Monday, 20 April 2009

Looking for Meaning, Exorcising Ghosts: J.G. Ballard's Life Work Is Finished

J.G. Ballard is dead, after a long illness, it seems. I think I must have come across his short stories in the late 1960s when I was still reading a lot of science fiction. The dystopian worlds he wrote about seemed singularly appropriate for that time of Cold War threat and open war in Viet Nam. But it was his autobiographical novel Empire of the Sun, published in 1984, which demonstrated just how subtle and complex his talent and his appreciation of the world were. The Steven Spielberg movie, released in 1987, is a rare film that is nearly as good as the book.

The French Concession in Shanghai where Ballard was born still existed when I visited there in 2005 for Green City. As I wandered up and down the streets where big houses built for Europeans in the 1920s had been turned into much more modest flats, I was constantly reminded of both the book and the movie. When the young hero Jamie finally makes it home after being separated from his family, he finds the wide, well cared-for streets and gardens deserted. Therein lies the origin of many scenes in Ballard’s science fiction.

But obviously life has gone on and Ballard in recent years has had much to say about the difficult necessity of continuing. His last book, shopped around at the Frankfurt Book Fair last fall, is supposed to be called. Conversations with My Physician: The Meaning, if Any, of Life. Finding whatever meaning there is is a life’s work certainly, and one to which Ballard devoted much of his time and talent.

Photo: West Nanjing Road in the French Concession in 2005. The linden trees which line this major thoroughfare have a name in Mandarin which means "the French tree." The picture shows how modest houses were being torn down as Shangai reinvented itself.

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