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The novel tells the story, in a fictional account, of the author's experiences as a young boy in Shanghai at the outbreak of the Second World War. Jim, the third person narrator of the novel, is separated from his parents when the Japanese invade Shanghai at the end of 1941. The first part of the novel tells of his adventures on the streets of Shanghai, trying first of all to find his parents, then to give himself up to the Japanese. When even that fails, Jim's life becomes a simple battle for survival, first of all in Shanghai and then at the hands of the Japanese in a staging camp, where he is effectively sent to die.
The second part of the novel moves on three years to the internment camp where Jim has spent the war. It is the middle of 1945, and the novel tells of the last days of the camp as the rations run out and the Japanese realise that they are about to lose the war. The fascination here is to watch how the people behave as the war reaches its inevitable conclusion: seeing who keeps going and who gives up. The second part ends with a "death march" as the Japanese move the exhausted and starving prisoners out the camp and march them towards Shanghai.
The final part of the novel tells of the anarchy of the days immediately after the end of the war and ends with Jim being reunited with his parents. Again, the fascination is with the people and how they react to their new found freedom.
What is so brilliant about this novel is the absolutely compelling way that it portrays the world through the eyes of a young boy. Jim was 11 when the Japanese seized Shanghai and 15 when the war ended. Throughout the novel, everything is seen as Jim sees it. It is his interpretation of the confusing events that is given, along with his strange thoughts about the war. The "real" knowledge of adults is not allowed to intrude and there is no attempt to preach a particular morality or make any specific point.
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The novel opens with Shanghai still a free city, seemingly dominated by Europeans at the expense of the native Chinese who live in the most part in grinding poverty. It also looks back at the bloody invasion of China by Japan and the subsequent brutal war. What struck me most about the novel was its descriptions of life under Japanese rule and the dreadful interment camps. Although I have read a lot about the holocaust, in comparison to the Nazis, the Japanese seemed governed by indifference interspersed with casual, brutal violence, rather than an ideological desire to exterminate whole races of people. The one thing that I did see in common with both parties was an inability to see the people that they were exterminating as human beings.
Before I read "Empire of the Sun", I knew very little about the Second World War in the Far East or about the Japanese in general. It is an subject area that I really ought to find out more about. The one thing that did strike me was the very alien nature of both Japanese and Chinese society when compared to European society. In particular, I am fascinated by how Japanese society could end up breeding such indifference towards other human beings, both Chinese and European alike.
Not that the Europeans come out of the novel in a much better light. Colonial overlords of a poverty stricken Shanghai, they do not cope well with their collective fall from grace, and by degrees, a selfish, every-man-for-himself attitude takes over. Jim realises this early on, with his child's uncomplicated view of the world, and does what he needs to survive. Of the adults in the book, only Dr Ransom, the idealistic camp Doctor, and Mr Maxted, an architect turned entrepreneur, actually manage to uphold the ideals of civilised society in the face of an enemy whose every action works to dehumanise. Most of the adults show selfish indifference, but the worst of the lot, in my opinion, is Basie, an American criuse-line steward who does whatever he has to to survive, including using others when it suits him and dropping them in an instant when it doesn't.
Overall, this is a brilliantly written book. It tackles a very difficult subject matter head on and in an uncompromising fashion, but without ever trying to preach, which makes its message all the more powerful. Despite this, it is incredibly easy to read, with short, focused chapters which always leave you wanting more. If you haven't already, you really ought to read this book.