Empire of the Sun – J. G. Ballard

06th August 1945. The US drops an atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. Three days later, on 09th August, a second bomb is dropped on Nagasaki. The devastation of these two cities is followed by the unconditional surrender of Japan on 15th August 1945.

War in Europe began in 1939, with Germany invading Poland, but in the Far East, the war was already two years old by then. The Japanese, following the invasion of Manchuria in 1931, captured most of coastal China, including cities like Beijing, Shanghai and Nanjing (Nanking) in 1937. There however, existed an uneasy truce with the International Settlements in these cities. Since they were not officially at war with the European countries yet, the International Settlements were neutral zones, the entry and exit points of which were closely monitored by the Japanese but not entered by them.

J. G. Ballard, the author of Empire of the Sun, was born and raised in the International Settlement in Shanghai. He wrote this semi-autobiographical book almost forty years after the war, drawing strongly on his experiences of growing up in an erstwhile colony and his internment in a Civilian Assembly Centre (CAC) after the onset of the hostilities between Japan and USA. It has an intriguing perspective – the adult using the child he was to describe the events he lived through as the child saw them.

It is 1941, and 11-year-old Jim’s childhood in the International Settlement at Shanghai is one of extreme luxury. The son of a textile factory owner, it is a life filled with servant boys, Chinese Amahs, White Russian nannies and a Chinese chauffeur who was a movie extra. The war between the Chinese and the Japanese is a minor distraction for the Europeans, not to be taken as seriously as the conflict on the Continent. This is reinforced by the regular screenings of newsreels showing the battles at Dunkirk, Russia and more.

The prevalent attitude among the British is it’s all very well for the Japanese to fight against the Chinese and succeed, but if they were to challenge the technological and cultural prowess of England, it would be an extremely short skirmish; a few weeks to a month at the most with England emerging victorious. This view isn’t shared by Jim, though; the child sees the Japanese as the bravest of all soldiers, their planes as the finest of all planes, and is in awe of them. And as with every 11-year-old with an obsessive hobby, he knows everything there is to know about fighter and bomber planes from all over the world, making him in his eyes an expert on the matter.

Their bluff is called on the morning of 8th December 1941 (because of the time difference, when Pearl Harbour was attacked on 7th December, it was already the morning of the 8th in Shanghai). Jim is staying with his parents in a hotel at the waterfront; a precaution against the increased number of Japanese troops in the countryside. From his window, he has a ringside view as the Japanese warship in the harbour opens fire the British and American warships who are caught by surprise and are completely defenseless. At the same time, troops start entering the International Settlement, causing the panicked citizens to stampede.

Jim is bundled into the car with his mother, as his father along with the other Englishmen try and rescue the sailors who have jumped from the sinking ships. The car does not get far in the streets thronged with people, and the excited Jim runs out to help his father. As the Englishmen pull the burned and injured sailors ashore, they are all apprehended by the Japanese Army. An intervention by the German and Italian citizens of the International Settlement saves them from being executed on the spot, and they are sent instead to the hospital under guard. Jim is the only child in the entire group and is let go when all others are moved to an internment camp. He makes his way home, but finds no one there, not even the servants.

His initial plan is to wait at home for his parents to return, but is forced to improvise as food and water runs low. His initial forays into the familiar territory of his friends’ houses are met with empty houses being looted by the Japanese soldiers or by their own Chinese servants. After one such exploration, he comes back to find his house taken over by the Japanese and is forced to return to the empty house of Mr. Maxted, the father of his best friend. Once the food there runs out, he moves from house to empty house, eating what he can find. He then chances upon a platoon of Japanese soldiers who out of pity feed him leftovers, and he becomes a regular feature at their meal times. Even this does not last long, as the platoon is replaced by another, which doesn’t take kindly to the European beggar boy and drives him away.

The Japanese soldiers give Jim a new solution to his problem. He knows his parents are in an internment camp somewhere, and he has proof that the Japanese are kinder than the Chinese who are turning on their erstwhile masters. With the simple clarity of a child, he decides to turn himself in to the Japanese, thereby getting into the camp and being reunited with his parents. It is easier said than done; the Japanese have no interest in small boys, and keep turning him away, sometimes harshly. Alone, Jim finds himself at the waterfront, among the ruins of the battleships.

He is spotted by a couple of American merchant seamen hiding in the bombed-out hulks of the ships, and is taken under their wing. The elder of the two, Basie, is an old hand at survival, and in his own way teaches Jim while taking care of him. This is not without purpose, as on the few occasions the trio step out of their hiding place to fence items retrieved from the wrecks on the black market, Basie tries unsuccessfully to sell him to some of the Chinese smugglers. Even with this knowledge, Jim stays with them, regaling them with tales of his house and all the other houses he has been in since. In his pragmatism, he has accepted that the food and shelter he gets is worth the risk of being sold off.

He still hasn’t given up on the idea of being reunited with his parents, and gets another opportunity to try and get captured by the Japanese when his stories of the empty houses are enticing enough for Basie and his partner to go through them for items they can sell on the black market. His plans succeed, though not in the way he intends; the first house they approach, his own, is bustling with Japanese troops. The sight of the Americans moving around freely enrages them enough to capture and beat them up, eventually taking them to prison. Jim is separated and moved to an interim holding area, where those who are ill or injured are housed until they recover or succumb to their ailment; the continued drinking of untreated water has given him a near fatal case of cholera.

At the interim holding area, Jim is the only one by himself, and is looked upon and treated as an outsider by everyone else. This changes when a badly beaten up Basie is brought there as well; the American immediately starts instructing him in another invaluable survival tactic – ingratiating oneself to the people in charge. He quickly makes himself indispensable to the ladies cooking meals, and the other prisoners by running errands and doing menial tasks, which sees him (and of course Basie) benefit in the form of extra rations. The additional food helps him recover enough to volunteer as a guide when the next transfer of prisoners is taking place and the Japanese driver doesn’t know the location of the camp.

On the way to camp, Jim uses his skills to earn the accompanying soldiers’ favour, ensuring they do not die on the way due to neglect and starvation. One of the prisoners, Dr. Ransome, looks down upon his actions, but cannot deny that his way yields results. Over the course of the next few days, the prisoner convoy makes its way from camp to camp, where they are turned away due to the number of infected people they carry; none of them have Jim’s parents, but the callousness of the British in turning away their own people because they are sick is another lesson learnt for him.

With its dead and dying, the convoy finally arrives at the Lunghua Camp. On the way, Dr. Ransome and Jim have become the informal caretakers of their group, the doctor administering to the ill and Jim as the liaison between the prisoners and the Japanese. They are put to work alongside Chinese prisoners resurfacing the airstrip adjacent to the camp, despite their frail health and the protestations of the doctor. Jim’s initial fear is being executed after the runway is completed, but it is overcome by the proximity of the Japanese aircraft; the presence of his childhood obsession serves to channelize the knowledge of certain death into calm acceptance, and he hopes his parents too have found their release.

Fast forward 3 years, to July 1945. Jim’s fears of execution have been unfounded; although most of the Chinese prisoners did get executed, the British and American ones have largely only succumbed to illness and starvation. The Lunghua camp has grown to house about two thousand inmates, a mixture of civilians and captured soldiers. Dr. Ransome is in charge of the camp’s meagre infirmary, Basie has cornered the camp’s black-market dealings, and Jim has grown up being looked after by both of them in their own ways. Mr. Maxted is in the camp too, and Jim has heard of his parents being housed in another camp, but after repeated failed attempts to get himself transferred, he has resigned himself to living out the war here.

His life is more or less structured along a tightrope of order and chaos as is present in the camp. In the morning and evening, he and Mr. Maxted are in charge of collecting food for the block they live in – weevil infested cracked wheat and sweet potatoes – a task that along with good relations with the cooks gives him opportunities to supplement his diet with sorely needed extra rations. He then visits Dr. Ransome, who is growing vegetables behind the infirmary and assists him in planting, weeding and tending to the plot of land. The doctor has also kept up his education, and the lessons are a regular part of the day.

Kitchen Duty at Lunghua Camp

He then visits Basie in the American block, where the wily merchant seaman presides over his kingdom of black-market rations and American magazines; both of which are equally essential to the voracious Jim and which he gets in return for errands he carries out for Basie. The rest of the day is his to do as he sees fit. As Jim is without family, his living quarters are shared with another family, with all the tussles over space the tiny room can afford. He thus prefers to spend as much time as he can outside, although his adolescent mind at times finds the haughty demeanour of his roommate, Mrs. Vincent, incredibly attractive.

His favourite place in the camp is the ruins of the assembly hall abandoned after American bombing raids on Lunghua; the elevated position allows him a view of the entire camp and the airfield, and he can sit and read back issues of Reader’s Digest and Life and Time to his heart’s content. In the intervening years, there was additional entertainment in the form of lectures, plays and concert parties arranged by the prisoners, but as the tide of the war turned against the Japanese, these outlets were slowly shut off. For Jim, it is the Americans with their bombing raids to blame for this, and he sometimes wishes for things to go back to the way they were in 1943.

Jim’s reverie is interrupted by another air raid. His vantage point gives him a ring-side view of the Mustangs swooping in with their wing cannons blazing, and the Japanese anti-aircraft guns answering ineffectually. This is followed by the customary roll call, to check if any prisoners have died or attempted to escape during the raid. The latter action is almost non-existent; with the countryside swarming with Chinese who are even more dangerous than their Japanese captors, the inmates prefer the safety of the camp to the uncertainties outside.

For Jim, keeping the routine alive is important. At the corner of his mind is a thought that gets repeated, that if everything is in stasis, the war will be over faster, and things will go back to the way they were. Soon, though, rumours of Japanese surrender start circulating, corroborated by further reduction the rations received by the inmates. The surrender seems to be a fact, when one day the inmates wake up to find all the Japanese guards missing from their posts. Their absence emboldens some of the soldiers to attempt reaching Shanghai on foot, but the majority prefer barricading themselves in the camp to wait out the events. The latter group turns out to be smarter, as within the next few days, new troops enter the camp, bringing with them the beaten-up soldiers who tried to escape.

These new troops order all the inmates to pack their belongings and lead them on a march towards the river and further inland, where the apparent plan is to execute all the prisoners and leave no traces behind for the Allies. The march is difficult, and a lot of the older, weaker inmates succumb on the way. Jim himself barely makes it to an interim staging point in a stadium filled with confiscated furniture. Jim stays back to help Mr. Maxted, who is almost dead, and as a result inadvertently survives the death march. It is during this time that the first of the atomic bombs is dropped on Japan, resulting in the remaining Japanese soldiers abandoning the prisoners and making their own way.

Jim, following Mr. Maxted’s death, stays at the stadium and after regaining some of his strength, makes his way back to Lunghua camp. He sees that the camp has been taken over by a medley of British and American POWs, who are surviving by collecting the American air drops of food while trying to keep it out of the hands of the Chinese in the countryside. Initially wary of them, his own dwindling supplies push Jim into approaching these new masters of the camp. The leader doesn’t want him there, but his second in command takes him in. The leader is more receptive to Jim when the latter tells them of the stadium full of furniture, embellishing it a bit with accounts of non-existent bottles of liquor that they can retrieve and barter on the black market.

The leader takes Jim with him to the stadium, only to find it taken over by a Chinese warlord. In the ensuing skirmish, Jim is left behind and captured, but his luck holds once more as one of the men in the warlord’s posse turns out to be Basie; the wily American has escaped the march and joined with the Chinese. Jim again finds himself in the position of holding information important enough to ensure his survival – the vast stores of air dropped materiel hoarded by the POWs in Lunghua camp. Before they can act on the information, though, the arrival of an American warship on the Yangtze river causes the warlord and his men to flee, once more leaving Jim behind.

The abandoned Jim makes his way back to the one focal point that has been the centerpiece of life for him for years now – Lunghua Camp. Arriving there, he finds a lot of the previous inmates have returned, including Dr. Ransome. The Japanese troops’ plan to march all the prisoners further inland unraveled with the official surrender, and they were left to fend for themselves. Dr. Ransome gives Jim the news that his parents are alive and awaiting his return at their home. The book ends a few months hence with Jim and his parents, having lost everything but their house, boarding a ship that will take them back to England.

What strikes me throughout the book is the spirit of survival that is rampant in the characters. Even though at times death seems not only imminent but inevitable, Jim or those around him refuse to surrender mentally to the depression. When Jim fears death after building the airstrip, it is soon replaced by an acceptance of the fact. There are no tears, no regrets, just a simple acquiescence. The same feeling is evident when despite the surroundings and the ever-reducing rations, Dr. Ransome and Mr. Maxted strive to provide a semblance of normalcy for the inmates of Lunghua camp.

Also prominent for me is the clear resilience and adaptability displayed by Jim. It is said that children are the hardiest, bouncing back from incidents that would take adults weeks or months to retrieve themselves from. For Jim, once the objective is clear – survive the war and the camp to meet his parents again – everything else after that is just a step to get there. With the single-mindedness of a child, from making himself useful to the guards to running errands for Basie, all his actions are geared towards that objective.

When you are reading, you find yourself looking at Jim’s actions through a dual lens. As an adult, you can’t help but feel irritated, exasperated, annoyed, even jealous of the simplicity of Jim’s mind that breaks everything down into child-like concepts which are easier for him to deal with. At the same time, you marvel at the very simplicity that allows him to live through the horrors of war, resilient in his youth and even while growing up where needed, keeping the child within him alive alongside.

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