China's history that doesn't get much of a look in in regards to literature. Not your average coming-of-age story, as the world starts to get to grips with the horrors of war. Will no doubt read again in time.

  16. 4 out of 5

    MJ Nicholls

    Ballard is the quintessential soothsayer of contemporary alienation, perversity and despair. The narrator shows a clinician’s steeliness in the face of starvation and nuclear catastrophe, and this detachment is the genesis of Ballard’s “death of affect” that became a central theme across his novels—the scorched and bombed landscapes of his dystopic classics all stems from Shanghai. An uncompromising classic.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Flora

    Don't let the Spielberg connection turn you off. This is a devastating slow burn of a book, one that I picked up fairly randomly, and have been reeling from ever since. The prose is scrupulously plain, but the psychological detail as strange and transporting as anything more self-consciously lyrical. It chronicles the author's childhood experiences as a prisoner-of-war in WWII Japan, but this isn't a typical novel-memoir; there's a traumatized shimmer to the third-person narration (there's no Don't let the Spielberg connection turn you off. This is a devastating slow burn of a book, one that I picked up fairly randomly, and have been reeling from ever since. The prose is scrupulously plain, but the psychological detail as strange and transporting as anything more self-consciously lyrical. It chronicles the author's childhood experiences as a prisoner-of-war in WWII Japan, but this isn't a typical novel-memoir; there's a traumatized shimmer to the third-person narration (there's no "I" here; just "Jim") and the lack of sentiment is unnerving and, strange to say, honorable. I really loved this book.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Nandakishore Varma

    I used to think of Ballard as an SF author - this novel made it clear to me how mistaken I was. This is the story of a British boy, Jim, separated from his parents at the age of 10 and interned in a POW camp in Shanghai during the Second World War. At the end of the war, after the nuclear attack on Japan, the world is a shambles: and Jim learns that staying alive is a task in itself. The story is cheerless and grim, but oddly compelling in its portrayal of humanity on the edge.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Mariel

    Everything I need to know in life I learned from Empire of the Sun.

  20. 5 out of 5

    F.R.

    I honestly don’t know what’s the matter with me. Despite being a big Ballard fan, I'd never actually read this until now. The fuzzy reason I gave myself was that this was the mainstream book that Spielberg adapted, and so didn't chime in with the Ballard I generally deal with. However I’m glad I put my absurd prejudices aside, as this is brilliant! Even though Ballard is dealing with the past rather than future, he does evoke this other world – which to Western eyes at least – is completely I honestly don’t know what’s the matter with me. Despite being a big Ballard fan, I'd never actually read this until now. The fuzzy reason I gave myself was that this was the mainstream book that Spielberg adapted, and so didn't chime in with the Ballard I generally deal with. However I’m glad I put my absurd prejudices aside, as this is brilliant! Even though Ballard is dealing with the past rather than future, he does evoke this other world – which to Western eyes at least – is completely alien. The sights and descriptions before the war are often strange and fantastic, but once war breaks out Ballard is free to unleash the kind of images and incidents which made his name. This is never less than pure Ballard. Okay, there isn’t as much sex as in other books, but his obsessions with new worlds, the looming apocalypse aviation and excreta are all present and correct. Of course Ballard’s inspiration for this book came from his childhood, and having a young boy narrator not only adds an extra level of fear as this is someone who doesn’t fully understand the world anyway, but also makes it a far more human work than some of his other novels. A superb read, and it contains the best expansion of Chandler’s assertion “there is nothing emptier than an empty swimming pool” I have ever come across.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Mymymble

    People treat this as a memoir. It isn't and Ballard made it clear it was fiction. The glorification, almost fetishism of Japanese officers was very hurtful for my family who (like Peter Wyngarde the actor) were kids there without their parents. Ballard had his family. The fact he chose not to acknowledge that is... odd.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Natasa

    I loved this book. Ballard is a superb writer, and I felt as though I was living through the nightmare of Shanghai at the time. It is not a book for the faint-hearted as it is explicit and gory. But well worth the read to gain an insight into what the Chino-Japanese war was all about, phasing into WWII.

  23. 4 out of 5

    David

    I must have drifted out at crucial points because I found the geography very confusing. How far was the airfield from the camp? And the Olympic stadium? The Bund? That ceramic factory? The French Concession? How did the Japanese drivers get lost, when Jim can almost always see all these places? The map at the front of the book is crap and doesn't include many of the locations. I thought that the action was confusing at times. I’d have an image of what was happening and suddenly someone would pop I must have drifted out at crucial points because I found the geography very confusing. How far was the airfield from the camp? And the Olympic stadium? The Bund? That ceramic factory? The French Concession? How did the Japanese drivers get lost, when Jim can almost always see all these places? The map at the front of the book is crap and doesn't include many of the locations. I thought that the action was confusing at times. I’d have an image of what was happening and suddenly someone would pop out of a canal I didn’t know was there. Basically, I wasn’t gripped enough by the story for the effort required. The "fragility of civil society" is the theme, but I think it is probably done better elsewhere. No-one seemed to change all that much despite their world collapsing. Jim is relentlessly curious and naive at the start of the book, and the same at the end. His relationships didn’t seem to change and he never got around to asking big questions. This isn't just Ballard, obviously ... but I've never been entirely happy with the idea that an erection looks like something in your pocket. "Am I smuggling a mouldy sweet potato in my pocket or am I just pleased to see you?" Where are the pockets in these people's trousers? I liked that Basie was really camp, that was a bit of a surprise.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Marvin

    J. G. Ballard's novels often perplexes me. He has a stunningly powerful style of writing yet it often feels emotionally detached. Empire of The Sun is not only his best novel but goes a long way to explain the author's somewhat schizoid style of writing. The autobiographical novel is based on his internment as a child in a Japanese prisoner of war camp in China during World War II. Even though it is called a novel, I would not be surprised to find that very little is actually fictional. For J. G. Ballard's novels often perplexes me. He has a stunningly powerful style of writing yet it often feels emotionally detached. Empire of The Sun is not only his best novel but goes a long way to explain the author's somewhat schizoid style of writing. The autobiographical novel is based on his internment as a child in a Japanese prisoner of war camp in China during World War II. Even though it is called a novel, I would not be surprised to find that very little is actually fictional. For Ballard, the time was both harrowing and "fun", a word he used in interviews to describe his actual internment. Ballard is not ignorant of the irony involved here. He was simply a child making the best of a bad situation. He describes the terrors, the joys and the monotony of his childhood in a dispassionate way as if he is trying to decipher the meaning for himself. Those who have seen the Spielberg film may be surprised how unheroic the child protagonist is in the book. The normalcy of an abnormal existence is a theme is Ballard's' work and where that comes from becomes clear in the novel. Ballard is one of the greatest writers of the second half of the 20th century and this is one of the greatest novels of the same period. If you have not read anything by J. G. Ballard, this is his most accessible work and the best place to start.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Jeff Jackson

    A biographical novel that deals with Ballard's time in Japanese internment camps during WWII, told with an unusual slant: The narrator almost seems to thrive and looks up to his captors as the only ones who can protect him. On its own, a brutal and fascinating story -- but for fans, it's also the Ballardian Rosetta Stone, the ground zero source of his recurring fascination with drained swimming pools, empty runways, dead pilots, open air cinemas, etc. "Yet only part of his mind would leave A biographical novel that deals with Ballard's time in Japanese internment camps during WWII, told with an unusual slant: The narrator almost seems to thrive and looks up to his captors as the only ones who can protect him. On its own, a brutal and fascinating story -- but for fans, it's also the Ballardian Rosetta Stone, the ground zero source of his recurring fascination with drained swimming pools, empty runways, dead pilots, open air cinemas, etc. "Yet only part of his mind would leave Shaghai. The rest would remain there forever, returning on the tide like the coffins launched from the funeral piers at Nantao." Hard to believe this was ever a Spielberg movie, but I'm planning to check that out shortly.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Narges

    I'm moving out of the town and had to return it to the library. At least I know the ending from the movie :D

  27. 5 out of 5

    Louise

    would classify Empire of the Sun as an adventure novel about a boy’s life during the Japanese occupation of Shanghai in WWII. The book is graphic and spares no details about how people die, but it wasn’t graphic to the point where I had to put it down. Halfway through reading this, I realized that it was not fiction and was actually an autobiography, which made it a bit more difficult to read the particularly gruesome parts. Empire of the Sun not only has an accurate portrayal of how a teenage boy would classify Empire of the Sun as an adventure novel about a boy’s life during the Japanese occupation of Shanghai in WWII. The book is graphic and spares no details about how people die, but it wasn’t graphic to the point where I had to put it down. Halfway through reading this, I realized that it was not fiction and was actually an autobiography, which made it a bit more difficult to read the particularly gruesome parts. Empire of the Sun not only has an accurate portrayal of how a teenage boy would act during internment, but also the thoughts that would run through his head. There are parts in the book which had me on the edge of my seat because I was sure the boy was about to die, but knew that it couldn’t happen logically since it’s a biography. Ballard not only provides an exciting adventure story, but also great insight into the human condition. While I wouldn’t exactly call this an uplifting book, I did feel better after reading it. I feel the same way about it as I feel about Schindler’s List: I wouldn't call it enjoyable, but it's definitely something that people should read.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Meirav Rath

    Oh, Steven Spielberg, how dare you kill this wonderful book's plot with a blunt instrument, burn it, trample it and then leave it to be raped by a horde of Cossacks, how?! Here's one book which was not for you to bring to the silver screen. Unlike the film, this book managed to properly portray Jim's character, his experiences and to capture, complete and perfect, the lives of English citizens trapped behind Japanese lines in China. It's wonderfully written, the horrors laced gently with the Oh, Steven Spielberg, how dare you kill this wonderful book's plot with a blunt instrument, burn it, trample it and then leave it to be raped by a horde of Cossacks, how?! Here's one book which was not for you to bring to the silver screen. Unlike the film, this book managed to properly portray Jim's character, his experiences and to capture, complete and perfect, the lives of English citizens trapped behind Japanese lines in China. It's wonderfully written, the horrors laced gently with the experiences of a growing boy and the world as seen through his still innocent eyes. It's a wonderful read, a great book and I highly recommend it.

  29. 5 out of 5

    Bettie

    "I learned a new word today - 'atom bomb'" If there had been no hostilities, the entirely disturbing boy, Jim, would have been dubbed with many mental diagnoses of the kind that are only spoken of under heavy initial letters; as events unfolded his a-social traits made him for the most, effective as a survivor.

  30. 5 out of 5

    Leonie

    Autobiographical account of a boy who becomes separated from his parents and interned in WWII Japanese-occupied China. The beginning shows Jim, already pretty hardened by his wartime environment, engaging with various images. This part is slow but the oddly totemic way Jim relates to the material world is idiosyncratic. Jim is a little boy fascinated by aircraft, and this fascination continuing throughout becomes a little stranger because it becomes more nakedly what it really is: being a bit of Autobiographical account of a boy who becomes separated from his parents and interned in WWII Japanese-occupied China. The beginning shows Jim, already pretty hardened by his wartime environment, engaging with various images. This part is slow but the oddly totemic way Jim relates to the material world is idiosyncratic. Jim is a little boy fascinated by aircraft, and this fascination continuing throughout becomes a little stranger because it becomes more nakedly what it really is: being a bit of a fan of war. This kind of thing wore on me at times but it's part of the dispassionate but off-balance flavour of the book. The city of Shanghai sounds like a SF city, impossibly dazzling and changing. Ballard apparently wrote SF cities drawing on his memories of Shanghai before deciding to write the real thing, so that's oddly circular. Once Jim has become separated from his parents I found it pretty gripping; it's an account of human experience it's hard not to find interesting. It's the skull beneath the skin, basically. This separation from his parents is the biggest difference between the book and Ballard's own experience; he said if the parents were there it would be hard for readers to understand how much it didn't matter that they were there. Few of the adults around him have any time for treating a child who isn't theirs like a child, so he floats into a peculiar status, without an adult mind-set or the role of a child. For a lot of the time in the camp, the time we don't really hear about, Jim is having a pretty great time, able to get into everything that is happening. Then the food starts running out and we are back to the survival surrounded by death that is Jim getting to the camp in the first place. There's no talking about death in the way it happens in a situation like this without the idea that human life has paramount value receding. It recontextualises our emotions in an uncomfortable way. Jim finds it impossible to process the idea that the war is over, when it's over, and the book makes it clear that "over" is not a simple thing.

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