"There are 10^11 stars in the galaxy. That used to be a huge number. But it's only a hundred billion. It's less than the national deficit! We used to call them astronomical numbers. Now we should call them economical numbers." ~ Richard Feynman
Huck Finn in Hell
It can only be described as miraculous that the writer J. G. Ballard survived almost four years in a Japanese internment camp in China during World War II, four years he chronicled in Empire of the Sun. He was all of 11 years old when it happened.
A few years ago I saw an interview of Ballard on TV. For all the horror, for all the deaths and starvation and executions, he said he still rather enjoyed himself, because he was almost completely free, although his freedom was much the same as that of the children in Lord of the Flies. He survived the horrors the same way many people in war survive -- he became detached from all that was happening around him. It's why I refer to his thinly-disguised autobiography as "Huck Finn in Hell."
Ballard had been the privileged and insulated son of wealthy British parents living in Shanghai , when World War II broke out and the Japanese conquered most of China . He became separated from his parents and for months wandered the city, sleeping where he could, growing thinner and thinner from eating what little he could find.
Finally, he ended up interned in a camp, mostly with British and American adults. The rest of the book details, in an almost dispassionate way, what he and the other inmates went through. Having read a fair amount of Ballard's work, I find him to be a nihilist, one created by what his 11-year-old self went through in a long war. Even today, he is still detached.
I have read other books written by children trapped in war -- The Diary of Anne Frank and Nicholas Gage's Eleni. Ballard's story stands out among them. Frank died; Gage escaped to America through the help of his mother and other adults, but Ballard was almost completely on his own. Indeed, some of the adults tried to kill him.
The book is not really that much about the war. Ballard saw little of it in the camp, and it always remained on the periphery of his consciousness. But he did see many adults waste away before him, then lay down to lie exhausted. He watched himself grow thinner and weaker, almost dying twice of starvation.
There are several scenes that stand out in my mind. Ballard's mouth was chronically infected and bleeding. Once, standing over a small pond, he noticed many tiny fish. He let a drop of blood fall into the water, and watched the fish instantly gather around it. A few seconds later, he let fall a drop of pus into the water. The fish immediately scattered.
Later, American fighter planes began to fly over the camp. The inmates booed. They had found a routine in the camp, one that allowed them to survive, and these new planes were upsetting it. They knew what they would bring -- the horror of the unknown.
Once, he saw an American plane get shot down. As the plane pinwheeled, on fire, he briefly saw the pilot, strapped in the cockpit, ablaze. Another time he saw a parachute fall from a plane, then watched Japanese soldiers pile into a truck to hunt down and kill the pilot.
Curiously, Ballard despised the Chinese, whom he considered cowards, even though they were the victims. They showed no affection for children. He admired the Japanese, who though appallingly brutal, seemed to like kids. Everything was seen through the lens of Ballard's selfishness, perfectly understandable in that such selfishness allowed him to survive.
This is a book about what war does to people, written from the viewpoint of a child. Many died, others, such as the American burned all over with cigarettes by his Japanese captors, became deranged. About the only ones who survived with any degree of sanity were those who became so detached from the war they saw it as a far away fantasy. Ballard is an example of that.
Ominously, Ballard saw a humiliated and savaged China rising again someday, to take vengeance on those who had brutalized it. The Japanese attempted to create an Empire, part of it encompassing China , and were slaughtered for it.
The book has a curiously contradictory feel to it. There is almost no emotion in it, yet there is a hallucinatory atmosphere throughout the entire book. Is that what war can do to some children? Erase their emotions and replace them with an internal fantasy in their heads, one they used to survive? I don't find it surprising that Ballard ended up writing a most surreal kind of science fiction, or that one of his novels, Crash, was filmed by David Lynch.
Ballard as a child in the camps appeared to be quite unlikable. Even though he survived numerous horrors, he never comes across as a hero. Perhaps in war there really are no heroes, just survivors.