The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng (Myrmidon Books – November, 2011)
In the garden of a tea plantation deep in the Malayan jungle stands a statue of Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory. Opposite her, with softened angles and weatherworn features, stands her sister—the goddess of forgetting. This vivid image at the start of Tan Twan Eng's Booker shortlisted novel The Garden of Evening Mists lingers in the mind as narrator Teoh Yun Ling grapples with her memories, both painful and vividly beautiful, with the knowledge that one day soon they will fade away for ever.
Yun Ling is retiring early from her job as a stern Supreme Court judge in Kuala Lumpur to return to the Cameron Highlands. It is somewhere she has not visited for many years, a place where secrets of her past have been carefully locked away—secrets which only now to start to break free "like shards of ice fracturing off an arctic shelf." She returns to attend to the legacy of Nakamura Aritomo, a mysterious and reclusive man, famed for having once been gardener to the Emperor of Japan.
The daughter of a prosperous Chinese-Malaysian family, Yun Ling is also the only survivor of a secret and unmapped Japanese prisoner-of-war camp, in which her much loved older sister died. She originally meets Aritomo while on a quest to build a garden in memory of this sister, who studied the art of the Japanese garden in her youth. When Aritomo refuses, Yun Ling’s initial anger gives way when she takes up Aritomo’s offer to become his apprentice, to allow the beginning of what is to become a lifelong friendship.
Through a series of flashbacks we see the intense relationship between Yun Ling and Aritomo develop from a guarded resentment into a passionate friendship that neither will be able to replicate again in their lives. The intensity of their growing respect and understanding of one another is revealed gradually against a backdrop of war and outbursts of violence. But who is Nakamura Aritomo? Why has he ended up living on the edges of the Malayan jungle, spending a lifetime creating the Garden of Evening Mists, and what is his connection to the barbaric Japanese regime that Yun Ling hates with such a passion?
Rich in metaphor, the descriptions of the Garden layer upon one another to build a picture of a secluded world into which the dangerous political situations and conflicts of the time frequently impinge. The philosophy of the ‘Art of Setting Stones’, alongside tea ceremonies, Zen and traditional Japanese tattooing, are the mechanisms through which the characters learn to reconcile themselves with the past and move forward with their lives.
Evocative passages in the narrative are interspersed with moments of gentle reflection. "My memory is like the moon tonight, full and bright, so bright you can see all its scars" speaks one of the supporting characters in a wistful poetic explosion. However the dialogue is also at times self-conscious, more like remembered conversations than those captured in the moment. And for the reader who is familiar with the history of this part of the world and its conflicts, some of the lengthy passages of historical description may tread over familiar ground.
The novel traverses three periods of time, the Second World War, the time of the Malayan Emergency of the 1960s and the present day. Stark descriptions of the brutality of war range from the torture of prisoners by the Japanese, the atrocities committed in the Boer War and the mercenary tactics of Communist Terrorists in the Malayan jungle. What endures is a broad picture of the horror of war as a painful and pointless pursuit which mentally scars all of those involved in it, regardless of which faction they support. Tan Twan Eng's novel shows us how it might be possible to deal with grief and tragedy in a world of constant war. How aggression can be channelled in such a way as to limit the harm to oneself or to others, and to allow the wounded to live beside their enemy.
Somewhere in between the persistence of memory and the art of forgetting is a middle ground where the urge to forget and the desperate need to remember do battle. It is within this mythical landscape that The Garden of Evening Mists, with its tall standing stones and raked gravel pathways, waits patiently for its next visitor.