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Tuesday, September 4, 2012

"The Garden of Evening Mists" by Tan Twan Eng (Reviewed by Liviu Suciu)

INTRODUCTION: Malaysian writer Tan Twan Eng burst on the literary scene in 2007/8 with the unforgettable debut "The Gift of Rain" longlisted for the Man Booker prize - which is how I found about it as it has been published by UK small press Myrmidon and later by Weinstein books in the US. A first person narration from Philip Hutton, ethnically half English, half Chinese from the upper class of the Malaysian island-state of Penang, the book is of the "blow me away", become an author fan forever kind and a top 10 for 2008.

I kept looking for a second novel from the author for a few years with no success, so when this year's Booker nominations were announced, I was very surprised to actually see that second novel, "The Garden of Evening Mists" there! Of course I got it immediately with huge expectations as you can see in the post I made at the time.

"Malaya, 1951. Yun Ling Teoh, the scarred lone survivor of a brutal Japanese wartime camp, seeks solace among the jungle-fringed tea plantations of Cameron Highlands. There she discovers Yugiri, the only Japanese garden in Malaya, and its owner and creator, the enigmatic Aritomo, exiled former gardener of the emperor of Japan. 

Despite her hatred of the Japanese, Yun Ling seeks to engage Aritomo to create a garden in memory of her sister, who died in the camp. Aritomo refuses but agrees to accept Yun Ling as his apprentice “until the monsoon comes.” 

Then she can design a garden for herself.As the months pass, Yun Ling finds herself intimately drawn to the gardener and his art, while all around them a communist guerilla war rages. But the Garden of Evening Mists remains a place of mystery. Who is Aritomo and how did he come to leave Japan? 

And is the real story of how Yun Ling managed to survive the war perhaps the darkest secret of all?"

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: "The Garden of Evening Mists" is the most lyrical and beautiful book - as prose and atmosphere go - that I've read in a long time. When opening it a few weeks ago, I almost could not put it down and when the time came to read it, the whole novel had the same mesmeric quality as the first paragraph below illustrates:

"On a mountain above the clouds once lived a man who had been the gardener of the Emperor of Japan. Not many people would have known of him before the war, but I did. He had left his home on the rim of the sunrise to come to the central highlands of Malaya. I was seventeen years old when my sister first told me about him. A decade would pass before I traveled up to the mountains to see him.

He did not apologize for what his countrymen had done to my sister and me. Not on that rain-scratched morning when we first met, nor at any other time. What words could have healed my pain, returned my sister to me? None. And he understood that. Not many people did"

"The Garden of Evening Mists" alternates between 1987 and 1951 with reminiscences about the pre-war and war periods, though Yun Ling's camp experiences are only recounted in brief, central as they are to the whole book. In the present (1987) action of the novel, she is respected judge Teoh just retired from the Malaysian Supreme court due to a brain affliction that has her slowly descending into forgetfulness. Prompted by her old friend Frederik Pretorius, current owner of the Majuba Estate and nephew of Magnus below, she decides to write down her memories so she can read them when her illness gets worse.

Born in 1923 into a very rich Straits Chinese family - educated in the English schools, speaking English natively and not speaking Mandarin, so derisively referred to by some as "bananas", yellow on the outside and white on the inside, while Yun Ling's father's first official public words in Mandarin when he learns it late in life for political reasons are precisely "I am not a banana" - in Penang, Yun Ling is the third child and second daughter, being very close to her older sister Yun Hong. One of the early defining moments in her life is in 1938, when the family visits Japan and the 18 year old Yun Hong becomes obsessed with the art of the Japanese Garden .

After the occupation and as sole survivor of three years in an ultra-secret Japanese work camp in the jungle, Yun Ling has two main goals - find out where the camp was and honor Yun Hong's memory by having a Japanese Garden created on her Kuala Lumpur estate by famed exiled Aritomo, former Imperial Gardener about whom the girls heard for the first time in the late 30's when he came to Malaya and settled near the plantation of the former business associate of their father,
Boer war veteran Magnus Pretorius who was then a big tea producer with his world famous Majuba brand. 
"Aritomo gazed at me for a while. ‘It was the longest winter I had ever endured. I could not wait for it to end. I was nineteen when I became one of the Emperor’s gardeners,’ he said. ‘I used to see his son, Crown Prince Hirohito, in the palace gardens. I was just a year older than him."

Yun Ling gets a legal education, works in the Japanese war crimes cases and later as a public prosecutor against the mostly Chinese communist guerrillas who had started waging war against the British administration and the Malay majority in 1948; however in 1951 she resigns after a disagreement with the colonial authorities and comes to the highland and her family friend Magnus to try and convince Aritomo to build the Garden.

It is also a troubled time for the country as the guerrilla war -
"the Malay Emergency" - very active in the uplands where the action takes place is at its peak and the terrorist have just scored a major victory in assassinating the British governor, while Yun Ling is a marked woman too for her prosecution work. 

But despite desperate pleas from her father, whom she now blames to a large extent for her and Yun Hong's imprisonment in the camp, Yun Ling decides to stay and accept Aritomo's offer of apprenticeship. 

"I looked at him, this man who had made his home in these highlands, who watched over his garden as one vague season replaced another, as years passed and he grew older.

  ‘A garden borrows from the earth, the sky, and everything around it, but you borrow from time,’ I said slowly. ‘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.’

 His eyes turned bleak. I had overstepped the bounds between us. ‘It is the same with you,’ he said, a moment later. ‘Your old life, too, is gone. You are here, borrowing from your sister’s dreams, searching for what you have lost.’

 We sat there on the verandah, each of us adrift in our own memories, our tea slowly relinquishing its heat into the mountain air."

Things happen, things are not quite as we think they are and lots of stuff is actually connected, though Yun Ling (and us) start putting the pieces together only in the 1987 thread, when she returns there after 34 years - in his will Aritomo left her everything, but while she maintained the property she never wanted to visit.

In a subplot, a controversial Japanese art historian who wants to write a definitive account of Aritomo and his work after his 1938 exile, manages to get Yun Ling's approval to come there and work with her on the project and his interesting story and the connections with everything are woven very skilfully into the tapestry also.

 "For a long while he does not say anything. Finally he begins to speak in a slow, steady voice.
                                                                            * * *
‘It was raining on the morning I was scheduled to die. I had not slept. All night the rain had blown in from the South China Sea, the water lashing the thatched roofs of our billets. The monsoon should have already ended, yet the rains still came, day after day.

‘Colonel Teruzen, my flight instructor, was already on the verandah, looking out to the beach. Lightning flashed between the low-lying clouds and the sea. ‘No flying today,’ he said when I went to join him. His relief was evident. He was forty years old that year, and I knew he would survive the war. And for that I was glad."

"The Garden of Evening Mists" is just great stuff, the best literary novel of the year for me and a top 5 for sure - actually I could easily see it as #1 depending on how it will wear in time - and the clear favorite for me in the Booker longlist, though I think that if it makes the shortlist it would be a good achievement too.



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