Category Archives: J. G. Ballard

J. G. Ballard and Lunghua

In my previous post I mentioned that two former internees at the Lunghua Camp (Shanghai) have told me that they (and others they knew) were furious at the representation of the Camp in Ballard’s novel Empire of the Sun. Both felt that Ballard had sensationalised what was a relatively benign experience by inventing horrors that never took place. One had a friend who’d stayed in touch with the Japanese commandant who’d been personally hurt by the novel.
Ballard had always claimed ‘we fictionalize to find the truth’ but I was unable to convince either woman that he’d discovered anything ‘true’ or useful in this recreation of his wartime experiences! In the future I plan to write a proper account of Empire of the Sun (and it’s successor The Kindness of Women) but for the moment, by way of providing a little more light on the issues raised, I’m reprinting below a post I published on another blog soon after hearing news of Ballard’s death on the BBC World Service (I was living in Kunming in SW China at the time). The article in which he says that his childhood in Lunghua was the best time of his life was published in A User’s Guide to the Millennium (1997).
Two years ago I planned a trip to China including a visit to ‘J. G. Ballard’s Shanghai’. The tour never took place but I found this site invaluable in planning it:

Originally at

In Memoriam: J. G. Ballard
Thought for the Day:
The philosopher has to be the bad conscience of his time; for that purpose he must possess its best knowledge.[1]

J. G. Ballard is the second British writer in the last twelve months to have had his death reported on the BBC World Service News (the other was Harold Pinter, and he was a Nobel laureate). He probably owes this honour to Stephen Spielberg, whose film of Ballard’s 1984 book Empire of the Sun jerked someone previously considered a distinguished genre practitioner (he hated being called a ‘science fiction’ writer, but that’s how he was usually described) into the literary mainstream. It also, Ballard himself claimed, made him £500,000 in book sales alone.

I wrote about Ballard’s influence on my own life in my blog of February 3rd, so today I just want to say a few words about his cultural significance.

The obituary in the online Daily Telegraph was excellent,[2] but the sub-editor (I would guess) of this far right British newspaper slipped the description ‘eccentric’ into the headline announcing Ballard’s death from prostate cancer. The Guardian – probably the leading left of centre British newspaper – once allowed a contributor to call him a ‘pervert’, so some such word was to be expected, and ‘eccentric’ is probably the best that could have been hoped for.

Such epithets were the result of Ballard’s ‘obsession’ with things like assassination and car crashes. If Empire of the Sun brought him fame, his 1973 novel Crash brought him notoriety, especially when made into a film by David Cronenberg.

Crash is about a small group of people ‘obsessed’ (Ballard and his novels seem to make almost every writer, including the Telegraph’s obituarist, think of this word) with the eroticism of car accidents.

It’s not a taste I share (to put it mildly), but when you stand back and consider Ballard’s work as a whole in the context of Empire of the Sun’s fictionalization of his childhood in a Japanese internment camp, his real crime becomes clear: Ballard’s novels are structured according to a kind of ‘hidden figure’, a basic proposition that is never made openly but in the light of which his ‘obsession’ (aarrgh!) with characters trapped in various kinds of desolate and threatening world and his penchant for exploring unusual sexual tastes can be seen to make sense.

The proposition is simple: if that happens to you, this is the result –why pretend?

‘That’, in Ballard’s case, is his childhood exposure to the threat of violence and starvation in Lunghua (and in pre-war Shanghai: this is Ballard’s own emphasis – ‘a large part of my fiction has been an attempt to evoke it {Shanghai}by means other than memory’ – Miracles of Life, 7). ‘This’ is his fictional monomania (there – I avoided ‘obsession’ that time) and his, erm, unusual sexual emphases. All through his literary career, Ballard felt impelled to draft scenarios which recreated in strikingly fictionalized forms his childhood confinement and the ever present possibility of pain and death. Somehow aspects of that situation had become sexualized, and it was his honesty in recording some of the forms taken by the traumatized libido that earned him a reputation for eccentricity and perversity.

Unfortunately, Ballard could not remain uninfluenced by the furore surrounding Crash (and the 1970 collection The Atrocity Exhibition). In a preface to a later edition of the novel he claimed it was a warning against the attitudes and concerns of the characters. I don’t believe this, but I can see why he wanted to get people off his back. Not only was Ballard (in my view) externalising with inexorable honesty the workings of his psyche, he was inviting others to agree that, yes, they too found the images that it produced compelling.

Such honesty and such unwelcome resonance is not easily forgiven. One of the most important British ideologies of the immediate post-war years was, ‘Back to normal after the war’. This is part of the reason for the huge success of the otherwise rather undistinguished David Lean film Brief Encounter (1945): the ending of the romance between the two main characters and the woman’s return to her (admittedly boring) husband represents both an acceptance that, under the conditions of war, illicit relationships occurred but that now was time for them to come to an end and be discretely forgotten. This process was seen as both example and symbol of a wider return to a ‘normality’ made possible by deliberate amnesia about what had just taken place.

The dominant sectors of British culture spent the next 30 years and more trying to act as if the horrors of World War 11 had ended with the German and Japanese surrenders, desperately seeking to turn their eyes and minds away from what Anne Karpf has called ‘the war after’. It was this ‘war after’ that Ballard described in the sequel to Empire of the Sun, an equally fine novel called The Kindness of Women (1991), in which ‘Jim’ (the boy protagonist of Empire, and a character that only the most obstinate believer in the ‘death of the author’ would deny was in some ways a surrogate for James Ballard) returns to the apparent security and prosperity of post-war England.

And here is another marker of Ballard’s understanding of human psychology (he studied psychiatry for a couple of years, but I doubt he learnt much from that): it’s easy – and correct as far as it goes – to see his endless attempts to ‘write Lunghua’ as a Freudian ‘return’ to the site of trauma in the hope of finally mastering it. But, as Ballard understood, there’s more to it than that: he tells us that he found England ‘gray’ after China, and the word is obviously meant both literally and metaphorically.Jim welcomes the atomic bomb, as somehow he sees it as a way of recreating the quality of light he saw during his imprisonment close to Shanghai. Ballard understood something I saw (with his help) in the lives of my own parents: the fate of the experience of war in the minds of the traumatised depends on the nature of the succeeding peace, and few of the people who fought ever found anything as challenging or satisfying in the welfare state, full employment England of the fifties and sixties. To put it bluntly, violence, even to the extreme of nuclear annihilation is sought as a relief from the boredom of the long economic boom of the post-war years. The experience of war is clung to because it represents a more humanly satisfying past, and points to a possible future escape. Ballard actually did say, in an article about his return to Lunghua, that those years were the best of his life.

The Holocaust, the POW camps on the death railway, and other places of extreme horror, should not be thought about in the way I’m describing. In such cases, the post-war effects of the trajectory did not depend in the same way on the nature of life in peacetime. I do not feel qualified or worthy to write about such experiences, so I shall leave them to others.

But Lunghua was a relatively benign place: I once interviewed a fellow internee who was so disgusted by Ballard’s fictionalization that she only spoke to me on the condition that I never linked her name and Ballard’s in public, not even to say ‘X completely disagrees with Ballard’s account’. She told me that her own novel of Lunghua life had been rejected by the publishers (who had accepted a previous work on her life in China) because, in their view, nothing happened in it, and she refused to invent the kind of violent incidents they were looking for.

I think Empire of the Sun was meant to be an elegy for all the dead of the war, so Ballard was justified in taking terrible events from other places and locating them in Lunghua, and in focusing on the horrors that did occur in or close to the Camp (see Miracles of Life, 95 and 106-107). But neither my interviewee nor the other ex-internee with whom I’ve discussed this issue agree with me, and I was told that Hyashi, the civilized and humane (by all accounts including Ballard’s) Japanese man who ran the Camp for most of the war, was deeply hurt by the novel.

Ballard never provided formal analyses of the effects of traumatic experience on the consciousness; he wrote fiction (although his penultimate work was an autobiography) and most of this does not deal explicitly with his experiences in WW11 and the way they affected his life in the post-war years. But in my view no-one has shed more light on what happened to some human minds during that war and on the way these psychic events dominated (I don’t think that’s too strong a word) the years that followed. At his best –as in Empire of the Sun and The Kindness of Women – he was a master of English prose. I wouldn’t be surprised if he turns out to have been the best post-war British novelist. At the very least, he earned the title ‘philosopher’, as defined by Nietzsche in today’s Thought. No wonder the British establishment considers him an eccentric pervert.


[1] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Case of Wagner.


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