Most of J. G. Ballard’s books are either science fiction or visionary novels. Empire of the Sun (1984), however, is written in a realistic mode. The Day of Creation is realistic in style and imagery but plunges into the realm of fantasy. In this novel, Ballard achieves a remarkable merging of realism and illusion. The real world of poverty, disease, and filth in primitive central Africa is juxtaposed to the fictional world of the television documentary, presented as an exploitative invention passing itself off as real. This juxtaposition appears to be a metaphor for the relationship between the events of the novel and the delusions of the narrator. Lucid description, characteristic of realism, reveals grimy people with decaying teeth, infection, malnutrition, and fever living in squalid, unsanitary conditions. The same type of vivid description presents the hallucinations of the narrator. In the latter, Ballard achieves effects similar to surrealist art with its realistic images of fantasies.
Although the events of the novel seem vivid and real, the reader has a sense of being caught up in a gigantic dream. This effect grows out of the mode of narration and the character of the narrator. Events of the novel unfold through the eyes of Dr. Mallory, a physician who runs a World Health Organization clinic in the small town of Port-la-Nouvelle in the parched terrain of central Africa.
Mallory’s narration of events seems quite real even when he expresses confusion. Comments by others who view him as eccentric, always finding the extreme position, and obsessed with underground water, however, should raise a caution flag to the reader. General Harare, leader of a small guerrilla band, tells Mallory that, because of his obsession with underground water, his “career has suffered so much.” When Mallory assures him that he will give attention to his career, the general says, “Your real career, not the one inside your head. It may be too late. . . .” Nora Warrender, the widow of a Rhodesian veterinarian who had run an animal-breeding station near the airstrip at Lake Kotto and had been shot by a deserting soldier, makes it clear that she thinks Mallory is suffering from delusions. Referring to the young mountain girl, Noon, who had been left behind when General Harare’s guerrillas fled Port-la-Nouvelle upon arrival of Captain Kagwa’s soldiers, Nora says to Mallory, “I’m sure she can see that you are half-way to the dream-time.” Later, when Mallory tells Nora that he is sure that he really is the river, she says, “You’re clearly quite mad.”
Superficially, the novel has many of the trappings of an African adventure. A petty guerrilla war between Captain Kagwa, a provincial police captain with about sixty soldiers, and a small guerrilla band led by General Harare serves as a backdrop to the main events of the novel. In his quest for the source of the river, riding the stolen car ferry, the Salammbo, which still has Captain Kagwa’s dilapidated Mercedes on board, Mallory has to engage in several duels with Captain Kagwa’s helicopter. When he is not fending off Captain Kagwa, Mallory must be concerned about a possible ambush by General Harare’s forces. Despite the danger the war poses for Mallory, the war does not seem to matter. It is trivial except for the death and pain it inflicts. Which side wins appears to be a matter of indifference except to the two leaders.
The theme of the novel and its central symbol is the River Mallory, a river that springs up suddenly in the desert and draws to itself teeming life and activity. The river is a symbol of life, cleansing, and maternal nourishment. At the same time, ironically, it becomes a symbol of stagnation, pollution, disease, and death. The river is a fulfillment of Mallory’s “dream of a green Sahara.” Within a short time after it emerges, it becomes a tropical paradise of vegetation, fish, and animals. As people cluster around, however, and dig small irrigation ditches, the water becomes stagnant and polluted.
Mallory views the river as his creation. Because most of the people have moved away from Port-la-Nouvelle and Mallory has few patients, he undertakes an irrigation project after the last engineer leaves. Studying “the underground contour lines on the survey charts that sometimes seemed to map the profiles of a nightmare slumbering inside [his] head,” Mallory drills six wells in the dry bed of Lake Kotto without success. Ironically, when a soldier is returning Mallory’s bulldozer after using it to extend the airstrip beside the dry lake, he casually pushes a huge oak stump and...
(The entire section is 1898 words.)