Another set of brief comments incorporated into a review of "Empire", this time from The Sunday Times, 9 September 1984:
The Artist as a Young Prisoner
J. G. Ballard talks to Claire Tomalin about the true story behind his new novel.
"It took a very, very long time to forget, and a very, very long time to remember." Jim Ballard, now in his fifties, is talking about the germ of his new novel, published next week. "Empire of the Sun" is fiction, but fiction which springs from hitherto private memories of the three years he spent as a boy in a Japanese camp outside Shanghai, from the summer of 1942 to the end of the second world war.
The camp, he says, was constructed on the site of a teacher training college -- "rather like Warwick University" -- that had been bombed: the barbed wire enclosed a rough square mile and the prisoners' huts stood among the destroyed buildings; readers of his earlier books will recognise a natural Ballard landscape. Indeed the whole book casts a weirdly revealing retrospective light over the sources of his science fiction.
There were about 2,000 prisoners, mostly from the British settlement in Shanghai - businessmen like his father, missionaries, professional people - with a sprinkling of Belgians and Dutch and American sailors. Sickness, hunger and tedium were the rule, varied by unpredictable cruelty. After news of a bombing raid on Tokyo, say, the Japanese would decree the closure of the camp school and a curfew, which meant that parents and children remained confined day in, day out in their tiny, stifling huts. At other times the guards were friendly and let the children dress up in their uniforms.
Few of the internees had arrived in the camp expecting the war to last long -- some came with nothing but their clothes -- but Ballard's parents were among those with foresight. His mother had been a schoolteacher, his father ("a Wellsian young man with a degree in chemistry from London University and great faith in science") was chairman of the China Printing and Finishing Co. Forced to abandon their splendid Shanghai mansion, nine servants and chauffeur-driven car to invading Japanese officers, they carefully packed text-books for their children (Jim had a four-year-old sister): Latin, science, history, Shakespeare, an anthology of English poetry compiled by Robert Lynd. In the camp, "our parents starved themselves for us". They also concealed their fears, especially of what the Japanese might do as the war neared its end. There were rumours of a plan to force-march the prisoners inland until they died. Some of the Japanese officers wished to resist the Emperor's surrender and fight the Americans when they arrived at the Yangtse. This was the most terrifying moment.
Although the prisoners were starving inside the camp, outside things were worse. A ring of dying Chinese peasants formed around the perimeter. They had even less to eat than the prisoners, and their world was infinitely more dangerous and horrible. And when the Americans stopped dropping bombs on the airfield next to the camp and began dropping cases of Spam, cigarettes and Reader's Digests instead, gangs of bandits appeared in the shattered countryside to fight to the death for them.
When the prisoners were finally returned to Shanghai, young Ballard kept going back obsessively to the camp. It seemed more like home than the family mansion, impeccably maintained as it had been by the Japanese. The camp was still the place where he felt safest; it was also the place where he had shed the chrysalis of inquisitive small boy and emerged as a prematurely wise young man of fifteen.
Twenty years to forget: Ballard came to England, went to Cambridge, worked in advertising, began to write. His books were all set in the future, as though the past were taboo. Only in the 1960s did he begin to discuss the war with his parents and their friends, and to contemplate writing about it one day.
But "Empire of the Sun" is a novel, not a piece of autobiography. The background is real, the foreground purely fictional, including some strikingly imagined characters and much of the boy Jim's story. (Ballard himself is known as Jim, but as a boy was called Jamie: the boy-hero is close to, but not congruent with, his creator.) Some episodes, such as his bicycling, unknown to his parents, all over war-torn Shanghai, are true; others, such as the flash from the Nagasaki bomb 400 miles away, are carefully presented as hallucinatory -- although Ballard says prisoners did claim to have seen it.
Jim, whose bright-witted innocence among so many morally ambiguous adults puts one in mind of a Robert Louis Stevenson boy, is made a solitary figure. This is invention; Ballard told me he began drafting a novel in which Jim's parents were interned with him, but it seemed wrong. "I felt that Ballard the writer had been alone in that camp", he says with a wry finality. He is surprised to hear people express disappointment that it is not all "true"; the book is after all fiction, not faction, and was never intended as a documentary of camp life.
In fact the huge, corrupt city of Shanghai as he describes it is as disturbing as the camp. But none of it is extraordinary, Ballard insists. It is only since he has lived in cosy England that he has lived a typical [sic] life: "The experiences I went through in Shanghai are probably closer to the experiences of most people on this planet than my life since." He cites Beirut, Belfast, Central America, Africa, Cambodia. Ballard's readers may for the most part be sheltered from the atrocities of the 20th century, and incredulous of what he has to tell, but it is the norm, not the exception, to suffer starvation, violence, shattered countryside, the eruption of a technology of destruction which renders human values meaningless.
Ballard has been a successful writer for many years: his beautifully constructed science fiction and surrealist stories have an enthusiastic following. But until now he has maintained that "people no longer care about the past". "Empire of the Sun" is all the more remarkable, flying in the face of his own precept. He says he could not have written it until his own children had grown up; it is only then "one wants to begin to understand the roots of one's own personality".
An investigation into one boy's childhood; a witnessing of a strange slice of history; an astonishing piece of adventure fiction: "Empire of the Sun" is all these things, and certainly the best book that Mr Ballard has yet written.