Sunday, 7 June 2009

The other World War 2

There are a small number of science fiction writers who are able to combine a genre career with a more respectable one in conventional or literary fiction. Iain M. Banks is one who features semi-regularly in this blog, but another is the fellow British novelist J.G. Ballard, whose most famous work is probably the fictionalised wartime memoir, Empire of the Sun. His recent death bumped him to the top of the reading list of one of C's book groups, and from there onto my pile of books to read.

The novel tells the story of James Graham (actually Ballard's forenames), or Jim, a 12 year old boy living with his British parents in early 1940s Shanghai, and begins just before Pearl Harbour and Imperial Japan's declaration of war on the United States and its World War 2 allies. At this time, China is at war with Japan, but the European colonial powers who also wield power over the country from the Shanghai International Settlement already live in a strange equilibrium both with each other (German colonists living alongside British ones) and with the invading Japanese. Jim finds himself drawn towards the seemingly noble Japanese soldiers who, with their modern machines and strong discipline, are much more impressive than the complaining colonists from Britain, a distant and alien land that Jim has never visited. This uneasy equilibrium is shattered when the Japanese enter World War 2 on the side of the Axis powers. In the resulting confusion, Jim becomes separated from his parents, and finds himself living alone in the abandoned European districts of Shanghai. Later, as he explores the surrounding area while trying to surrender to Japanese soldiers, he encounters two fugative American merchant seamen, Basie and Frank. They form a strange bond, but are separated when Jim is finally captured and interned in the Lunghua Civilian Assembly Center. However, this is a different camp from that in which his parents are being held, and the solitary Jim must adapt to the camp's deprivations and insular culture. But Jim is nothing if not a survivor, and is quick to make himself useful to the other camp inmates and again to Basie, who also washes up in the American sector of the camp. In the camp, Jim also forges a bond with a do-gooding doctor, Ransome, and, as a de facto orphan, is billeted with the Vincents, a family with whom he only manages semi-cordial relations. As the war drags on and it becomes clear that Japan is set to lose, food and other rationed goods gradually dry up, and many of the camp's inmates succumb to starvation and disease. When Jim sees the flash of the atomic bomb at Nagasaki, the war appears over, but further uncertainty seems the major outcome. The camp prisoners are abandoned by the incoherently retreating Japanese to die in a sports stadium, while the surrounding territory becomes chaotically dangerous, roamed by opportunistic bandits, including Basie, and the rising Chinese communists. Eventually, after surviving much peril in this almost hallucinogenic aftermath, Jim is rescued by Ransome and reunited with his war-shocked parents.

It would be difficult to say that this was an enjoyable read. Not because of quality - it's clearly very good - but because it tells an extremely bleak tale set against the horrifying backdrop of life in the Japanese camps. The conditions are not those of the extermination camps on the other side of the world in Europe: while brutalised and shockingly neglected, the prisoners are not actively killed. Instead, the camp functions, intentionally or otherwise, to gradually "grind-down" its prisoners, working systematically through the old and sick to finally reach the formerly young and healthy. But Ballard doesn't shy away from depicting this decline, and frequently describes what are quite gristly scenes of death and decay.

Aside from these morbid descriptions, Ballard's prose is at times beautifully surreal, and paints the world using a palette that draws heavily from the dreamlike and hallucinogenic (if I can get all pretentious about it). His language turns quite mundane scenes into things of wonder as seen by Jim. As the novel draws on, and the deprivations affecting Jim become more severe, this style of writing is used to convey Jim's disconnection from the world as starvation gradually leeches awareness from him. He becomes more and more focused on the immediate, less capable of making sensible judgements and almost begins to believe that World War 3 has already started. Admirable, if alarming, writing.

There are a couple of odd features of the book, however. Structurally, it focuses on a few relatively short periods of Jim's war. Large chunks of the novel are devoted to his pre-camp existence and the final few months of the war, while the intervening years in the camp are completely omitted. It does keep the reader focused on certain interesting events, but it almost feels like there's a chunk missing, where Jim gradually assimilates into the camp. To be fair, it probably wouldn't have been all that interesting, but the flash-forward (which swallows up several years) is a bit jarring. Similarly, while Jim's parents are not important characters in the book, their appearance at the end of the novel is circumspect in the extreme. The final chapter itself is altogether too short, with the reader propelled from Jim-in-peril to Jim-on-the-boat-to-England in just a few pages. A bit more of a wind-down with some perspective thrown in might have been helpful. Or perhaps I'm just getting to pedestrian in my plotting requirements?

Something I found very interesting is that while the novel focuses on the plight of the European internees who are gradually succumbing to the poor treatment meted out to them, all around them the indigenous Chinese are being treated far more summarily and fatally by the Japanese. For all of the inhumanity in starving the prisoners, the routine, arbitrary and frequently grotesque executions of Chinese citizens is much more shocking. Jim, however, seems less fazed by this, and I read this attitude as Ballard communicating the disregard felt by the European colonists towards the suppressed indigenous population. Jim, of course, is innocent in this, since he is merely mirroring the attitudes that he has inherited from fellow colonists during his young life. But the self-interest and lack of concern shown by the Europeans towards the local inhabitants is revealing. While not as upfront or polemic about western interference as Kingsolver, Ballard illustrates its callous racism in the subtext here.

Overall, aside from its literary merits, the novel functions, for me at least, as a helpful corrective to our common perceptions of World War 2. In this arena, the Europeans were comprehensively defeated, and utterly relied on the Americans to save them. And since the Europeans depicted are already colonists in China, the modern reader can't see them as unambiguously morally superior and the heroes of this WW2 story. Jim certainly doesn't see them this way, and his experiences make him much more admiring of the Japanese and the Americans who ultimately defeat them. Living in Europe, it's very easy to see WW2 as a European story, and Hollywood has certainly obliged, but this novel is painted in another portion of the canvas, and creates a much less flattering, but more accurate, portrait of the Old World and its dark, colonial underbelly. The events described in the novel pre-empt the end of European colonialism throughout the world, but its moral implausibility is illustrated and one almost welcomes the rot as it sets in.

As noted above, the novel is a fictionalisation of Ballard's own wartime experiences. In this edition's endnotes, Ballard expands a little on his personal war, and explains the differences between himself and the novel's Jim. Chief among these is Jim's separation from his parents. Ballard explains that while he remained with his parents during the war, the nature of life in the internment camp was such that he and his parents led largely separate lives anyway. Dramatically, the novel is certainly a lot more successful with Jim as an "orphan", but Ballard's own war, living alongside his parents but drifting away from them, sounds like an interesting story too.

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