Sunday, March 22, 2020

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

The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng
Malaysian author Tan Twan Eng, born in Penang, Malaysia, divides his time between Kuala Lumpur and Cape Town. THE GARDEN OF EVENING MISTS is his second novel: his debut was the highly respected and awarded THE GIFT OF RAIN. Eng’s sensitivity to his readers is evident in an author’s note at book’s end: ’With the exception of the obvious historical figures, all characters in the novel sprang from my imagination. The visit of Sir Gerald Templer and his wife to Majuba Tea Estate and Yugiri is fictional. The Malayan Emergency ended in July 1960, twelve years after it began. With the combined efforts of local security forces, civilians and troops from the Commonwealth, Malaya was one of the few countries in the world to defeat a communist insurgency. Noel Barber in his book The War of the Running Dogs called it “the world’s first struggle against guerrilla Communism. I am grateful to Tristan Beauchamp Russell for describing to me what life on his tea estate in Cameron Highlands was like during the Malayan Emergency.’

In keeping with the eloquent tonality of his first novel, Eng opens this book with a stunningly seductive aperitif: ‘On a mountain above the clouds once lived a man who had been the gardener of the emperor of Japan. Not many people would have known of him before the war, but I did. He had left his home on the rim of the sunrise to come to the central highlands of Malaya. I was seventeen years old when my sister first told me about him. A decade would pass before I traveled up to the mountains to see him. He did not apologize for what his countrymen had done to my sister and me. Not on that rain-scratched morning when we first met, nor at any other time. What words could have healed my pain, returned my sister to me? None. And he understood that. Not many people did.'

Eng’s novel unveils an aspect of world history and wars about which few of us are familiar – the Japanese occupation of Malaya, post war the Malayan Emergency, and the rise of the independent Malaya. The novel is breathtaking not only in the themes but also in the eloquence of Eng’s writing.

A detailed synopsis is helpful to the first time Eng reader - “Newly retired Supreme Court Judge Teoh Yun Ling returns to the Cameron Highlands of Malaya, where she had spent a few months several years earlier. Oncoming aphasia is forcing her to deal with unsettled business from her youth while she is still able to remember. She starts writing her memoir and agrees to meet with Japanese professor Yoshikawa Tatsuji. Tatsuji is interested in the life and works of artist Nakamura Aritomo, who used to be the Japanese Emperor's gardener but moved to this area to build his own garden. During the Japanese occupation of Malaya, Yun Ling was in a Japanese civilian internment camp with her sister, Yun Hong. Yun Hong did not make it out alive, and after the war was over, Yun Ling decided to fulfil a promise made to her sister: to build a Japanese garden in their home in Kuala Lumpur. She travelled to the highlands to visit family friend Magnus Pretorius, an ex-patriate South African tea farmer who knew Aritomo. Aritomo refused to work for Yun Ling but agreed to take her on as an apprentice, so she could later build her own garden. Despite her resentment against the Japanese, Yun Ling agreed to work for Aritomo and later became his lover. During the conversations with Tatsuji, it comes out that Aritomo was involved in a covert Japanese program during the war, to hide looted treasures from occupied territories. The rumors of this so-called "Golden Lily" program were widespread, and Magnus was killed trying to save his family from the Communist guerillas who came looking for the gold. Aritomo never talked about the treasure to Yun Ling, but gradually it becomes clear that he might have left a clue to its location. Before he disappeared into the jungle, he made a horimono tattoo on her back. It now appears this tattoo might contain a map to the location of the treasure. Yun Ling decides that, before she dies, she must ensure that no one will be able to get their hands on her body or the map. In the meantime, she sets out to restore Aritomo's dilapidated garden.’

The book is cinematic and yet often so mist shrouded that film may not be able to convey all levels of meaning. This is one of the great novels of the past decade and deserves wide readership. Grady Harp, October 17

Editor's note: This review has been published with the permission of Grady Harp. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.