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J G Ballard

Arguably the strangest writer to be included in this series is J G Ballard, sometimes described as a writer of science fiction, though his work hardly fits into that genre. In fact his best known book, The Empire of the Sun, is a traditional novel, based on a seminal episode in his own life, when he spent a couple of years in a Japanese internment camp. This was in Shanghai, where his parents had been working before the Second World War.

It has been argued that the oppression Ballard experienced as a child during this period – he was 13 in 1943, when the Japanese took over the International Settlement in Shanghai, which had hitherto thought it was sacrosanct – contributed to the violence that is endemic to his work. He himself however said that, though there was brutality, the children also had fun. Certainly that book seems to me the least dark of the novels of Ballard that I have read.

In presenting the whole experience emphatically through the eyes of a child, and indeed removing his parents from the action for most of it, Ballard conveys also a sense of the innocence that governs responses to the violence and suffering that have to be endured. There is also a wonderfully human element in the boy’s relationship with the Japanese soldier who responds as the youth he still is to the demands of the youngsters he is supposed to control. The description of his dead body, when finally the camp is liberated, is dispassionate, but also moving in its reminder of the random destructiveness of war.

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Rajiva Wijesinha

January 2011
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