Empire of the Sun-J.G. Ballard
"Shanghai, 1941 -- a city aflame from the fateful torch of Pearl Harbor. In streets full of chaos and corpses, a young British boy searches in vain for his parents. Imprisoned in a Japanese concentration camp, he is witness to the fierce white flash of Nagasaki, as the bomb bellows the end of the war...and the dawn of a blighted world. Ballard's enduring novel of war and deprivation, internment camps and death marches, and starvation and survival is an honest coming-of-age tale set in a world thrown utterly out of joint."
I had read Drowned World after being recommended Ballard as an adult British dystopia writer and been like, "meh". When I mentioned it to this man in the pub, he immediately told me I'd done it all wrong. He then proceeded to pull Empire of the Sun out of his bag, his card, and told me to borrow his book.
How could I not read it after that? This is a book that gets lent out to a stranger because it's that good!
I swear it gave me nightmares (though I did read it on the heels of a different war book).
This book gives you just enough of a glimpse pre-war luxury for Jim before plunging you into the horrifying chaos of war-torn Shanghai. Surreal and harrowing is often the tone of the day here. There's no biases or commentary here just description. He loves airplanes and sees no future other than war so reasons that a pilot, a kamikaze pilot, might be a good career path. Indeed as a child of war, Jim adapts so thoroughly that he cannot imagine a life without concentration camps and disease. That's right, disease, death, selfishness, and brutality are normal for him. He prefers the camp to the forced labor that we hear about only because he's thinking about the bones of the dead Chinese laborers he worked alongside that got mixed into the asphalt to make the runway and how he doesn't want to go back to that. And the tone throughout is so matter of fact in this surreal way that just heightens, for me sitting in bed, the horrific reality of the war.
I'm sorry, was that paragraph jumbled? It's just that Ballard manages to make Jim both really world-weary and childlike in a stunted way at the same time. It's pitch-perfect really and so when Jim judges adults for not just dealing with the war happening you see his point but at the same time you see the doctor's point when he tries to teach Jim about a life with sanitation and wants more for Jim than just survival. When the Japanese are losing, Jim goes on a death march and that's when the novel truly becomes surreal and it's mostly because Jim's not sure he's alive. He's 14 years old and the war's been four years long and he lies in a stadium full of dead bodies overnight because he's not sure he's alive. And then suddenly the war's over and the world is fragile and the chaos continues and he's still so confused about everything.
"now that the search had ended he felt saddened by the memory of all he had been through, and of how much he had changed. He was closer now to the ruined battlefields and this fly-infested truck, to the nine sweet potatoes in the sack below the driver's seat, even in a sense to the detention center, than he would ever be again to his house in Amherst Avenue.”
Oh Ballard, you broke my heart. Since this is semi-autobiographical based on his own childhood experiences I can now understand why his view of humanity seems so bleak. I can't help but wonder how Ballard coped with that post-war shambles.
EDIT: Turns out there's a sequel. Gonna have to read that now.