"Novelist kept putting off book about war experiences" by Ken Adachi, in Toronto Star (December 14, 1987): B4. Short interview about Empire of the Sun and The Day of Creation.
Novelist kept putting off book about war experiences.
by Ken Adachi
"It took a very, very long time to forget and a very, very long time to remember," J. G. Ballard said on a recent visit to Toronto of the grisly childhood experience that went into his writing Empire Of The Sun, the superb novel turned into a Steven Spielberg movie showing at the Eglinton theatre.
It's no wonder. Ballard, now 56, was one of about 2,000 prisoners, mostly from the British settlement in Shanghai, who spent four years in a Japanese prison camp outside the Chinese city during World War II.
Violence, sickness, malnutrition, arbitrary behavior (by both captors and prisoners) and starvation became routine - light years from the privileged life young James had lived with his family in a luxurious Shanghai mansion with their nine servants and chauffeur-driven car.
In 1946, aged 15, Ballard sailed to England, there to attend Cambridge and the University of London, dabble in advertising and start writing a series of successful science-fiction novels.
His books were all set in the future, as if the past were taboo. It was only in the 1960s that he began to discuss the war with his friends and emotionally confront his buried experience.
But writing about it was an entirely different thing.
"I had always wanted to write a book about the war, but I kept putting it off. I suppose -- if it's not too melodramatic to say so -- I was a kind of rape victim licking my emotional wounds and keeping my feelings inside. It wasn't until my three children had grown up that I contemplated writing the story and, by so doing, begin to understand the roots of my own personality.
"I couldn't get into the novel, nothing came alive, despite the emotional charge that was waiting to go off inside my head. I had thought of using an adult as my main character, but then I said to myself, Why not make him a boy who was my own age? Then it was that I was able to open the door of the cupboard that had remained closed for many years."
The book, he insists, is fiction, conveyed through the viewpoint of a boy whose ignorance and untrammelled imagination partly account for the strangeness and power of the novel. The background is real, the characters have been improvised. Some events, such as the lethal flash from the atomic bomb at Hiroshima - registered by the camp inmates across the 400 miles of the China Sea - are presented as hallucinatory.
"The vast body of young Jim's experience in Shanghai and the camp has been invented, though it's psychologically true. You fictionalize to reach the truth. I was describing an extreme situation which isn't typical of the experience of North Americans. Most people on this planet, however, live lives subject to privation. It's the norm, not the exception, to suffer starvation and violence and the horrible use of technology to destroy lives.
"There's Beirut, Belfast, Central America, Cambodia. And I feel no residual bitterness against the Japanese. They were our protectors as well as our oppressors. People, including prisoners, behave badly in wartime."
What of the movie?
"I didn't have anything to do with it, though if you look closely, I play one of the guests at a costume party near the beginning of the movie. I've not yet seen it, but I can't say enough about the director Steven Spielberg and felt no qualms about handing it over to him.
"He's simply the greatest director working today, one who upholds the oldest tradition of Hollywood, a belief in the primacy of a strong story, which had its heyday in the 1930s and '40s and has since been devalued."
Anyway, Ballard always had a penchant for psychological disaster stories - perhaps a hangover from Shanghai. One of his early stories begins: "Later, as he sat on his balcony eating the dog, Dr. Robert Laing reflected on the unusual events . . . ."
Ballard lives just outside London in suburban Shepperton. "The suburbs are where the real psychic battle is joined most fiercely."
Perhaps they are like prison camps? A smile plays over his face. "The suburbs have sucked people out of the cities. They are very dangerous places. There people sit watching TV and videos. Indeed, the decline of Britain is attributable to the fact we have the best TV. Hardly anybody reads books."
This year, Ballard published another novel, The Day Of Creation, again a brilliant blend of reverie, myth and adventure story. Set in Central Africa, near the borders of Chad and the Sudan, it tells of the obsession of an English doctor named Mallory to bring water - a "third Nile" - to this parched region.
One day, a bulldozer releases a trickle of water from a dry lake bed. It swells to a flood and becomes a river, and Mallory embarks on a journey to find its source.
"The novel," says Ballard, "depicts a struggle against unpleasant truths. Its world is as far away from the sentimental and reassuring view of bushy-tailed nature as it is possible to get. Like Empire, its main psychological thrust is embedded in a quest in which the hero clings desperately to his dreams."