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WARS CAME EARLY to Shanghai, overtaking each other like the tides that raced up the Yangtze and returned to this gaudy city all the coffins cast adrift from the funeral piers of the Chinese Bund. Read the first page
On the day the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, all European and American persons in Japanese occupied China were herded into internment camps. This is the story of one boy's war, eleven-year-old Jim who is separated from his parents on that fateful day. First living by his wits on the streets, a foreigner in the country in which he was born, and then later joining other British and Americans in an internment camp where he is used by everyone. This is a story of war and is a dark story, which progressively gets darker and darker. It was a good read but not a page-turner nor did it particularly touch me. I wish we had been given deeper insight into the other characters feelings and I had hoped for more by the ending. Nevertheless, a good read and an interesting point of view of World War II.
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103 of 107 people found the following review helpful
Humanity, stripped to its coreMay 23 2007
C. E. Stevens
- Published on Amazon.com
My first introduction to this story was, like many others, through Steven Spielberg's adaptation. For me, the hauntingly beautiful "Suo Gan" that serves as that movie's de facto theme song perfectly captures the fragile yet enduring beauty of humanity that Spielberg so successfully captures in his movie version. The movie abounds with poignant moments of hope, warmth, and exhilaration amongst the great struggles that befall Jim and his band of acquaintances. I enjoyed the movie, and Jim's story and haunting memory of Suo Gan made a lasting impression.
Years later, I encountered the original story--J.G. Ballard's novel that served as Spielberg's inspiration. Just as the newsreels and magazines that tell of the war fascinate Jim in the book because they describe a war so different than the one he knows, so does Spielberg's movie tell a different tale from Ballard's book. The events are by and large the same, but the tone of the story, the horrors experienced by Jim, and the lessons and impressions instilled by the novel are on a different order of magnitude from the movie. I enjoyed the movie on its own merits, but I imagine the order in which you encounter them colors your impression--for people like me who saw the movie first, it was easy to appreciate the movie, and then be blown away by the power of the book. For those who read the book first, I would imagine the movie would be a disappointing, sanitized version of the original work.
The novel overpowers the reader from start to finish by Ballard's stark account of Jim's survival against all odds, in conditions stacked heavily against him. Death, betrayal, illness, and hunger surround Jim and yet somehow he always managed to survive because he never despairs, never gives up, always keeps his wits about him, and as he himself explains, because he "takes nothing for granted." The world of WWII Shanghai strips humanity to its bare, naked, ugly core. Growing up in this environment, Jim becomes a remarkably complex character in spite of (or perhaps because of) his young age. Jim is intelligent, naive, loyal, callous, hopeful, curious, delusional, and yet oddly lucid--all at the same time. The image of flight is strong throughout the story, as a form of escape, and in some ways the only vestige of childhood granted to this boy as he goes through a life full of cruel ironies--first, the inability despite repeated attempts to surrender to an enemy that he needs infinitely more than they need him; then, the odd realization that this "enemy" is his greatest protector and in many instances, friend; finally, that even with the war over he is in greater danger and further from his parents than ever. War, peace, friend, foe, cause, effect, even the distinction between life and death ... these cease to have meaning for Jim. Finally, Jim is saved in an almost deus ex machina fashion by the heroic Dr. Ransome, a man whose selfless actions mildly amuse and baffle Jim, who cannot quite understand this brand of humanity which is quite different from the one he learned through his own experiences. Ransome's life is one that takes certain things for granted. Jim has not been afforded this luxury.
Jim's reunion with his parents is another, critical difference between the movie and the book. The "happily-ever after" ending in the movie is filled with hope and relief. Jim and his parents don't recognize each other at first. Then they do. This symbolizes that the war is finally over for Jim, now he can go back to a normal life. The End. In the book, however, the ending is much more nuanced. Despite returning "home" to Shanghai, Jim's home will forever be Lunghua in the novel version. Normalcy will never be a suburban life in England, for Jim it is wartime Shanghai. The odds of Jim being able to live what most of us would call a "normal life" are practically zero ... after all, he has just experienced a lifetime of events more "real" and vivid than "normal life" could ever be; the war never ends for Jim. Seeing the far-from-normal life Ballard himself has led, and the fiction he has written, one realizes that even though "Jim" and "J.G. Ballard" may not quite be the same person (one crucial difference--Ballard is never separated from his parents), Ballard is still the adult that Jim would have grown up to be. It is this honest and uncompromising portrayal of Jim as a true tragic hero that separates the book from the movie, and makes this book one of the truly great accounts of surviving a brutal war that knows and shows no mercy.
54 of 56 people found the following review helpful
Survival amidst deathApril 24 2006
- Published on Amazon.com
A most incredible book... It holds the reader glued to every page, not unlike the grip of death which encased Shangai after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December of 1941.
The story, based on J.G. Ballard's actual experiences, is about a young British teenager who lives with his parents in Shangai at the eve of Pearl Harbor and is then interned by the Japanese from 1942-1945 in the Lunghua prison camp near Shanghai. It is truly mesmerizing, in the negative sense unfortunately, because of the countless moments of inherent evil that arose as a result of war. The places-airfield runways made of bones of dead Chinese, a make-shift cemetery full of corpses with extremities sticking out, canals full of dead bodies, floating flower coffins with Chinese babies-the people-an opportunistic American soldier who profits from death, Japanese soldiers bent on brutality, an American doctor who does everything to save the sick and dying, the indifference of a British woman to a sick boy-and events-the killing of a Chinese coolie, the never-ending deaths of sick prisoners, the death march to Nantao-exemplify that evil and are described with such incredible detail and clarity as to be almost permanently engraved in the mind of the reader.
Through all the death and destruction, of which almost every chapter of the book is filled with, lives a young British teenager (the author himself, but written in 3rd person) who has an incredible will to survive. The question of his morality is ever-present if we judge his thoughts and actions solely; yet in the face of starvation and omnipresent death, his story is one of a smart young boy who is trying his best to survive. When viewed under those circumstances and compared to the actions of others in the book, his story can be perceived in a more positive yet still overwhelmingly sad light. Indeed, it is the author's reconstruction of his thoughts in particular that divulge the horror of the events he experienced. One of the most memorable concerns the death march to Nantao:
"Dr. Ransome had recruited a human chain from the men sitting on the embankment below the trucks, and they passed pails of water up to the patients.
Jim shook his head, puzzled by all this effort. Obviously they were being taken up-country so that the Japanese could kill them without being seen by the American pilots. Jim listened to the Shell man's wife crying in the yellow grass. The sunlight charged the air above the canal, an intense aura of hunger that stung his retinas and remind him of the halo formed by the exploding Mustang. The burning body of the American pilot had quickened the dead land. It would be for the best if they all died; it would bring their lives to an end that had been implicit ever since the Idzumo had sunk the Petrel and the British hand surrendered at Singapore without a fight.
Perhaps they were already dead. Jim lay back and tried to count the motes of light. This simple truth was known to every Chinese from birth. Once the British internees had accepted it, they would no longer fear their journey to the killing ground...."
Steven Spielberg's adaptation of the book in the 1986 movie of the same name is insufficient at best. While the cinematography and acting are good, the crux of the story-the cruelty and horrors of post-Pearl Harbor Shangai-is conveniently glossed over. It's as if Spielberg decided to change the script from an "R" to a "G". The problem is that the latter version of the movie no longer resembles the former and effectively does injustice to the thousands of people (and millions more not included in the scope of the book)-including the author himself-who suffered and/or died in Lunghua prison and Shangai from 1942-1945 at the hands of the Japanese.
61 of 64 people found the following review helpful
Not what you expectFeb. 4 2002
- Published on Amazon.com
This is an account of JG Ballard's childhood in Shanghai during World War II when he was imprisoned in an internment camp away from his parents but just knowing that alone tells you nothing about the book. Yes, it takes place in WWII but that's almost irrelevant to the book, Jim is barely aware of the war as far as most people would conceive it and the entire war seems to take place mostly on the periphery . . . if it doesn't affect him directly than he doesn't care. On one level this is a nicely detailed account of life in Shanghai, especially in the beginning. Ballard is a good enough writer that he can describe such mundane events with enough flair that they take on another ambiance entirely. This becomes more pronounced as Jim winds deeper into the war itself, with the book becoming almost dream like in its quality. A lot of people I think object to the actions of Jim, which are very much what we don't expect. He's fairly self centered and makes a lot of weird rationalizations but I had no trouble understanding his POV, even if I didn't totally agree with it. He's a kid caught in something he can barely understand, so he has to break it down into something he can understand and sometimes that means making it a game and sometimes that means doing some things that most of us would interpret as cruel. That was the most interesting part of the novel for me, watching Jim trying to cope with the events around him, deal with the fact that he can barely remember his parents, with the fact that the only life he can really remember after a while are in the camp itself. With everything filtered through his perceptions the reader has to evaluate for him or herself what exactly the truth is . . . Jim's perception of some characters can change over and over, or maybe not even agree with what the character is doing, but that's because he's looking at it through the eyes of a child and by way of Jim, so is the reader as well. The white flash of the atom bomb that comes toward the end isn't even a climax, it's just another strange event in a war where everything strange is normal and for Jim it doesn't even signify the end of the war, for him the war never really seems to end. Haunting in its grim depiction of reality, this stands as one of the better books to come out about WWII simply for its personal perspective.
19 of 19 people found the following review helpful
Intriguing account of boy's life amidst war and devastationSept. 11 2003
- Published on Amazon.com
Empire of the Sun, by J.G. Ballard, is the poignant, unsettling story of Jim, a British boy living in Shanghai whose life is altered beyond recognition by the Japanese invasion of China during World War II. The book begins in the winter of 1941, as Jim, a carefree eleven-year-old, and his wealthy parents attend high-class Christmas parties with other foreigners who have prospered in Shanghai. The only life that the inventive, intelligent boy knows is one of luxury and privilege, hardly touched by the war in Europe. Everything changes after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Suddenly the Japanese soldiers that have long been a fixture on the Shanghai streets are forcefully, uncompromisingly rounding up foreigners and sending them to military prisons. Separated from his parents, Jim wanders through Shanghai until he "surrenders" to the Japanese and finds himself in a squalid, disease-ridden detainment center and eventually in Lunghua camp, his home for the next three years. The book is based on the author's experiences in a Chinese interment camp from 1942 until 1945. Ballard has an incredible talent for articulating Jim's perspective and describing how the protagonist changes from an adventurous boy in a school uniform to an emaciated, resilient, thoughtful (and still adventurous) young man who desperately tries to make sense of the world. In Empire of the Sun, Ballard pointedly recounts the squalor, disease and starvation of the camp just as Jim sees them. While Jim quickly becomes immune to the sight of such things - along with constant the death, murder, and beatings - the reader remains deeply affected. Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects is how Jim comes to rely on the camp because there he can build his own little universe amidst the absurdity of the world. Empire of the Sun is an arresting, shocking, frequently comical book that won't leave the reader unchanged.
38 of 42 people found the following review helpful
A harrowing coming-of-age storyOct. 31 1998
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While captioned a novel, J. G. Ballard's Empire of the Sun is very much a true life memoir. In this book (made into a film by Steven Spielberg), Ballard first tells the life of a boy ("Jim") in pre-Pearl Harbor Shanghai, the privileged young son of an English business executive. When the war begins, Jim and his parents are separated, and Jim survives for weeks on his own, living of the food left in his and his neighbors' abandoned mansions. Most of the book is set in the Lunghua prison camp, where Jim is forced to grow up under circumstances no boy should endure. Finally, the war ends, and he is reunited with his parents under the shadow of nascent Chinese communism. Ballard tells a compelling story, and pulls no punches. Much of what Jim experiences is shocking, and Ballard neither embellishes nor understates Jim's experiences. Flies, death, and decomposition are everywhere, as are avarice and (occasionally) kindness. This is a very different "coming of age" story, but one I thing a high-schooler would enjoy. (Query: Ballard assumes from his reader a fairly good grounding in World War II and cold war history, which I have. I understand that many young people lack such knowledge. Would such young people understand and appreciate Ballard's story and artistry? I don't know). I suspect this book will be read and recommended for many years to come.