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.

1 comment:

Jimmy said...

Thank you for this wonderful review. I have only just read the book and needed some help to coalesce some of the muffled echoes that were left in the caverns of my under-developed literary mind. I was frustrated by the bland emphases on plot in many other reviews. Yours, I think, captured the essence in the process of adding some well explained critical opinion.

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