J.G. Ballard’s vision of modern war

After Anthony Burgess praised it, I picked up J. G. Ballard’s novel The Unlimited Dream Company and gave it a go but never finished it. I simply didn’t connect with what appeared to be a book-length dream sequence. I could tell Ballard possessed enormous talent, a fascination with technology (airplanes in particular) and a sharp understanding of human psychology, but there wasn’t enough character development for this realist.

Empire of the Sun was Ballard’s genre-breaking novel, making him known beyond the aficionados of speculative and science fiction. Steven Spielberg’s movie adaptation only brought Ballard wider fame—and well deserved it was. This “autobiographical” novel did what the earlier book failed to do: ground the author’s vivid imagination with personal experience to render a unique perspective on an historical moment.

The book is about a boy’s experiences in a Japanese detention camp outside Shanghai during World War II. Yes, Ballard lived that experience, but this book is more than thinly veiled autobiography. First, Ballard was not separated from his parents for the duration of the war. Second, it’s unlikely he saw many of the things his main character, eleven-year-old Jim, sees. But isn’t this where a novelist’s imagination comes into play?

With an unflinching eye, Ballard confronts human brutality at its worst while reminding us of the impressionable innocence of the young. In Jim we have a child who feels a strong attraction to the means of destruction—airplanes and atomic bombs—because they are all he knows. Surrounded by starvation and death, the meaning of death troubles and confuses Jim. He wonders when the soul leaves the body and worries if he is dead or alive.

“‘Mrs. Phillips, I’ve thought about the war.’ Jim rolled over in the grass. He was about to explain to Mrs. Phillips that she was dead, but the old missionary was asleep… ‘Mrs. Phillips, we mustn’t worry any more…’”

“He was bare-chested, and his emaciated ribs were like a bird cage in which Jim could almost see his heart fluttering.”

“To Jim it seemed that the two missionary women on the floor were now barely alive, with blanched lips and eyes like those of poisoned mice.”

Such finely wrought images about death and dying occur throughout the book, and none is more powerful than the ending one, which also becomes a metaphor for the loss of youth and the life of memory. Through Jim’s experienced yet innocent eyes, the terror of death becomes more graphic, more believable while remaining unbelievable.

Reading Empire of the Sun, I was reminded of Jerzy Kozinski’s The Painted Bird. Told from a child’s perspective with a child’s eye for the magical, the two books might be bookends. Both describe with precise, almost morbid, fascination the cruelties of war, and each dramatizes the depravity that war engenders. These two authors, children of the same war, ask the same question: Does war cause the depravity or does an innate depravity cause war? Based on their fine novels, they seem to have arrived at the same dark answer.

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