” The garden has to reach inside you. It should change your heart, sadden it, uplift it. It has to make you appreciate the impermanence of everything in life. That point in time just as the last leaf is about to drop, as the remaining petal is about to fall; that moment captures everything beautiful and sorrowful about life. ‘Mono no aware,’ the Japanese call it. ” (Ch.13, p.163)
Beautiful and multi-layered, The Garden of Evening Mists is woven together with history of the Pacific War and personal flashbacks. Yun Ling Teoh is the austere supreme court judge who retires two years early from the courtroom in Kuala Lumpur. Before approaching obliteration of her mind due to a medical condition, she returns to the tea bush-clad Cameron Highlands to attend to some unfinished business from 40 some years ago.
Are all of us the same, I wonder, navigating our lives by interpreting the silences between words spoken, analyzing the returning echoes of our memory in order to chart the terrain, in order to make sense of the world around us? (Ch.23, p.307)
What entails is a chronologically complex flashback of events after the Japanese occupation. Despite the Japanese surrender, much lawlessness and unrest encroach Malaya, as the Communist Terrorists take revenge on collaborators. The ethnic Chinese guerillas harass tea plantations with bloody raids. It was 1951. Self-exiled from imperial Japan after a dispute in which he would not compromise with his ideals, Nakamura Aritomo, once the emperor’s gardener, settles in the hilltops of Malaya and begins to build Yugiri, the Garden of Evening Mists. The garden, which borrows the ever-changing landscapes of weather, the mists, and surrounding landscapes, survives both the Japanese occupation and the CTs.
Into his quiet life comes Yun Ling, then 28 years old, the daughter of a wealthy Chinese Malaysian family and a researcher of the war crime tribunal. She is the sole survivor of a prisoner-of-war camp. Instead of building a garden to commemorate her sister who served as a jugan ianfu (female sex slave) and perished, Aritomo offers to teach her the art of Japanese garden for two years. “A half-hearted garden is not good enough for your sister.” (77) As he passes on his experience and talent for visual feints and ruses of shakkei, or borrowed scenery, a relationship beyond that of master and apprentice ensues. Yun Ling senses there is more than Aritomo wants to reveal about himself. He even helps protect the locals from the Kempeitai. He lobbies for the release of some jugan ianfus. Why does he choose to remain in Malaya after the war?
People think he went missing only once in his life, but I disagree. He did it twice. The first time was when he left Japan before the Pacific War started. No one knew where he went or what he did. (Ch.13, p.173)
Aritomo indeed is the embodiment of the novel’s elegant mystery. His garden cultivates formal harmony; it unmasks sophisticated artistry. In very elegant and contemplative prose, Tan Twan Eng shows how the Japanese garden reveals itself as a capacious symbol of the human soul, replete with exactly the kinds of “borrowed landscapes” we live with. This book is about fleeting beauty and impermanence, how our immediate experiences rather than painful memories may change our lives for good.
332 pp. Weinstein Books. Paper. [Read/
Skim/ Toss] [Buy/ Borrow]