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Empire of the Sun (1984)

Author: • Sep 16th, 2006 •

Category: bibliography, media landscape, Shanghai, Steven Spielberg, surrealism, WWII

Ballardian: Empire of the Sun

OPENING LINE:
“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.”

There’s not much left to say about the autobiographical Empire, perhaps Ballard’s most popular book and the work that catapulted him into some semblance of mainstream recognition. Since it was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, and filmed by Steven Spielberg, it seems that every journalist who has interviewed Ballard must ask him about his childhood in Shanghai.

From the Grafton 1985 edition:

“He is separated from his parents in a world at war. He must find a strength greater than all the events that surround him… In Empire of the Sun J.G. Ballard has produced a mesmerizing, hypnotically compelling novel of war, of starvation and survival, of internment camps and death marches, which blends searing honesty with an almost hallucinatory vision of a world thrown utterly out of joint. Rooted as it is in the author’s own disturbing experience of war in our time, it is one of a handful of novels by which the Twentieth Century will be not only remembered but judged.”

Searing .. brilliant … an incredible literary achievement and almost intolerably moving.”
Anthony Burgess

“The best British novel about the Second World War.”
The Guardian

Read Ballard’s account of the book’s collision with Spielberg:

During the 1960s, the Shanghai of my childhood seemed a portent of the media cities of the future, dominated by advertising and mass circulation newspapers and swept by unpredictable violence. But how could I raise this Titanic of memories? Brought up from the sea bed, the golden memory hoard could turn out to be dross. Besides, there are things that the novel can’t easily handle. I could manage my changing relations with my parents, my 13-year-old’s infatuation with the war, and the sudden irruption into our lives of American air power. But how do you convey the casual surrealism of war, the deep silence of abandoned villages and paddy fields, the strange normality of a dead Japanese soldier lying by the road like an unwanted piece of luggage?

I waited 40 years before giving it a go, one of the longest periods a professional writer has put off describing the most formative events in his life. Twenty years to forget, and then 20 years to remember. There was always the possibility that my memories of the war concealed a deeper stratum of unease that I preferred not to face. But at least my three children had grown up, and as I wrote the book I would never have to think of them sharing the war with my younger self.”

J.G. Ballard. ‘Look Back at Empire’.

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