Empire of the Sun

by J. G. Ballard

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The appeal of Empire of the Sun crossed many spectra. It echoes themes and images of Ballard’s other works, and it is tempting to say that this autobiographical novel reveals the sources of many of those images. Although the general biographical facts of Ballard’s life parallel Jim’s, most of the time spent in the Lunghua camp is omitted from the narrative. (Some of that time is dealt with in this book’s sequel, The Kindness of Women, published in 1991.) The narrative concentrates on Jim’s perceptions more than his experiences, often giving events a surrealistic tone. The impression of surrealism is abetted by the detailed descriptions of Jim’s environment, especially of people’s physical appearances, uniforms, and aircraft.

Ballard’s approach to women is reverential, even when Jim’s dealings with them have been less than favorable. Principal among these women is Mrs. Vincent, with whose family Jim is quartered for the last two years of the war. Jim declares his fondness for Mrs. Vincent, although of no one else in her family, because she, like him, “appreciated the humor” of the Lunghua prison camp. Being able to appreciate humor in an absurd situation is a trait common to many of Ballard’s characters and is essential to reading many of his other works, especially his “paste-up” novels such as The Atrocity Exhibition (1970) or Vermilion Sands (1971).

It is the British and their attitude—the same attitude Jim held at the beginning of the book—who are portrayed the worst. “All in all, Jim felt, the Americans were the best company . . . far superior to the morose and complicated British.” Jim, already an expatriate who has never seen his homeland, feels a stranger among his own people. His transformation from a young boy who is incredulous that a family might all live in one room to the young man who survives by his wits and ingenuity has produced one of the great Bildungsromans of its time.

Many of Jim’s actions are not noble—he steals and cheats in order to obtain extra rations—but he also gets water for the other prisoners on the way to the camp because he is brave enough to do what no one else will. He eats the maggots in the food, which other prisoners disdain, because he knows that they are a source of protein. He helps other prisoners but is always careful to make certain that he is in a position to benefit. He affiliates himself with whoever will treat him best.

All these actions reveal Jim’s essential humanity. Most significant of all, perhaps, is that it is easy to forget that Empire of the Sun is a novel; its quality as a testament to history often overshadows Ballard’s prose virtuosity. Yet, it is the virtuosity of the writing that enables Ballard to make Jim’s keen observations revelatory of both the traumas of war and the human spirit, embodied in the character of Jim, that can survive such adversity.

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Critical Context (Critical Guide to British Fiction)