Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 28, 2013

The Garden of Evening Mists, by Tan Twan Eng


The Garden of Evening MistsShadow Man Asian logo 2012The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng has a slow start so at first it seems a bit puzzling that it was longlisted for the Booker Prize and shortlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize.   But as one reads on, other puzzles reveal themselves and then the nominations are not a puzzle at all.

The narrator is Yun Ling, torn between remembering and forgetting.   She has spent most of her life trying to forget the cruelties of the Japanese Occupation of Malaya but is now desperate to bear witness to it because she has been diagnosed with a degenerative brain disease.  From this unpromising beginning, Tan Twan Eng has woven a complex mystery that explores the possibilities of reconciliation and redemption and also the appropriation of aesthetics in other cultures.

Though I’ve never been to Japan, I’ve visited a number of Japanese gardens and I have to say that their artifice doesn’t appeal to me at all, but this is, apparently because I have not learned to interpret them properly.   They embody all sorts of concepts such as the idea of ‘borrowed scenery’ and they are designed to make a visitor stop at certain points to absorb the serenity and appreciate the symbolism and so forth.  It’s very difficult to explain the relevance of such concepts to the story without spoilers which would destroy the subtle cunning of this novel, so I’m not going to.  The novel is constructed like one of these gardens and it only slowly reveals its secrets.

Consistent with Yun Ling’s memories, the story moves in and out of the past and the narrator’s tone shifts depending on her focus.  When she tells us about her career as the first female judge in the postwar Malayan War Crimes Tribunals, her tone is flat and dull, as if she is trying to suppress emotion.  As well she might, consigning numerous Japanese found guilty to capital punishment.   When she tells us about her conflicted desire to build a memorial Japanese garden for her sister who died under the Occupation, her tone is anguished.  Her thoughts of long-harboured hatred are contrasted with bitter scorn when, confronted by ‘The Association To Bring Home the Emperor’s Fallen’, she can no longer suppress her hatred.

Yun Ling’s experiences have made her a very complex character, but like all of us, she yearns for love and companionship.  Scarred both physically and mentally by her time in the slave-labour camp, if she is to fulfil her promise to her dead sister, she has to forge a relationship with Aritomo, the enigmatic designer of a Japanese garden in the Cameron Highlands.  But he refuses to create a memorial garden but takes her on as an apprentice instead, so that she is once again in a position of subservience to a Japanese.  It is through these two characters that the journey towards reconciliation and redemption is explored, complicated by Yun Ling’s dawning realisation that Aritomo has suspicious secrets of his own.

As you might expect in a novel about the post-colonial experience, other characters have their own resentments too.  The Straits Chinese are resented by the Malays, the ex Boer South African tea planter Magnus resents the British.  And there are the Communist insurgents as well …

Although I enjoyed the novel, I found its fundamental premise unconvincing.  Any Malayan appreciation of Japanese aesthetics in the context of its history under the Occupation seems unlikely, and the appropriation of Yun Ling herself as a symbol seems an artifice too great for the story to bear.  Given the atrocities committed by the Japanese (and their steadfast refusal to apologise) the idea that a Japanese garden and its maker would be held in high esteem  in the post-Occupation period seems fanciful.  The notion that sisters in a Japanese slave labour camp would be able to transcend the brutality of their captivity by fantasising about the serenity of a Japanese garden rather than the lush landscapes of their own culture is bizarre.

Still, if such doubts are suspended, the novel works.  The prose is captivating, and the storyline becomes increasingly compelling as the tale progresses.  The Garden of Evening Mists deserves to be in contention for major prizes.

I have been over-careful about spoilers in this review because if I ever knew anything about this novel I had forgotten it by the time I came to read it, and part of the pleasure was the sinuous way secrets were concealed and revealed.   So if you plan to read it soon, be careful with the reviews you read.

Matt Todd shares his extensive knowledge of Japanese culture in his review at A Novel Approach ,Stu at Winston’s Dad thought it was the ‘best book written in English this year’ and Kim at Reading Matters was quite right when she predicted I would enjoy it.  There is a swag of other reviews at The Complete Review and one from an Asian perspective at The Asian Review of Books.

I read this book as a member of the Shadow Man Asian Literary Prize jury.  To read my reviews of other Man Asian Literary Prize nominations see here and to see reviews by other jurors, please visit the SMALP Jury Notes at Matt Todd’s A Novel Approach.

Author: Tan Twan Eng
Title: The Garden of Evening Mists
Publisher: W F Howes Ltd (Clipper) 2012
ISBN: 9781471216664 (Large print edition)
Source: Bayside Library

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Fishpond: The Garden of Evening Mists


Responses

  1. I have had this on my TBR pile for some weeks now and am glad that I have now read your review before embarking on it. I doubt I would have had the knowledge of history to be able to detect the basic mistaken premise which you have so interestingly pointed out.

  2. I wonder how much the fact that you personally do not enjoy Japanese gardens affects your questioning of the premise of the book. As someone who very much admires Japanese gardens I had no trouble believing that Yun Ling would retain her love of the gardens despite her experiences with the Japanese occupation. Especially since she is shown as being conflicted about her feelings toward the gardens. I do find it more surprising that Malaysian society more broadly would still have an admiration of Japanese gardens, but that seems more minor to the story to me.

    • It’s really hard to imagine how an individual being brutalised by an alien culture would feel about their high culture even if they’d admired that culture beforehand – but (treading carefully to avoid spoilers) at a time when nationalism was on the rise, and a time when so many people had really suffered under the Occupation (even if not imprisoned) I have difficulty imagining that ordinary people who haven’t been exposed to its aesthetic qualities would be very appreciative of it.
      It’s not a very good analogy but even now there are Jewish people who are hostile to German culture, and will not ever buy any German products, and Israel maintains an informal ban on the music of Mahler. (http://tinyurl.com/ag5s9ta).
      I don’t think it’s a minor point in the story, not when there were nationalist communists operating in the area.

  3. I hope you don’t mind me continuing to discuss this. If you do, please just let me know.

    I certainly agree that it is unexpected that Yun Ling would retain her admiration for Japanese gardens, but I don’t find it impossible that she as an individual would do so. I thought that the author did a lot to explain this unexpected premise. He gave reasons why the gardens would be important for her despite her experiences and she certainly had mixed feelings about them.

    When I said that the reaction of Malaysian people in general to Japanese gardens was more of a minor point, I didn’t mean that their reaction didn’t matter. What I meant was just that it was less of a central premise of the book. I don’t think the book would have had to change that much if Yun Ling were the only person who valued the gardens, whereas Yun Ling’s response is clearly fundamental to the book.

    • BEWARE:SPOILER ALERT!
      Hello again, I’m happy to chat on about this book, I’m just sorry not to have more time because it’s been rather a busy day.
      I think I’m actually more bothered about the idea that Yun Ling’s sister would sustain herself with dreams of a Japanese garden during the ordeal of being raped over and over again every day as a so-called Comfort Woman. After all, it is *her* enthusiasm for the garden that motivates Yun Ling. Everything she does, and the way she (mostly) conquers her hostility is an homage to her dead sister.
      I am happy to concede that people survived these kinds of experiences by imagining themselves elsewhere. POWs used to dream up amazing menus when they were starving, and I can well understand that planning a beautiful garden might be a way of maintaining hope and beauty in a sordid life. I also know personally of some extraordinary people who have afterwards been able to forgive what was done to them. But Japanese gardens are so distinctively Japanese, and their ethos is so different from what was being enacted throughout southeast Asia under the Occupation, well, I’m more inclined to interpret this part of the plot as a device that enables the author to explore reconciliation, and leave it at that.
      I don’t have the book now (it’s under heavy demand at the library) so I’m relying on memory here: the book relies on the garden surviving *after the Occupation* when locals might have wanted to vent their feelings. Apart from anything else, it’s odd that it wasn’t dug up by the folks looking for the treasure!
      Must go, The Beloved is just about to dish up dinner!

      • That’s a good point. I was only considering what Yun Ling herself was thinking and taking her sister’s opinions for granted. It is much harder to explain her sister’s response. Perhaps the fact that, as you say, the ethos of the gardens and the occupation were so different allowed her to keep them quite separate in her mind.

        • I do think it’s great that this topic is making it into print. I read The Comfort Women some years ago (a reference that Tan Twang Eng includes in his bibliography at the back of the book) and was appalled. These rape brothels weren’t aberrations, they were policy, and it is only in recent years that the Japanese have got round to making an apology, having made their victims wait a lifetime for it. I think that the suffering of our south-east Asian neighbours isn’t widely known and that it should be, because it’s only when these atrocities are out in the open that steps can be taken to ensure that they never happen again.

  4. pleased you have similar feeling to me about this one lisa I must go back and read his earlier novel now ,Think this could be man asian winner for me ,having read the five shortlist books now ,all the best stu

    • It’s between Silent House and this one for me, I wait to be swayed one way or the other by the wisdom of the rest of the shadow jury!

  5. Glad you enjoyed this, Lisa :-) I studied Japanese gardens as part of my undergrad degree, so have long been fascinated by them — they are all about symbolism.

    I see what you mean about the idea that a Japanese garden and its maker would not be held in high esteem after the war, but there have been very many studies that show gardening as a form of healing (war veterans, for instance, have used gardening as a form of therapy for post-traumatic stress), so in that context the gardening “culture” is less important than the physical act of gardening itself. In other words, it doesn’t matter that the garden is Japanese because Yun Ling does not necessarily associate it as part of the culture that opressed/tortured here — the aesthetics/physical act of gardening is much more important.

  6. An unwillingness to appreciate Japanese aesthetics would necessarily be premised on associating the aesthetics *with* their origin, wouldn’t it? Do you perhaps think that if the Malayans were able to separate the *quality* of the aesthetic – look at the garden *as a garden* – from its creators, then this would no longer hold? And would that make the premise more plausible? Just a thought.

  7. I don’t know, it’s really hard to imagine it, but it’s possible I suppose. And as I say, I can go with it, I don’t think it spoils the book or anything like that. In fact, it makes a good talking point:)

  8. I didn’t have any trouble with the Japanese garden bit because I see “Japanese” as a description of a kind of garden and aesthetic that doesn’t especially have anything to do with Japan per se (like an English garden, an Italian garden or a veggie garden). Where I found trouble was the love relationship between Aritomo and Yun Ling and the whole thing with the tattoo. Overall it was a good read though.

    • Yes, he was always the one in control, wasn’t he? Even before The Big Revelation I was suspicious of him, as any sensible feminist would be!


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