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Old 29th Apr 2005, 11:37   #1
Mike
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Default JG Ballard: Empire of the Sun

This is a superbly written, engaging and thought-provoking novel that had the (mis) fortune to be made into a film of the same name. That however is where the similarity ends, the film baring little relation to book other than it concerns a young lad in Shanghai during the Japanese occupation. I was led to read the book after reading reviews of it on the Internet, the film I didn’t enjoy. How glad I was to find the reviews were quite right – a superb book, moving and interesting. Short-listed for the 1984 Booker but missing out on the prize due to the quixotic nature of the Booker panel to Anita Brookner’s Hotel du Lac. Grimly realistic, the author draws on his own unique experience of civilian internment at the hands of the pointlessly sadistic Japanese. Life in the surreal world of pre war Shanghai and the international settlement is painted in vivid descriptive passages, the poverty of the Chinese and the squalor of downtown Shanghai with its refugees fleeing the war between Japan and China that has been going on since the early 30’s. The film of the same name makes the main character the young school boy Jim a precocious unpleasant boy whereas the novel has young Jim as a confused but caring young boy tying to make sense of the dreadful scenes around him.

In war human nature undergoes a retrograde step, men and women become base animals intent only on survival. To say otherwise is to gloss over the reality of what happened to civilians caught up in the Japanese war of conquest in Asia. The well-known brutality and sadistic nature of the Japanese coupled with their contempt for any non-Japanese made for truly horrific crimes and these are brought to us through the eyes of young Jim who can barely comprehend the changing world around him. He draws for himself a comprehensive coping mechanism of a make believe world and set of values. These aid his survival in the awful dog eat dog world of the prison camp. The adults around him, far from helping him are too engrossed in their own personal nightmares of survival so he is an incredibly lonely boy in his naivety. The grim struggle for food, always with the ever-present risk of death from disease or the whim of sadistic guards doesn’t end even with the end of the war as China descends almost to anarchy as bandit gangs roam the countryside and poor Jims hopes for the war and future in his tortured mind become almost impossible for him to comprehend. Awesome in its scope the narrative really comes to grip with the base of human nature yet the gripping story of survival in the face of almost insurmountable odds does lift the spirit and the story is never melancholic. A must read for all I would say, a classic almost forgotten not helped by Hollywood in my opinion. A novel set anywhere in WW2 risks becoming stereotypical or simply restating commonly held beliefs about what actually happened. Reading as I have many WW2 auto, biographies and histories I look for extremely high standards with special regards to the Holocaust and the Japanese atrocities in Asia – this fulfilled over and above what I thought could be brought to a novel. I recommend this to everyone wholeheartedly.
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Old 29th Apr 2005, 11:57   #2
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Glad you enjoyed this. I personally found it extremely moving and it remains one of my favourite books. Not only was it fascinating from a historical point of view, I also found the depiction of the boy and his means of coping in a terrifying world to be spot on. Brilliant.
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Old 29th Apr 2005, 12:07   #3
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Should have won the Booker IMHO. I don't think the film did it any favours at all . I wonder how mant are put off reading this by the film - I was until I read all the good reviews.

Its especially good and topical too at the moment as Japan yet again tries to hide its past from its children by re writing the history books . The crimes of the Japanese nation in China and Korea will never be forgotten in those countries - the 3 million plus who were murdered in the rape of nanking alone stand testimony to that.
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Old 29th Apr 2005, 12:07   #4
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I really must read this. I have started to read a bit of Ballard over the last couple of years so there's no excuse really as it's his most famous book. My main, feeble I know but it's true, objection is the crappy cover, though at least it makes a pretty picture with the sequel, The Kindness of Women.

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Old 29th Apr 2005, 12:22   #5
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I didn't really enjoy The Kindness of Women. I can't remember much about it other than it seemed to meander rather pointlessly.
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Old 29th Apr 2005, 12:41   #6
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I'd read it as a stand alone novel - I've read reviews of Kindness and it doesn't grab me. If I saw it for 50p like this one I'd try it but I wouldn't go out of my way to find it.
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