Monday 19 November 2018

Ballard's cheerful optimism shines through memoir

Life in a Japanese internment camp offers fascinating insight into the SF writer's mind, writes Ronan Farren EMPIRE OF THE SUN: Spielberg's film is based on Ballard's experiences in a Japanese internment camp outside Shanghai

Ronan Farren

Miracles of Life: An Autobiography

JG Ballard

Fourth Estate, €21.44

ADMIRERS of JG Ballard's 1984 novel Empire of the Sun (filmed with panache by Steven Spielberg) will be intrigued by the insight into the mind of the novelist offered by this amiable volume of autobiography. In the novel, Jim is about seven years old and living with his parents and many servants in Shanghai's International Settlement -- an oasis for well-off European business people -- when the Japanese launch their invasion of China in 1937.

He observes, from this fragile island of neutrality, the changes brought by the Japanese, the chaos, poverty and confusion, sometimes the brutality. But life goes on in the homes of the wealthy until the 1941 bombing of Pearl Harbour and the sinking of British and American warships in the Yangtze River. Now the Europeans are enemies of Japan and young Jim, separated from his parents, is taken to Lunghua internment camp, five miles outside Shanghai, where he will spend the next four years in the company of mainly British and American internees.

The novel largely follows the facts of Ballard's boyhood and early teens, with the important difference that his parents and his younger sister, who were in the camp too, are written out of the novel. The fictionalised Jim is shown as street-wise, resourceful and living on his wits, without the parental constraints.

In Miracles of Life Ballard says he has little memory of adult life in the camp: he wandered around, largely ignoring the grown-ups as he entered his teenage years and the novel is told from the teenage viewpoint. His father, he writes, was gregarious, but his mother "made few friends in G Block and seemed to spend most of her time reading ... " He adds: "I have very few memories of her in the camp. And none of my sister."

Apart from that, the novel seems to have followed the facts fairly closely. Many of Ballard's recollections in Miracles of Life are pleasant: borrowing magazines from the interned Americans whom he found more friendly than his fellow British, and chatting to the teenage girls. There were moments of horror too. After the official Japanese surrender, ignored by many soldiers, he saw two guards in the camp beating and kicking to death a Chinese rickshaw driver who had brought them from Shanghai.

"As the desperate man sobbed on his knees the Japanese first kicked his rickshaw to pieces ... and then began to beat and kick the Chinese until he lay in a still and bloody pulp on the ground." None of the watching internees spoke: to intervene would have meant instant and fearsome reprisals.

Ballard's attributes the vicious cruelty he observed to the Japanese soldiers' fatalism and extreme patriotism and their unconscious assumption that they had already died in battle and the apparent life left to them "was on a very short lease". Not too farfetched a view when one considers the mindset, inexplicable to Europeans, of the kamikaze pilots.

After the Japanese surrender, with uncertainty about the war everywhere, Ballard decided to leave the camp and walk to Shanghai to see his old home. Coming to a railway halt he observed a number of fully armed Japanese soldiers, one of whom had cut down lengths of telephone wire with which he had tied a young Chinese man to a telegraph pole. He was slowly strangling him "as the Chinese sang out in a sing-song voice."

The soldier interrupted his grisly torture to ask Ballard for the transparent celluloid belt that held up his cotton shorts. Ballard handed him the belt and the soldier held it up to his eyes and grinned through it, before turning back to finish off the young Chinese.

Before the invasion Shanghai had been a booming city, with five million Chinese and some 50,000 Europeans, a garish, noisy playground, the Paris of the Orient and "the wickedest city in the world." There was a huge contrast between the way of life of the cushioned rich, with their servants and Buicks and endless gin and tonics, and the extreme poverty the young Ballard observed as he cycled around the city. The clubs and bars and brothels flourished in the gaudy nights and in the mornings the municipal council trucks roamed the streets collecting the hundreds of bodies of destitute Chinese who had starved to death on the pavements.

Ballard, in 15 years in Shanghai, never learned a word of Chinese and never had a Chinese meal; the family lived on roast beef and lamb, American waffles and syrup. They knew nothing of local history or culture. Ballard remembers the "unbelievably heavy drinking" that went on at all hours of the day, the pantry in the house "like a medium-sized off-licence" and friends of his parents who remained quietly drunk all day.

With his mother and sister Ballard sailed for England in late 1945 while his father stayed on in Shanghai. The landing at Southampton, his first sight of England, was a severe shock. He wrote: "Small, putty-faced people moved around, shabbily dressed and with a haunted air". Everything was rationed, the whole nation depressed. The country seemed "derelict, dark and half-ruined."

Perhaps inevitably, the second half of this entertaining memoir is less dramatic than Ballard's vivid account of his disturbed boyhood. Boarding school -- "the Leys reminded me of Lunghua Camp, though the food was worse" -- was within walking distance of the centre of Cambridge and he got to know the bookshops and cinemas there. English life was still infinitely strange to him and even reading Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, George Orwell and Aldous Huxley failed to throw much light on the mystery.

He briefly studied medicine at Cambridge -- unlike some of his fellow students who dropped out at the first sight of the greenish-yellow cadavers in the dissecting room, he already had a sad familiarity with corpses -- but was already writing. The ethos of King's College was openly homosexual and Ballard in bringing in girlfriends, mainly nurses, "was viewed as letting the side down, as well as having made a curious choice in the first place."

Ballard writes affectingly of his marriage: his wife died young and he brought up their two daughters and a son alone -- they are the miracles of life of the title. As Ballard enthusiasts know, much of his writing, consisting of some 30 books in all, is science fiction, a genre for which he makes claims some might find extravagant. Writing of the 1960s, when his stories began to appear in SF magazines, he says: "I thought then, and still think, that in many ways science fiction was the true literature of the 20th century, with a vast influence on film, television, advertising and consumer design." A notion that might surprise some admirers of the literature of our time.

Ballard tended to avoid fellow writers, with the exceptions of Michael Moorcock and a few others. He was friendly with Kingsley Amis and shared boozy lunches with him in Soho: "The food ... was little more than an appetiser for the real sustenance in the form of numerous bottles of claret." But he saw Amis's decline too, into heavier and heavier drinking and more hates, like Americans, Jews, the French and Hippies. He recalls Amis looking out a top window of the Café Royal as a protest march passed below. "Amis began to tremble ... 'Jim what are they? What are they?' He was almost speechless as he surveyed the column of cheerful young people with their anti-nuclear banners."

Ballard's memoir is unpretentious, cheerful and, in an odd way, optimistic. A warm and likeable book.

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