The Great Exhibition

John Sutherland

  • Empire of the Sun by J.G. Ballard
    Gollancz, 287 pp, £8.95, September 1984, ISBN 0 575 03483 1
  • Enterprise Red Star by Alexander Bogdanov, translated by Charles Rongle, edited by Loren Graham and Richard Stites
    Indiana, 266 pp, $22.50, June 1984, ISBN 0 253 17350 7
  • Hotel du Lac by Anita Brookner
    Cape, 184 pp, £7.95, September 1984, ISBN 0 224 02238 5
  • Conversations in Another Room by Gabriel Josipovici
    Methuen, 121 pp, £7.95, August 1984, ISBN 0 413 55930 0
  • An Affair on the Appian Way by Michael Levey
    Hamish Hamilton, 219 pp, £8.95, August 1984, ISBN 0 241 11315 6

A prefatory note testifies that Empire of the Sun draws on its author’s observations as a young boy swept up by the Japanese capture of Shanghai, and his subsequent internment in Lunghua airfield camp, outside the city. James Ballard’s narrative, pitched ambiguously between autobiography and fiction, records the lost childhood of a lad variously nicknamed Jim and Jamie. (As far as I can see, the surname is never given – but it’s not hard to supply: J.G. Ballard, incidentally, never uses his Christian name authorially.) We are clearly invited to locate the traumatic source of Ballard’s creativity in an awful primal experience, here relived under artistic discipline.

Jim is first discovered as one of the privileged foreign trading community, living in Shanghai’s concession areas. The empires of Britain and Japan are at war, but Shanghai preserves an artificial cocoon of mercantile neutrality. After Pearl Harbour and all-out hostilities, Jim is split up from his parents and camps out, living on cocktail snacks and soda water in the deserted mansions of the European quarter. He tries without success to give himself up to the Japanese, whom he admires intensely. (His abiding ambition, maintained throughout the hostilities which victimise him, is to become a Japanese combat pilot.) He passes under the wing of a series of more or less exploitative, deranged or uncaring adult guardians. ‘In real war,’ Jim realises, ‘there were no enemies’ – or friends. The camp, death, destruction become madhouse normality for him. Suffering bestows prophetic powers (the maimed seer is a recurring figure in Ballard’s fiction): in visions of terrible incandescence, Jim foresees American firebombing of Japan, the atomic destruction of Nagasaki, and – ultimately – World War Three.

In clinical terms, ‘real’ war fashions Jim into a psychopath. He has no normal ‘human’ responses to what is going on around him: patriotism, nationalism, even fellowship in misery with other prisoners are beyond his power to feel. In this null condition, he does not distinguish between Doctor Ransome, the Brownlow who self-sacrificingly protects him, and the Fagin-like American seaman, Basie, who loots his way through the course of the novel. (Jim first encounters Basie ripping gold teeth from Chinese corpses.) Jim somehow survives internment, death marches and a final bizarre episode with a bandit gang led by the indestructible Basie. Like the five hundred million Chinese, he gets by because he has the advantage of knowing that he has always been half-dead.

The novel is essentially an exercise in the pitiless representation of Jim’s point of view. To borrow Ballard’s favourite metaphor, it is an ‘exhibition’, a series of images caught by Jim’s sharp, innocent eye. Opening and closing scenes are dominated by Shanghai’s ubiquitous cinema screens. Jim’s own experience unrolls, like montages in a strange newsreel: his parents, going to an eve-of-war fancy-dress party dressed as pierrot and pirate, their Packard crunching indifferently over a persistent beggar camped at their gate; three hundred hunchbacks, recruited by the management of the Cathay Theatre for the opening of Laughton’s Hunchback of Notre Dame; children’s coffins launched off Shanghai’s funeral piers, always washed back to the mainland with the flowing tide, unable to leave China. This is the image with which Ballard chooses, significantly, to end his novel. A routine tramride through peacetime Shanghai is a typically violent sideshow:

Outside the tram station in the Avenue Haig the hundreds of passengers were briefly silent as they watched a public beheading. The bodies of a man and woman in quilted peasant clothes, perhaps pickpockets or Kuomintang spies, lay by the boarding platform. The Chinese NCOs wiped their boots as the blood ran into the metal grooves of the steel rails. A tram crowded with passengers approached, its bell forcing the execution party aside. It clanked along, connector rod hissing and throwing sparks from the overhead power line, its front wheels a moist scarlet as if painted for the annual labour union parade.

In one of his many solitary spells, Jim comes across Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass. Its world seems enviably normal compared to his.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in