California Literary Review

Book Review: The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng

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September 10th, 2012 at 9:44 am

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Book jacket: The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng
The Garden of Evening Mists
by Tan Twan Eng
Weinstein Books, 335 pp.
CLR Rating: ★★★★★


Forgive and Forget

Survivor’s guilt is a peculiar form of remorse that blights the lives of those who live through disasters when many, many others perish. How can a person comprehend or accept that they have been spared the harsh fate of those “near and dear” whose lives are lost? In this case, the blessing of life can become a curse.

The central character in Tan Twan Eng’s novel, The Garden of Evening Mists, would seem to be a textbook case of this special kind of anguish. Yun Ling is an ethnic Chinese woman living in Malaysia. During the Second World War, Yun Ling and her sister were incarcerated in one of the jungle prison camps set up by the invading Japanese. Everyone in the camp was brutally murdered by the Japanese, most of them shortly before the end of the war.

Everyone but Yun Ling.

The Garden of Evening Mists is set in three inter-linked time frames. Past and present struggle to reconcile Yun Ling’s memories of wartime suffering and loss. But Yun Ling is faced by a cruel dilemma. Soon she will no longer have a future. Her brilliant, sensitive mind is slowly deteriorating from an incurable neurological disease. Oblivion will settle Yun Ling’s efforts to find inner peace if she does not achieve it first.

Yun Ling, now a retired judge, recounts how she handled the pain of her ill-treatment by the Japanese. At first, she worked as a researcher for the War Crimes Tribunal set up by the British after they regained Malaysia in 1945 – or Malaya as it was called then. She was able to indulge her hatred of the Japanese by helping to convict a number of the Japanese officers guilty of cruelty to the civilian population of her country. But Yun Ling could find no trace of the camp where her sister was killed. Vengeance soon lost its sting.

Seeking a new way to find inner peace, Yun Ling sets out to build a garden in honor of her art-loving sister, Yun Hong. Incredibly, the gardens that her sister had loved best were those of her Japanese tormentors. Traveling to the mist-clad Cameron Highlands in Malaya, Yun Ling seeks a Japanese gardener named Aritomo to help her create the memorial garden.

Aritomo rejects Yun Ling’s request for help but agrees to take her on as a student. But this is more perilous for Yun Ling than might seem to be the case.

The central drama of the novel takes place in 1952. The embers of the Second World War are dying away but a new war in Malaya is flaring-up. The Communist Insurgency in Malaya, which raged from 1948 to 1960, is reaching new heights of violence when Yun Ling travels to the Cameron Highlands to meet Aritomo. Most of the Communists, known as CTs, were ethnic Chinese. Yun Ling’s family, however, comes from a privileged, pro-British elite called “Straits Chinese.” English is her first language and she is a lawyer, affiliated with the colonial administration. Her background makes Yun Ling an obvious target for the CTs, who have just assassinated the British governor when she reaches the Cameron Highlands.

Despite one CT attack which leaves her slightly wounded, Yun Ling manages to survive and learn the techniques of building Japanese gardens from Aritomo. This includes lessons in shakkei, “the art of Borrowed Scenery, taking elements and views from outside a garden and making them integral to his creation.”

Yun Ling learns much more from Aritomo than garden design. Their relationship develops and deepens into a love match which goes far to heal Yun Ling’s emotional wounds. She comes to appreciate Aritomo’s complicated background, though the essential mystery of the man remains. Aritomo had been a gardener for Hirohito, Emperor of Japan, before the Second World War. Had he really come to Malaya as an exile after clashing with court officials over the aesthetics of the emperor’s garden? Or was he, like many other Japanese “civilians” in pre-war Malaya, Indonesia and the Philippines, a spy gathering intelligence to aid the spectacular Japanese military operations that followed the attack on Pearl Harbor?

In a brilliant stroke, the author introduces a strong supporting-cast, whose lives and aspirations accentuate the tangled political “jungle” that surrounds Yun Ling and Aritomo. The South African tea planter, Magnus Pretorious, his nephew, Frederik, and a Japanese historian, Yoshikawa Tatsuji, provide revealing insights into the tragedy of individuals who cannot forget their past and “put the war behind them.”

Magnus Pretorious is the owner of a tea plantation named for one of the early victories of the Dutch settlers in South Africa over the British during the Boer War. Eventually, the British prevailed and Magnus, exiled to Malaya, went into business with Yun Ling’s father. Magnus still nurses a healthy dislike of the British. Yet he has freed himself from the slavery of hate. As he tells Yun Ling, the British could not kill him during the battles of the Boer War in 1899-1901 or in the prison camp afterwards.

“But holding on to my hatred for forty-six years … that would have killed me,” he confides to Yun Ling.

Magnus is an accomplished survivor. With Aritomo’s help, he escaped imprisonment at the hands of the Japanese and now goes about his business unscathed from CT attacks.

The British military command, whose ranks include Frederik, Magnus’ nephew, suspect that someone among the inhabitants of the Cameron Highlands is doing a deal with the CTs – providing information, supplies and funds in payment for survival. Is it Magnus or Aritomo?

The haunting memories of the now aging Yun Ling are touched by the arrival of the Japanese historian, Yoshikawa Tatsuji. An expert on Aritomo’s garden design and his woodblock prints in the ukiyo-e tradition, he is also a survivor of the “Pacific War.” For Professor Tatsuji, surviving has a peculiar resonance. He had been a young cadet pilot, trained to take part in the kamikaze attacks on Allied ships in 1945. At the last minute, Tatsuji’s squadron commander (and lover) commandeered his plane, flying-off on the suicide mission.

Tatsuji is left alive – to face his own survivor’s guilt and the gnawing realization that his lover’s heroic sacrifice had been part of a vast campaign of rape, torture and murder which the Japanese had termed the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. Now he comes to Malaysia to meet Yun Ling to try and rediscover the seed of Aritomo’s genius.

Yun Ling, Professor Tatsuji and Frederik Pretorious come together in a series of climatic emotional encounters during which they try to solve the riddle of Aritomo’s life and art and with this endeavor come to terms with their lives. This brings into focus the fourth major protagonist, the garden of Yugiri, Aritomo’s master creation and the true memorial to Yun Hong’s life and their lives as well.

The descriptions of nature in this heart-felt novel are so powerful, so sensitively handled that a palpable feeling of having seen the garden and the surrounding mist-shrouded hills is engendered. This is not merely a soaring flight of fancy occasioned by an outstanding prose writer. Instead Tan Twan Eng, like his hero, Aritomo, is making us aware of what we have not seen. In a key passage, Yun Ling describes the pond at Yugiri:

The garden felt larger, now that the pond was filled, and I realized that this liquid mirror was another form of shakkei, borrowing from emptiness to create more emptiness. The stones and pebbles wth which we had lined the pond were now submerged in water. It gave me a deep feeling of satisfaction to know that we had done everything properly, even if the results of our efforts were not visible. The drowned stones imparted a different character to the water, made it seem older, denser, its secrets hidden away.

As the sublime nature of Aritomo’s garden is revealed, Yun Ling, Frederik and Tatsuji reach deep within themselves for personal revelation. Yun Ling’s mind will wither, their lives will pass away and eventually the forest will descend from the surrounding hills and engulf the garden. But the spirit of Yugiri will remain.

Recalling a poem that Aritomo had once recited to her about a dried-up stream, Yun Ling quotes its haunting words in a heart-to-heart exchange with Frederik:

“Though the water has stopped flowing, we still hear the whisper of its name.”

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