27 July 2012

The Garden of Evening Mists

This review first appeared in The Asian Review of Books
Note: The Garden of Evening Mists has just been long-listed for the Man Booker Prize 2012.

“Every aspect of gardening is a form of deception,” the gardener Nakamura Aritomo tells his protégé Yun Ling in Tan Twan Eng’s The Garden of Evening Mists.

The Japanese garden borrows scenery from the outside world through the principle of shakkei. Simultaneously, it conceals its actual features through the principle of miegakure. To walk through a Japanese garden, then, is to constantly discover that you have been mistaken - the things that seem to belong to the garden do not, and the things that belong to the garden seem not to exist. It is a series of surprises: now you see it, now you don’t.

Fiction - indeed, any art form -  is much the same in its employment of clever disguise. It reveals only what it wishes to; it borrows freely from its settings; perspectives are unreliable, and it is only by following the winding paths that the actual landscape is discovered. At the same time, it is aesthetically pleasing, a vehicle for contemplation, a deeply private space.

Teoh Yun Ling first hears of the gardener of the emperor of Japan when she is seventeen. But he is to haunt her for a lifetime. While travelling through Japan, her sister, Teoh Yun Hong falls in love with the art and aesthetics of the Japanese garden and longs to make one of her own. But during the Japanese occupation of Malaya, the sisters are interned in a brutal and grotesque camp of which Yun Ling is the sole survivor. After the War, she devotes herself to prosecuting Japanese war criminals, desperately trying to avenge the cruelties she and Yun Hong have suffered at the hands of the Japanese. Yet, it is to a Japanese man that the memory of her sister leads: Nakamura Aritomo, who has quit Japan and lives in Malaysia’s Cameron Highlands, spending his days in the creation of Yugiri, the garden of evening mists. Yun Ling, who openly despises the Japanese, is apprenticed to Aritomo during the darkest period of the Malayan Emergency, and the land is fraught with murder and terror as the communist guerrillas, the Malayan nationalists and the British colonisers strive for control over the country. In the midst of a life constantly torn by war, Yun Ling must somehow find peace.

The narrative takes two streams, both in the first person, told by Yun Ling, separated only by tense. In the present, the older Yun Ling returns to Yugiri as a retired judge in the 1980s and finds herself revisiting several pasts, most particularly, her time with Aritomo, and begins writing her memoirs, which form the past. Between the two streams are several inlets that glide into side-narratives, like the unforgettable war story of Yoshikawa Tatsuji, a Japanese professor visiting Yun Ling, and the many digressions of Magnus Pretorius, a charming veteran of the Boer War. Aritomo’s departure from Japan is cloaked in secrecy, as is Yun Ling’s astonishing escape from internment. The characters are entangled by their complex pasts; histories, both personal and national, intertwine in Tan’s elegant, panoptic tale.

This is a good old-fashioned story with a plot that arcs gracefully, maintains suspense, and stays true to characterisation. Yun Ling’s independent spirit and her anger seep like ink-stains into the narrative, but its distilled essence is a quieter appraisal of the dichotomy of memory, its treacherous failures, its cruel conveniences, its fadeout and deliverance. Outside Magnus’s house are two statues: one is of Mnemosyne the goddess of memory and the other is of her twin sister, the goddess of forgetting, whose name, of course, has been forgotten.

Here, too, the garden is the conceit. “A garden borrows from the earth, the sky, and everything around it, but you borrow from time,” Yun Ling accuses Aritomo, “Your memories are a form of shakkei too. You bring them in to make your life here feel less empty. Like the mountains and the clouds over your garden, you can see them, but they will always be out of reach.” The garden that Yun Ling intends to make is about more than a desire to preserve the memory of her sister, though, for in many ways, it was the idea of this garden that kept the sisters hopeful through their long internment. The Japanese garden, with its many deceptions and beauties, becomes a well-formed metaphor for the ways in which our lives are lived.

The writing too has the lush beauty and artistry of a Japanese garden. The storytelling is ornate - sometimes ostentatious - burying moments and vistas deep in heavy imagery: “In the low mists over the hills, an orange glow broods, as if the trees are on fire. Bats are flooding out from the hundreds of caves that perforate these mountainsides. I watch them plunge into the mists without any hesitation, trusting in the echoes and silences in which they fly. Are all of us the same, I wonder, navigating our lives by interpreting silences between words spoken, analysing the returning echoes of our memory in order to chart the terrain, in order to make sense of the world around us?”

Thankfully, this is not a story of forgiveness or of coming to terms with anger. As a war hostage (“a guest of the emperor,” as the Japanese called them), as a prosecutor, even as Aritomo’s apprentice and later his heir, Yun Ling is driven forth by a marked fury. Her overt contempt and pointed jibes lend cathartic relief to her storytelling. The denouement, especially, is an unusual, well-told revelation, luminous with possibility and incredibly satisfying.

19 July 2012

The Man Within My Head

This review first appeared in The Sunday Guardian

Pico Iyer awakens one night and finds himself almost possessed; he writes a feverish sketch titled “Greene” that he cannot himself comprehend, much less contextualise. But this he comes to realise: it is Graham Greene that he must seek out if he is to excavate and recognise the several sensations that crowd his mind and heart. Thus begins this glorious, gorgeous book, part-memoir, part-biography – a “counter-biography,” as Iyer puts it – that took the author over a decade to write. It is the story of Iyer’s deeply personal, impressionistic journey with Graham Greene, whom he has never met, but has adopted as his sometime father.

Greene’s life bears startling resemblances to Iyer’s own. The “hauntedness” that Iyer describes – and what a fine word it is! – is something we have all experienced in our negotiations with our idols. It is not merely that we have loved and followed them in our own and particular ways, it is also that we find, every so often, that our lives have unknowingly shadowed theirs, that theirs have mirrored ours. In appropriating them, we become self-fulfilling prophecies. We seek them out in all the things we do, snapping up those coincidences that inevitably map two distant lives and engaging in connections that seem far too intimate for what can only be termed a one-sided relationship to allow. Our most surreal, unreal loves are formed in just this way, and whatever we term them – father, friend, mentor – we find that we are affected by them in indefinable and impractical ways.

The Man Within My Head is not just about the act of reading Greene, though; it is about the very specific act of Iyer reading Greene, of Iyer reading himself reading Greene, of Iyer using his reading of Greene to uncover his well-hidden demons. Very soon, a parallel narrative is formed, about Iyer’s relationship with his real father, a man he has sought to displace with Graham Greene. As Iyer uses his investigations of Greene to understand himself, he locates the many deceits of adopted, and real, parenthood: “The whole point of an adopted parent, I’d often thought, is that you can have him to yourself. He’s a figment of your imagination, in a sense, someone you’ve created to satisfy certain needs, so he’s always there, in your head, at your disposal. Real parents have lives to attend to, lives beyond our understanding, and they commit, most of all, the sin of being real; they’re human and distractible and fallible.”

But Iyer mournfully finds this to be untrue. He does not choose Greene; Greene is pinned upon him by some inscrutable bond: “our shadow associates are, like parents (or godparents), presences we’ve never chosen and, like many of our loves or compulsions, blur the lines inside us by living beyond our explanations.” What we do find, though, within the imagined camaraderie of literary obsession, is the sympathetic fellowship of those after whom we have fashioned ourselves.

The three parts of the book cover ghosts, gods, and fathers, easily interchangeable and threaded together, albeit somewhat thinly, by Iyer’s journeys. He traverses continents and cultures, as he often does in his best-loved work, with the easy, unexpected melancholy of a transient lover, charting Greene within his journeys, plotting his characters across the world, sometimes even seeking them out.

Early in the book, Iyer recalls a man of Indian descent whom he encountered in a little provincial town in Mexico. Later, as he tries to piece together the man’s story, he remembers that it was Greene alone, who, in his prolific sketches of the wanderer’s itinerant soul, seemed to have captured this man on paper. This is what we long for in art – a looking-glass to reality that somehow doubles up as a window to escape it. We search deeply, hoping to find ourselves submerged in authorial intent, often even expecting to find solutions, if not always salvation. But we search, too, for the people that we meet, expecting their back stories – at least the ones that we have invented for them – to be diffused and decoded in the ways that only the writers we love can. This Iyer finds as often in Greene as the traveller finds in Iyer himself.

The reverse works, too. As he drifts through Saigon, Iyer half-expects characters from Greene’s A Quiet American to step out on to the streets and accost him (and, at times, they do). These are the irrational expectations that fiction presses upon us. The return to life is, ironically, less maddening when we have invested ourselves so powerfully in the worlds we long to inhabit that we do, in fact, continue to inhabit them in silent and puzzling ways long after we have left them. Just as we take up residence in these worlds, these worlds take up residence within us, and we repeatedly find ourselves looking inward when our intent is to look outward. In serendipitous moments, we perhaps know the people we love before we have met them, simply because we have read about them. Such are the chambers into which fiction entraps us.

Iyer writes, “The paradox of reading is that you draw closer, to some other creature’s voice within you than to the people who surround you (with their surfaces) every day.” In this way, this is every-reader’s story. But it is also every-writer’s story. Besides himself, Iyer likens Greene to P. G. Wodehouse, Somerset Maugham, Henry James, and John le Carre, admitting, at some point, “the man I felt such closeness to was a type.” Above all, though, this is every-son’s story.

The trouble with quoting Pico Iyer is the temptation to quote him in entirety, to serve up the complete book as an example of the striking beauty of his writing. His exquisite prose bears multiple readings, a few of which must be devoted to the sheer appreciation of his elegant turn of phrase, his stunning construction, and the piercing loveliness of his pathos. As in his travel-writing, Iyer is a gentle sort of companion – clear-headed, warm-hearted, and peaceable. His own private revelations and discoveries of Greene are just that – his own. A regular reader of Iyer knows that his journey need not be her own, that he is more a benevolent philosopher than a guide. But there’s a fatherly kind of guidance in that as well.

14 July 2012


This review first appeared in Mint Lounge.

Home is the sailor, home from sea,
And the hunter home from the hill.
From Requiem by Robert Louis Stevenson

But for the soldier, is it home from the war? This, really, is the question that Toni Morrison asks in her slim new novel, Home. Frank Money returns to the United States from the Korean War, where he has lost his two best friends and his self-respect, and suffers from what we now know to be post-traumatic stress disorder. The country he returns to is racist America of the fifties, a harder, more unkind version of itself, which offers no homecoming – no home, even – to its veterans. Frank briefly falls in love with a woman named Lily before going in search of his sister Ycidra (Cee) and rescuing her from the medical experiments of a doctor who calls himself an inventor. With Cee, he must return to Lotus, Georgia – “the worst place in the world, worse than any battlefield” – where they spent a despised childhood with a cruel step-grandmother, Lenore, and largely apathetic parents. But to save themselves and, indeed, each other, they must both first find themselves.

Morrison plays and replays the splintered events and pieces them together through the shifting perspectives of Frank, Cee, Lily, and Lenore. The three women who tint our worldviews are wrung by aspiration; they long to leave behind the smallness of their worlds and find very particular spaces – homes – to inhabit. In contrast, Frank, who has left Korea only to find that Korea has not left him, simply longs for an end to the war within himself. While the women are constantly spurred to action, he is inspired only to passivity – until he receives an ominous letter about his sister.

The spite and cruelty of racial politics consistently linger between the lines. We know, without ever being told, which characters are white and which are black; and we know this most often, and most alarmingly, from the way they are treated. Lily is denied the house (and, therefore, titular home) she wants more than anything else. Cee becomes a laboratory rat, medically abused by her employer. Lenore is driven to a marriage of convenience out of a fear for her safety. And Frank is repeatedly assailed, from within and without, as he journeys across the country. These iniquities are not described so much as acknowledged; they are marked by a clipped weariness that underscores their violence, gaining weight from tired resignation rather than outrage.

The fable-like didacticism that was the nucleus of Morrison’s other work is in Home too, especially in the almost simplistic depictions of Lenore and in the many little sentences in which Morrison states what the discerning reader ought to guess. The prose is terser and less winding than in her other work. It remains graceful and sinuous, but it is also more direct and straightforward. There is still emotion (and how could there not be?); Morrison pricks through layers of brutality with the sharpness of an author who knows her characters well, and laces her findings with the tenderness of lived experience.

If in Beloved Morrison wrote a sweeping saga of almost epic proportions, in Home she writes a simpler story – not of heroism, but of survival. But as it often happens in her hands, the women emerge as the unsung everyday heroes, a sisterhood of pragmatic, warm-hearted, no-nonsense goodness. When Frank rescues Cee and takes her to the place that ought to be called home, the womenfolk of Lotus heal her hurting in more ways than one. The healing chapter bears the flags of all the themes that run through Morrison’s novels: communion, womanhood, sacrifice, the inheritance of custom, and the sharing of burdens: “… they practiced what they had been taught by their mothers during the period that rich people called the Depression and they called life.” The women, who coax Frank and Cee into forgiveness and acceptance, are the home the Moneys have come to.

The two-part redemption feels like it’s easier than life usually makes it. Both Frank and Cee step too lightly from distress to calm. In particular, Cee’s passage from an almost incapacitating dependence on her brother to ownership and self-reliance is glossed over. Cee’s sorrows are the crux of the book; her harrowing experiences jolt Frank out of his torpor and move the many women she encounters – neighbours, coworkers, acquaintances – to extraordinary kindness. Yet, her flight to safety and health is too speedy; it occurs through little more a series of wise aphorisms, as though tough love and good advice are enough to restore peace to troubled minds.

Here and there, in short, italicised chapters, Frank Money addresses the narrator, whom he thinks is “set on telling [his] story”. He frequently rights her wrongs (“Don’t paint me as some enthusiastic hero.”), scolds her (“Is that too hard for you to understand?”), and challenges her to get it right (“I don’t think you know much about love. Or me.”). These chapters read like a loving but impatient admission of the limitations of writing: “You don’t know what heat is until you cross the border from Texas to Louisiana in the summer. You can’t come up with words that catch it. Trees give up. Turtles cook in their shells. Describe that if you know how.”

Frank’s commentary is what makes this volume entirely real. His admissions are tinged with an optimism that is both heartbreaking and uplifting; at the same time, he is consciously devoid of the romanticism that the narrative is given to. These chapters seem to be telling the real story as a mordant aside. They are the memories, unreliable by their very nature, that are more potent than objectivity. They encase individual, unconnected moments that seem to be mocking the main narrative’s insistence on a story that ties together, on an arc that childishly depends on conflict and resolution. Frank’s notes urge us never to forget the atrocities of our past, never to lull ourselves into the security of happier times; they remind us too, in their own piano-soft and hopeful way, that it is through sheer human decency that we rid ourselves of our demons and mend our wounded hearts and jaded spirits. These chapters form a powerful trajectory from war to peace.