When you hate the hero: ‘Empire of the Sun’ by J. G. Ballard (1984)

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I’m a serial monogamist when it comes to books.  I have trouble reading more than one at a time, but get extremely anxious if I don’t have a book constantly on the go.  This meant my reading experience of ‘Empire of the Sun’, Ballard’s semi-autobiographical novel about World War II in China, was extremely unusual.  Despite really trying to follow the regal advice in ‘Alice in Wonderland’ I simply couldn’t ‘begin at the beginning, and go on until you come to the end: then stop‘.  It was there on my Kindle and every time I finished a book mid-commute and desperately needed something new to read I’d try a bit of it, before getting caught up in something I liked more.  It took me several months of stop and go attempts to get through the first chapters (the goes were few and far between, the stops were several novels long).  Then, suddenly, something happened.  I realised that my half-hearted persistence had paid off and I was actually enjoying it!  Empire of the Sun was no longer a guilty duty to be ignored and I was able to cover the middle and end in one go.  I finally feel free and ready to face my other books again.

Unfortunately, my disjoined reading of the start was so traumatic I can’t face going back to realise why I struggled so much.  I think it was, essentially, my utter lack of interest in Jim, the hero.  He was such a deeply unlikable child.  His main interests are planes and fighting and I found myself turning into an annoying Victorian anti-heroine when faced with him – desperate to get away quickly and wash my hands with carbolic soap.  Poor Jim, his book only started to work for me when I realised that I wasn’t alone.  He loses his parents (literally loses them, they’re out there somewhere, dead or in a prison camp, and he’s somewhere else) and everyone he meets subsequently treats him with, at best, a faint disgust.

Jim is English and he is fascinated by the war.  I think he is unique within my war-time set reading because this obsession leads to a highly a-typical response to the trauma of his situation.  For a start, after enjoying his freedom for a while, he decides his new aim is to surrender himself to the Japanese as this seems the most likely way for him to find his, presumably captured, parents.  After a series of unsuccessful attempts, he is finally taken prisoner, but this is Jim so his response to the new situation is predictably unusual.  We’re told ‘although he was hungry all the time, he was happy in the detention centre’.  On being moved to a new camp we learn ‘for the first time he felt able to enjoy the war.  He gazed happily at the burnt-out trams and tenement blocks, at the thousands of doors open to the clouds, a deserted city invated by the sky.  It only disappointed him that his fellow prisoners failed to share his excitement.’  It doesn’t take much to see Jim as the juvenile incarnation of Dr Vaughan from Ballard’s ‘Crash’ (which was an equally troubled reading experience for me, though for very different reasons).  His displacement and alienation within a chaotic society are compelling, but not because they invite sympathy or understanding.  Perhaps the novel is powerful simply because the protagonist’s emotions are so hard to rationalise or identiy with.

Ballard based Jim’s experiences on his own time in a Japanese prisoner of war camp.  In an appendix to my edition he writes about the choices he made when fictionalising his biography.  One important decision was to separate Jim from his parents.  Reflecting on his own time in the Lunghua camp he writes ‘My parents must have found their talkative and hyperactive son an immense trial, and were glad to see me anywhere other than their poky room.’  Elsewhere he explains ‘I [had] thought I would have to follow my own life and have the parents in the camp too.  But it didn’t really give the right impression.  People would think that if the parents were in the camp as well, then they would be able to protect Jim and that he would never be in any danger … I felt that this just wasn’t true.’  It is this brutal regard for truth makes the novel such an initially uncomfortable and ultimately satisfying read.

‘The Empire of the Sun’ was not the novel I expected, but it is everything a great novel should be.  It is challenging, compelling and uncompromising.  I hearitly recommend it, even if on my future readings I suspect I will still skip those first, infuriating introductory chapters.

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4 Responses to When you hate the hero: ‘Empire of the Sun’ by J. G. Ballard (1984)

  1. Dessa says:

    “He loses his parents (literally loses them, they’re out there somewhere, dead or in a prison camp, and he’s somewhere else)…”

    Your palpable frustration had me howling. I’ve also had a hard time getting into Ballard – maybe I’ll give it another shot.

    • I’m pleased to have shared the pain! Seriously though, I do think Ballard is wonderful, but he’s certainly not a comfy read and I find it takes some time to get into his literary world…

  2. Jeff says:

    Empire appears regularly in secondhand bookshops in good condition, yet I have it at the bottom of my Ballard list, mainly because it’s a bit of an anomaly in his oeuvre. It is ranked as the book to read to understand what drove the distopias in the rest of his work. I have to say I find the way you present the book and his comments somehow gets across Ballard himself. He once said that the most beautiful music in the world is the sound of machine guns. I think you’ve captured here something of his eye for savagery spoken through an irony that’s distanced even further by English reserve.

    • The only other Ballard that I’ve read is ‘Crash’ and I think one of my difficulties with ‘Empire’ was that, at the start, it seems so different from what I was expecting. I do think that you’re right though, reading it does explain, or at least consolidate, his obsession with machinery and violence and his highly individual take on creation and destruction. I hadn’t heard the quotation about music before, but it sounds completely in keeping with his fiction and helps explain why I have such difficulty identifying with his heroes!

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