Grave New World
The Decline of the West in the fiction of J.G. Ballard
I can remember the bad-tempered amahs of my childhood, ruthless and hard-fisted little women darting about on their bound feet. At the other end of the social scale were the dragon ladies – tycoon’s wives or successful businesswomen – in their long fur coats and immaculate make-up, who could petrify a small boy at fifty paces with their baleful stares.
Returning to China last summer, I was startled to find an advance guard of dragon ladies apparently waiting for me in the Cathy Pacific lounge at Heathrow. But there were none in the streets of Shanghai, and, fortunately, their places were taken by thousands of relaxed and cheerful young women. (Ballard 1992a: 36)
A Similar procedure can be found in a group of texts that deal with the powerful Asiatic politicians and royals . In “Lipstick and High Heels” (1993), written for Daily Telegraph, it is Ballard’s recent visit to China compared with the mental picture of the pre-war Shanghai that give him a background to talk about political issues. Reviewing Richard Evans’s Deng Xiaoping and the making of Modern China Ballard juxtaposes references to Empire and the making of the film of it with revolutional changes described by Evans. His comments on Hirohito in “Last of the Great Royals” (1989), published in Observer, discuss the emperor’s policy line during the war from the perspective of China, not Japan.
Therefore, the readers of Ballard’s fiction and nonfiction in the early 1990s dealt with a huge text of his autobiography encompassing Empire, its 1991 sequel The Kindness of Women and a body of journalism. The resulting confusion of facts and fiction made Ballard write in “The End of My War” (1995), in Sunday Times, the exact account of what happened to him (and not to Jim, the protagonist of Empire) in Shanghai in the 40s.
The end of the war is here viewed from the perspective of the Lunghua Camp (a place described in detail in Empire). This time instead of Jim (the war-name adopted by the protagonist of the novel when he is separated from his parents and left to his own devices in the middle of the war) we have Jamie, who spent the three years of internment with his parents;
Then at last it was all over. The day after Hirohito’s broadcast, we heard from the Swiss Red Cross that the war had ended. The Japanese armies had agreed to lay down their arms. We were told of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which had vaporized both cities and brought the war to a sudden halt.
‘Is the war over?’ I asked my father. ‘Really, really over?’
‘Yes, it’s really over.’ My father stared at me somberly. ‘Jamie, you’ll miss Lunghua’. (Ballard 1995: 284)
In a similar way the events described in Empire are here briefly narrated from the Jamie Ballard’s point of view, thus demonstrating artistic distortions in the novel. Camp life, the English school in Shanghai before the war, small boy’s memories of colonial times – this autobiography encompasses all aspects of Empire. The very fact of being in Asia during the war gives Ballard the moral right to judge the American decision to drop the bomb:
As a nation the Japanese have never faced up to the atrocities they committed, and are unlikely to do so as long as we bend our heads is shame before the memories of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The argument that atomic weapons, by virtue of the genetic damage they cause to the future generations, belong to a special category of evil, seems to me to be equally misguided. The genetic consequences of a rifle bullet are even more catastrophic, for the victim’s genes go nowhere except the grave and his descendants are not even born. (Ballard 1995: 293)