A tour de force of the other kind of hallucinatory writing. No infinitely-spiralling meanings within meanings, no apocalypse of the psyche, but--- a real life Inferno, the world spinning backwards as witnessed by the author in his childhood in Thirties Shanghai during the Japanese invasion.
"“Wars came early to Shanghai, overtaking each other like the tides that raced up the Yangtze and returned to this gaudy city all the coffins cast adrift from the funeral piers of the Chinese Bund. Jim had begun to dream of wars. At night the same silent films seemed to flicker against the wall of his bedroom in Amherst Avenue, and transformed his sleeping mind into a deserted newsreel theater."
As told by the author's adolescent eyewitness Jim, there is sharp focus thoughout this story, but it is blunted by the innocence of the teller, who is swept away by the events long before understanding them... A child of British colonial civil servants and cast adrift in the confusing events of 1937 at the foreign delegations of Shanghai, Jim is wide open to the experience and tells the tale with a simple, ingenuous honesty, not overly bound by allegiances to any country.
An intense interlude with every aspect of society in an uproar leaves Jim abandoned in the upscale haunts of the International Settlement, revisiting the large houses of diplomats and professionals, now deserted, for tins of food or anything edible. Venturing out of this depopulated realm does him not much better :
"“Outside the tram station in the Avenue Haig, the hundreds of passengers were briefly silent as they watched a public beheading. The bodies of a man and woman in quilted peasant clothes, perhaps pickpockets, or Kuomintang spies, lay by the boarding platform. The Chinese NCOs wiped their boots as the blood ran into the metal grooves of the steel rails. A tram crowded with passengers approached, its bell forcing the execution party aside.... Jim watched the coolies and peasant women staring at the headless bodies. Already the press of tram passengers was pushing them aside, submerging this small death. Jim turned away, tripping over a charcoal brazier in which a pavement vendor was frying pieces of battered snake... "
Once the International sector becomes fully manned and controlled by the Japanese, Jim is forced into the outside world with not much to guide him but rumor and remembered truisms from his parents & their friends. Many of whom are to show up incongruously, in now very diminished conditions and situations-- throughout the book, now actual ghosts of their formerly empowered selves, characters on the wrong set.
This is to become the heart of the book, a kind of disaster-picaresque odyssey through the nightmare of clashing civilizations, destroyed infrastructure, the overarching need-to-go-on conflicting with the knowing-better-in-the-first-place. The complexity of the conflict in the Japanese invasions of the China coast is that numerous European entities were well-entrenched, fully engaged in their intricate colonial pursuits, so when the clash happens it is a multicultural explosion. Running China by proxy one day are the Brits, (allied with the Us) utilizing their World-Power status to install colonial-guard regiments like the Ghurkas to keep the uneasy peace of Empire in Shanghai. And the next day the Japanese are putting the Chinese in chaingangs, deferring to the axis diplomatic corps of Germany and Italy, and trucking the Brits off en-masse to internment camps.
The poignant balance of the narration evolves from naive / imaginative to embittered / experienced, as Jim evolves from boy to young man, and if that is a difficult journey normally, it's a mythic one in this bonfire of civilizations. At some point Jim awakens in the Olympic Stadium at Nantao, built as an enticement for the Olympics that never materialized by Madame Chiang Kaishek. The field is an outdoor hospital with detainees crowded by the hundreds on the playing green, the stands being stacked with the fineries and riches removed from the now-fully-ransacked International Settlement.
"“An hour later, when the rain had stopped, the flashes of an American air raid lit up the stadium, like the sheet lightning of the monsoon season. As a child, safe in his bedroom at Amherst Avenue, Jim had watched the sudden glares that exposed the rats caught in the center of the tennis court and on the verges of the swimming pool. Jim knew that he was awake and asleep at the same time, dreaming of the war, and yet dreamed of by the war."
Second time I've read this, recommended.