J. G. Ballard's largely-autobiographical Empire of the Sun tells of years spent by a young boy ("Jim", age ~10-15) in Shanghai, China, 1941-46—separated from parents, roving, lost, scrounging, then interned in a Japanese prison camp until the collapse of the occupying forces at the end of WWII. Like Z. A. Melzak's In Search of the Fulcrum and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipelago, this is a powerful book that raises one's awareness of the fragility of modern society. It's a reminder of the wealth of simple things—food, shelter, friendship—that most of us are lucky enough to take for granted most of the time. It's also a triumphant story of human strength and survival.

Best of all, Ballard's use of metaphor and imagery throughout Empire of the Sun is startlingly poetic. Some examples that I want to remember:

from Chapter 2, "Beggars and Acrobats":

... Jim admired Mr. Maxted, an architect turned entrepreneur who had designed the Metropole Theater and numerous Shanghai nightclubs. Jim often tried to imitate his raffish manner but soon found that being so relaxed was exhausting work. Jim had little idea of his own future—life in Shanghai was lived wholly within an intense present—but he imagined himself growing up to be like Mr. Maxted. ...

from Chapter 4, "The Attack on the Petrel":

The light advanced across the river, picking out the paper flowers that covered its back, like garlands, discarded by the admirers of these sailors. Every night in Shanghai those Chinese too poor to pay for the burial of their relatives would launch the bodies from the funeral piers in Nantao, decking the coffins with paper flowers. Carried away on one tide, they came back on the next, returning to the waterfront of Shanghai with all the other debris abandoned by the city. Meadows of paper flowers drifted on the running tide and clumped in miniature floating gardens around the old men and women, the young mothers and small children, whose swollen bodies seemed to have been fed during the night by the patient Yangtze.

from Chapter 7, "The Drained Swimming Pool":

On the fourth morning, when he came down to breakfast, Jim found that he had forgotten to turn off a kitchen tap and all the water had flowed from the storage tank. The pantry was amply stocked with siphons of soda water, but by now Jim had accepted that his mother and father would not be coming home. Jim stared through the veranda windows at the overgrown garden. It was not that war changed everything—in fact, Jim thrived on change—but that it left things the same in odd and unsettling ways. Even the house seemed somber, as if it were withdrawing from him in a series of small and unfriendly acts.

from Chapter 11, "Frank and Basie":

Jim finished his stew and sat back contentedly against the metal wall. He could remember none of his meals before the war and every one of them since. It annoyed him to think of all the food in his life that he had turned away, and the elaborate stratagems which Vera and his mother had devised to persuade him to finish his pudding. He noticed that Frank was staring at a few grains he had left in the spoon and quickly licked it clean. ...

from Chapter 16, "The Water Ration":

Jim fidgeted in his seat as the sun pricked his skin. He could see the smallest detail of everything around him: the flakes of rust on the railway lines, the sawteeth of the nettles beside the truck, the white soil bearing the imprint of its worn tires. Jim counted the blue bristles around the lips of the Japanese soldier guarding them and the globes of mucus which this bored sentry sucked in and out of his nostrils. Jim watched the damp stain spreading around the buttocks of one of the missionary women on the floor, and the flames that fingered the cooking pot on the station platform, reflected in the polished breeches of the stacked rifles.

from Chapter 17, "A Landscape of Airfields":

Jim lay on the soft sawdust with its soothing scent of pine. Through the open doors of the timber store he watched the navigation lights of the Japanese aircraft crossing the night. After a few minutes Jim was forced to admit that he could recognize none of the constellations. Like everything else since the war, the sky was in a state of change. For all their movement, the Japanese aircraft were its only fixed points, a second zodiac above the broken land.

from Chapter 21, "The Cubicle":

With his finger Jim stroked the turtle's ancient head. It seemed a pity to cook it—Jim envied the turtle its massive shell, a private fortress against the world. From below his bunk Jim pulled out a wooden box, which Dr. Ransome had helped him to nail together. Inside were his possessions: a Japanese cap badge given to him by Private Kimura; three steel-bossed fighting tops; a chess set and a copy of Kennedy's Latin primer on indefinite loan from Dr. Ransome; his Cathedral School blazer, a carefully folded memory of his young self; and the pair of clogs he had worn for the past three years.

from Chapter 23, "The Air Raid":

Jim opened his Latin primer and began the homework that Dr. Ransome had set him: the entire passive tenses of the verb amo. Jim enjoyed Latin; in many ways its strict formality and its families of nouns and verbs resembled the science of chemistry, his father's favorite subject. The Japanese had closed the camp school, as a cunning reprisal against the parents, who were trapped all day with their offspring, but Dr. Ransome still set Jim a wide range of tasks. There were poems to memorize, simultaneous equations to be solved, general science (where, thanks to his father, Jim often had a surprise for Dr. Ransome) and French, which he loathed. There seemed a remarkable amount of schoolwork, Jim reflected, bearing in mind that the war was about to end. But perhaps this was Dr. Ransome's way of keeping him quiet for an hour each day. In a sense, too, the homework helped Dr. Ransome to sustain the illusion that even in Lunghua Camp the values of a vanished England still survived. Misguided though this was, Jim was keen to help Dr. Ransome in any way.

from Chapter 25, "The Cemetery Garden":

Hands in pockets, Jim sauntered down the cinder track behind the hospital. He surveyed the rows of tomatoes, beans and melons in the kitchen garden. The modest crop was meant to supplement the patients' meager diet, though many of the vegetables found their way to the American seamen in E Block. Jim enjoyed his work with the plants. He knew each of them personally and could tell at a glance if the children had stolen a single tomato. Fortunately the long lines of graves in the adjacent cemetery kept them away. Apart from its nutritional benefits, botany was an intriguing subject. In the dispensary Dr. Ransome sliced and stained the slivers of plant stems and roots, mounted them under Dr. Bowen's microscope and made Jim draw the hundreds of cells and nutrient vessels. Plant classification was an entire universe of words; every weed in the camp had a name. Names surrounded everything; invisible encyclopedias lay in every hedge and ditch.

from Chapter 30, "The Olympic Stadium":

... Jim looked down at the powdery dust that covered his legs and shoes, like the undertaker's talc blown onto the bones of a Chinese skeleton before its reburial, and knew that it was time to move on.

By the late afternoon this layer of dust on Jim's legs and arms began to glow with light. The sun fell toward the Shanghai hills, and the flooded paddy fields became a liquid chessboard of illuminated squares, a war table on which were placed crashed aircraft and abandoned tanks. Lit by the sunset, the prisoners stood on the embankment of the railway line that ran to the warehouses at Nantao, like a party of film extras under the studio spotlights. Around them the creeks and lagoons were filled with saffron water, the conduits of a perfume factory blocked by dead mules and buffaloes drowned in its scents.

from Chapter 32, "The Eurasian":

A restful sunlight warmed the stadium. From the cloudless sky fell a squall of hail, a flurry of frozen vapor dislodged from the wings of an American aircraft three miles above the Yangtze valley. Lit by the sun, the crystals fell onto the football field like a shower of Christmas decorations.

Jim sat up and touched the hailstones, nuggets of white gold scattered on the grass. Beside him, Mr. Maxted's body was dressed in a suit of lights, his ashen face speckled with miniature rainbows. But within a few seconds the hail had melted into the ground. Jim listened for the aircraft, hoping that it might launch another cascade of hail, but the sky was empty from horizon to horizon. A few of the prisoners in the stadium knelt on the grass, eating the hail and talking to each other across the bodies of their dead companions.

(cf. SingleDigitRun (15 Jan 2004), InSearchOfTheFulcrum (19 Mar 2004), LongWalk (31 May 2004), ...)

TopicLiterature - TopicLanguage - TopicSociety - 2005-08-08

(correlates: PlanWorkLearn, Hot and Sour, SmallIdeas, ...)