Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Selected Views

Tan Twan Eng's The Garden of Evening Mists languished on my shelf for quite a while, patiently waiting for me to make time to slip into its hushed world. I bought a flight of the Man Asian Literary Prize winners with the intention of broadening the cultural scope of my reading. So far this has been the most successful (meaning: enjoyable) of the four winners I have read: Ilustrado (review), The Boat to Redemption (review), and Three Sisters (review).

The story is narrated by a recently retired judge, Teoh Yun Ling, who has returned to a place from her past after having been diagnosed with aphasia. Before the disease robs her of her ability to speak and to understand speech, Yun Ling wishes to write a memoir, and to process past experiences from the Japanese occupation of Malaya. While staying in the home of a friend and his wife, she also meets with a Japanese professor who is studying the life and work of a famous artist and gardener, Aritomo, formerly gardener to the Japanese Emperor. And Arimoto himself is her neighbor. Although the war ended years ago, its echoes and tensions remain.

Yun Ling was the only survivor of the Japanese internment camp where she was placed with her sister, and has never fully come to terms with that experience. Yun Ling's cathartic attempt to build the Japanese garden she promised her sister, trying to instill hope in her, is complicated by Yun Ling's tense relationship with Arimoto, cultural and racial frictions left over from the war, and contemporary political unrest in the countryside, compounded by rumors of buried treasures, looted from occupied territories during the war. The past is very much present as Yun Ling pursues her goal.

This is an intricately plotted novel with many unusual twists and turns. To the author's credit, he creates a story steeped in history and politics without making detailed knowledge essential to the reader's understanding. I am not sure that I appreciated the full effect of this novel, but I certainly received an introduction to the complex aftermath of the Japanese occupation. The issues of wartime ethics and survival throw long shadows into the lives of those who lived through that time; their peacetime relationships cannot be navigated without an awareness of all that's gone before.

As the principles of Japanese gardening require the balanced use of natural elements, selected and arranged to create a desired effect, so this novel gracefully combines Yun Ling's personal experience and desires with the elements that surround her. The effect -- like a Japanese garden -- is artificial, but very, very real.


The sprinklers came on, releasing the smell of the sun-roasted grass into the air. The leaves discarded by the guava tree in the centre of the garden had been raked into a pile. Behind the courts, the Gombak and Klang rivers plaited together, silting the air with the smell of earth scoured from the mountains in the Titiwangsa range up north. most people in Kuala Lumpur couldn't bear the stench, especially when the river was running low between monsoon seasons, but I had never minded that, in the heart of the city, I could smell the mountains over a hundred miles away.

I sat down on my usual bench and opened my senses to the stillness settling over the building, becoming part of it.

After a while I stood up. There was something missing from the garden. Walking over to the mound of leaves, I grabbed a few handfuls and scattered them randomly over the lawn. Brushing off the bits of leaves sticking to my hands, I stepped away from the grass. Yes, it looked better now. Much better.

Note: This book counts toward the Color Coded Reading Challenge (green) and the Mount TBR Reading Challenge.    

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