Monday, February 26, 2018

The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng

Summary: Yun Ling Teoh is the sole survivor of a secret Japanese concentration camp in Malaysia. From flashbacks, we piece together that Yun Ling escaped the torture with a maimed hand and a damaged psyche, while her sister perished in the camp. Over the years, Yun Ling has tried to find the location of the camp to no avail. Yun Ling's had always been fascinated by Japanese gardens. When they were little, they had visited Japan and been to a wondrous garden, the memories of which had brought them peace and stupor in the camp. Now, Yun Ling wishes to build a Japanese garden as a memorial to her sister.

Yun Ling tracks down an elusive Japanese gardener named Aritomo, rumoured to be the Japanese Emperor's gardener. He resides in the mountains where he has built, unknown to most, the only Japanese garden in Malaya. It is called Yugiri, or the Garden of Evening Mists. It is a struggle to visit him, for Yun Ling is filled with burning, seething hatred for the Japanese for what they did to her family, and her land. Her life after the camp has been devoted to bringing justice to her sister. When Aritomo merely bows to her the Japanese way, she can't stand it. At first, he refuses her request to build a garden, and she is infuriated. But there is something Aritomo sees in her; and it may be her passion, his sympathy or some hint of potential that makes him strike a compromise. Rewriting the course of their lives, intertwining them in each other; he takes her on as an apprentice.

Leap to the present day. Many years have passed, and little makes sense to us - but we know this: Yun Ling has returned to Yugiri after a long time, Aritomo has disappeared, and Yun Ling now suffers from aphasia. In a desperate attempt to hold on to her memories as they slip away, Yun Ling writes this: a chronicle of her life before Yugiri, at and after.

My impression: Recently my sister ransacked (for lack of a better word) my home bookshelf, found this book and was within days, singing praises. I had of course forgotten I had it. But then I remembered buying this book. It was a couple of years ago that I had vowed to myself that I would read more world literature. This book instantly caught my eye - written by a Malaysian author, about a Chinese woman and a Japanese gardener. Barely literate in any of these cultures, I bought the book in the spur of the moment. (And then shelved it away for a better day.)

So, the reason for the back story is, this book gave me exposure to the intricacies of Malaysian history, as a colony, the cultural diversity residing within the country and the Japanese military invasions and expansions in the east long before Pearl Harbor. Not to mention, the terrors of the concentration camps. The book also introduced me to the Japanese art and culture - the Japanese gardens, tattoo making, the precision of rituals, tea houses - and the revered status these arts enjoy. This contrast between the worship of the Japanese culture in the foreground of the treatment of the natives by the army forms the main conflict in the mind of our heroine; and the tragedy of the book.

Yun Ling loves Yugiri, the garden of evening mists. It speaks to her; its utility, its artistic expression. With Aritomo as her mentor, Yun Ling does physical labour in the garden with the other men and studies about the different forms of gardening from books. The more she learns, the more she begins to respect Aritomo - and struggles with her conscience that has so grown to hate anything Japanese. This is reminiscent of any colony-colonizer relationship; in mellower tones, the way Indians think of the English - a combination of exaltation and despise.

I felt this very strongly - it caught me by surprise, even - in London; where I was awed by everything I saw while shuddering to see the remnants of Indian history displayed in museums as "gifts" from my people. Open secret: they were not gifts, just as the martyrs mentioned all around were not volunteers. And yet here I am, I read English, teach English and express adoration at telephone booths, red buses, Discworld and all things BBC. People around here still sometimes call English the colonizer's language; I have heard the media, of course, but also my friends call it that. What a strange dilemma to be in, what a strange hatred to have. Of course, in Yun Ling's case, it is not strange; for she suffered first-hand. And it must take a long time to reconcile with and face the consequences of such suffering. But there is always more than meets the eye, and in Yun Ling's case; it is a combination of injustice and guilt that fuels the rage.

One of my favourite things about the Japanese garden was this technique Aritomo uses called "borrowed scenery." This involves taking into consideration the architecture and scenery that lie around the garden and incorporating them into the design of the garden. Instead of shutting out the outside world, this technique brings it in and the garden is more in tune with its surrounding, creating an enhanced setting. The picture below is an example of this technique, from the garden called Genkyu Garden with the Hikone castle in the background integrated into its design.

[[[Tangent: Looking at the picture, and learning about this form reminded me of our visit to Agra, in India, and the Mehtab Bagh - which is a Mughal garden situated to the north of the Taj Mahal, on the east bank of the Yamuna.  As you enter the garden, gradually moving towards it centre, you notice the white marble structure in the distance. And when you reach the end of the garden, you realize that it is perfectly aligned with the Taj Mahal, which is like a focal point of the garden; though it lies much further away from it. 

Of course, while making a beautiful view, it's not a conscious attempt like these Japanese gardens; the Mehtab Bagh was built long before the Taj came into existence (built by the first Mughal emperor, whereas the Taj Mahal was built by the fifth.) 

Nevertheless, the illusion created by this - that the Taj Mahal is part of the garden - certainly multiplies the beauty of the garden and scaffolds the experience of the visit. Why waste perfectly beautiful structures in the background by hiding them, when you can cleverly use their magnificence to your benefit. Here ends my tangent.]]]

And now it's time for the crowning glory of this book - its prose. The writing brings the book to life. The rich language drips off the page and into your mind and you're transported  right into the heart of Malaysia. Read this description of Yugiri, the garden of evening mists...

The sounds of the world outside faded away, absorbed into the leaves. I stood there, not moving. For a moment I felt that nothing had changed since I was last here, almost thirty-five years before – the scent of pine resin sticking to the air, the bamboo creaking and knocking in the breeze, the broken mosaic of sunlight scattered over the ground.

Guided by memory’s compass, I began to walk into the garden. I made one or two wrong turns, but came eventually to the pond. I stopped, the twisting walk through the tunnel of trees heightening the effect of seeing the open sky over the water. Six tall, narrow stones huddled into a miniature limestone mountain range in the centre of the pond. On the opposite bank stood the pavilion, duplicated in the water so that it appeared like a paper lantern hanging in mid-air. A willow grew a few feet away from the pavilion’s side, its branches sipping from the pond.

In the shallows, a grey heron cocked its head at me, one leg poised in the air, like the hand of a pianist who had forgotten the notes to his music. It dropped its leg a second later and speared its beak into the water. Was it a descendant of the one that had made its home here when I first came here? Frederik had told me that there was always one in the garden – an unbroken chain of solitary birds. I knew it could not be the same bird from nearly forty years before but, as I watched it, I hoped that it was; I wanted to believe that by entering this sanctuary the heron had somehow managed to slip through the fingers of time.
I've used this and other parts of this novel as literary analysis tools for students ever since I read the book over a month ago. And it works like magic; all the symbols, the imagery, the figurative language... and the effect created is indisputable. This atmospheric writing is the icing on the cake for the experience that is this book. A must read, if ever!

Check out the book on Amazon


Delia (Postcards from Asia) said...

This sounds lovely, if only for the cultural references alone. I love the idea of "borrowed scenery". It makes perfect sense.

Anonymous said...

I like the way this sounds so complex and would like to read it. Is it too harrowing though? I am reading Slaughterhouse 5, which is very searing, but the hallucinogenic tone makes it bearable.

Priya said...

Delia, it does. And yes the cultural references make it worth the while... I learnt so much about the Japanese and Malaysian cultures; in a realistic way, not an exotic Western interpretation we see in movies and such.

Denise, it is harrowing. But since it is set many years after the war; it's an attempt to be uplifting; or at least, it has the main character trying to make peace with her anger - that makes this one bearable. Slaughterhouse 5 is brilliant, can't wait to hear your thoughts.

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