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April 8, 2008

Empire of the Sun

J.G. Ballard – ISBN – 9780743265232

Immediately after Pearl Harbor the Japanese launched all out war in the Pacific, beginning in the Philippines and in Shanghai where Ballard’s family were English merchants. This novel encapsulates the experiences of its English author, an adolescent prisoner in a Japanese prison camp in China during WWII. It is a first person narrative embroidered with reliable hearsay into a metered exposition of the horrors of China itself, the war, the loss of fear in some situations, and the longing for death in other circumstances, when incarcerated and alone, as he was at the time.

He begins by describing the life of the expatriate communities (representing virtually all western countries), and does so largely in flash-backs. As well, he provides graphic descriptions of the ghastly life of the Chinese peasants of the era. This is an enlightening discussion of the “facts on the ground,” woven into a personal narrative of survival in an era and in a culture which most of us have never known much about, and never explored. It is informative, colorful, eloquent, fulsome, and engrossing. Much of the account describes the savage nature of Japanese occupation and the inherently punishing culture of the Chinese.

While not always an easy read, he explores the consequences of twentieth century technology in relating the flashes from the explosions at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as he lays the groundwork for an understanding of the fact that, co-extant with WW II was the internecine war amongst the Chinese. He explains that as WW II war ended, the Chinese immediately began their separate war between Mao Tse Tung’s Communists and Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists.

It is a worthwhile read, and reminds of Give Us This Day (ISBN - 9780393319217), Sidney Stewart’s non-fiction account of experiences in Japanese camps and ships after his survival of the Bataan Death March.

Incidentally, I heartily endorse the latter book, the better to understand the horrifying experiences of American prisoners of Japan during that conflict. Reading both expands one’s historic appreciation of the grisly nature of the mid 20th century which is now being repeated in the Middle East. It is obligatory and productive to understand the nature of the enemy now as then.

Posted by respeto at April 8, 2008 12:57 PM