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[571] The Gift of Rain – Tan Twan Eng


” The fortune-teller, long since dead, had said I was born with the gift of rain . . . Like the rain, I had brought tragedy into many people’s lives but, more often than not, rain also brings relief, clarity, and renewal. It washes away our pain and prepares us for another day, and even another life. Now that I am old I find that rains follow me and give me comfort, like the spirits of all the people I have ever known and loved. ” (Book Two, Ch.23, p.431)

Malaysia was at once colonized by the Portuguese, the Dutch, and the British. The Gift of Rain is set against the period of British Malacca, toward the end of the country’s colonization, when Japanese soldiers cut through impenetrable rainforest of Penang and took over the government. The story is told by Philip Khoo-Hutton, the son of an English father and Chinese mother who grew on the Malay island and lived through the Japanese occupation during World War II.

The novel opens about 50 years after the Japanese surrender, when Philip is an old man, still living in his childhood home redolent of painful memories—memories that are brought into sharp focus by an impromptu visitor from Japan. Michiko was the former lover of Hayato Endo, a Japanese diplomat and master of aikido that Philip befriended in the late 1930s. Endo-san became the most formative influence on Hutton’s life on the eve of war. Gradually Hutton warms to his visitor who teases out story of Hutton’s life with Endo-san.

I had gone back to many of those places in the days after the war, when in the silences of my life I missed him. I had gone hoping the places would still retain an echo of his presence, and of his passage, but I had only met with emptiness. (Book One, Ch.15, p.168)

An Eurasian, Hutton (his step-siblings were pure British from his father’s first marriage) was never fully accepted by either the Chinese or the English in Penang. Over time and since an early age he has hardened himself against the insults and whispered comments. Alienated from his community and family, the 17-year-old at last discovers a sense of belonging through an unexpected friendship with Endo, who becomes his mentor and master of martial art. The story Hutton tells is meandering, but engaging, leading from his infatuation with the sensei (teacher) to a more mature knowledge that friendship with this man with an insidious purpose on the island is a burden as well as a privilege. He has accepted the bargain: Endo’s protection for his native knowledge.

The problem is, some mistakes can be so great, so grievous, that we end up paying for them again and again, until eventually all our lives forget why we began paying in the first place. (Book One, Ch.13, p.154)

The Gift of Rain, framing its story on a little-heard-of Malaysian island with a diverse people and culture, delves into the moral ambiguity that its protagonist faces when war erupts. Hutton finds himself torn between love for his family and loyalty to his Japanese teacher and friend. Tan is not afraid to deal with such grey areas into which he puts Hutton. Both Hutton and Endo are well-etched. They are both shouldered with the duty to protect their families and have to act within the constraint of obligations. Tan’s treatment of their dilemma and emotional complexities is both nuanced and realistically ambiguous. They are capable of nobility, but also failures of the spirit and most importantly, they have to bear responsibility for evil as well as the good they do. The only drawback of this debut (nominated for Booker Prize 2007) was the excessive aikido element that sometimes teeters over into daftness. Tan’s evocative and thoughtful prose also evokes the work of Kazuo Ishiguro and Somerset Maugham.

432 pp. Weinstein Books. Paper. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

[509] The Garden of Evening Mists – Tan Twan Eng

” 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]

Pettigrew, Penang, Skippy

How befitting that I’ve been reading Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, a novel set in the English countryside, in a quiet Malaysian city named after Britain’s King George III, Georgetown in Penang. It’s a place so unparallel to Asian city: trishaws can still be seen plying the streets flanked by Chinese-style clan houses and At the lounge of the colonial Eastern & Oriental Hotel, which had hosted prominent guests like Hesse, Kipling, and Maugham, I’m sipping Lady Grey and having finger sandwiches, mulling over proper things an Englishman like Major Pettigrew values: honor, duty, decorum, and a proper cup of tea. Chamomile is not real tea, says the Major.

A visit to the local English-language bookstore of course has given my homeward bound luggage more weight. But how can you resist these beautiful UK paperback editions? (Almost all bookstores in Asia rely on and are stocked by distributors in the British Commonwealth.)











I started reading Skippy Dies. I know I’m supposed to read the shortlist of Independent Literary Awards since I’m one of the judges. This book is just intriguing as soon as I flip open the first page. Set in a boarding school in the British Isles, reverent children huddle in a gloomy chamber, watching as one of their fellow students, hands aflutter, assays a devilishly difficult trick that results in a jet of fire, some “cold and beautiful purple-blue enchantment.” It’s almost like Hogwarts but not quite. No magic wand to bring back the dead.  No Voldemort to rid of Muggle. The Booker Prize shortlisted book chronicles a single catastrophic autumn at Seabrook from many perspectives: students, teachers, administrators, priests, girlfriends, doughnut shop managers. At the center of it all is Daniel Juster, known as Skippy, whose death—on the floor of a donut shop, just after writing his beloved’s name on the floor in raspberry filling, opens the novel. It’s great read so far, and justifies my placing a heavy bet on its winning, despite its loss to The Finkler Question.

Malaysia: After Thoughts

All 431 pictures from beautiful Malaysia have been uploaded. The 16-day overland journey through the multicultural, multifaith country has not only rewarded my taste buds but also opened my eyes to a people and culture that I have been taken for granted, mostly in their Islamic faith. All my pre-trip worries about transportation and and schedule have quickly dissolved as friendly locals offered their help with solicitude.The trip has moments that will last a lifetime, and these moments are often the most trivial and true-to-life–standing on the remains of Melaka’s St. Paul’s Church, watching the tea pickers on the terrains of Cameron Highlands, and chatting with the volunteer at National Mosque in Kuala Lumpur. These moments bridged the gap between anticipation and reality, something I cherish the most about traveling alone.

Cameron Highlands Pictures

Bookey Wookey has tagged me for this interesting meme that I have seen here, here, and here. I’m snapping into it but I need a little more time contemplating the answers to questions on three characters I would bring to life and the VIP reading recommendation. My answers will be posted tomorrow. In the meantime, enjoy the highlights from Cameron Highlands in Malaysia, the complete set is available on Flickr.

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Cameron Highlands is my favorite place of all during the trip. It’s outlandishly tranquil and relaxing, free of all commercial vestiges. You will understand why I love this place so much after checking out the pictures yourself. The locals are charming, friendly, and embracing.

Melaka Pictures + Reading Update

The second installment of pictures from Malaysia is now available. They are snapshots of beautiful and serene Melaka, once an important port along the strait but now is striving in silence. It was thrice colonized, by the Portuguese, the Dutch and the Brits. You may see the highlights from this slide-show:

[rockyou id=100106135&w=426&h=320]

A bit of a reading update. I have cleared the vacation pile except for one book, Contempt by Alberto Moravia, which I’ll get into eventually. The Russian Reading Challenge is moving along fairly well with two books down: Le Bal and The Kreutzer. Many of you have read and plan to read The Master and Margarita, which I have mentioned in yesterday’s post on Booking Through Thursday. The class for which I serve as a GSI (graduate student instructor) this term will also read Bulgakov’s Heart of a Dog, which will be my next Russian novel. Acquired from abroad is a novel translated from Thai called The Judgment, by Chart Korbjitti. It revolves around a young man who, less than a month after his father died, has taken his stepmother as his wife. Rumor has it that the two of them have cuckolded the old man before he even laid in the coffin.

I’ve been keeping a list of books that some of you mention. A partial list has been drawn from ideas of the last BTT post on bloggers’ favorite books that are unheard of. Someone mentions Black Lamb and Grey Falcon by Rebecca West, a favorite author of mine. Another blogger shares about A Thread of Grace by Mary Doria Russell. A while back Gentle Reader recommended Black Swan Green: A Novel by David Mitchell to me, an author I have never read. The same title surfaced again in Danielle’s post yesterday. On the same list of hers is Pomegranate Soup by Marsha Mehran, which sounds very comforting for the rainy, cold weather that we’ve been having lately. A recently-found literary blog of great staying power has led me to authors and titles that I’m not familiar with. Two books he has pointed out are Black Dirt by Nell Leyshon and Pilcrow by Adam Mars-Jones. This last book especially intrigues me with the hero’s opening lines:

“I’m not sure I can claim to have taken my place in the human alphabet… I’m more like an optional accent or specialised piece of punctuation, a cedilla, umlaut or pilcrow, hard to track down on the keyboard of computer or typewriter. Pilcrow is the prettiest of the bunch, assessed purely as a word. And at least it stands on its own. It doesn’t perch or dangle. Pilcrow it is.”

So there you have it, my line-up of books for the rest of this month and February. Happy reading and happy Friday.

Kuala Lumpur Pictures

The first installment of pictures from Malaysia is now available. I haven’t uploaded all 800 some pictures from the trip because I need time to sort through them and write a bit of description for each. Enjoy the sceneries of Kuala Lumpur. The complete set is available in my Flickr page. Here is a slide show of the highlights:

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Kuala Lumpur | Three Towers 11/30/07
Kuala Lumpur | Bookstores 12/1/07
Kuala Lumpur | Islam 101 12/2/07

Penang | Bukit Bendera

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The trip to Bukit Bendera, or Penang Hill, takes up the entire last day of my stay in Penang. The bus ride to the funicular station at the foothill in Air Itam takes about 45 minutes from Georgetown, then the real fun is to queue up for tickets, which are soldout for the next two hours when I get there at 9 in the morning. The Swiss funicular cable car was completed in 1923 as an attempt to provide means of transportation to the foreign elites who live on the hill. Crawling time is about 30 minutes, with a change of carriages hafway up at the mid-level. I am more than happy to be stuck with just a standing room as I can capture a better view during the ascent to 820 meters (2500 feet). The top of Bukit Bundera is probably the best spot to enjoy a panoramic views of Penang. Has it not been the haze, the 13-km Penang Bridge linking the mainland will be visible.

Perching on top are also a mosque and an Hindu temple, as well as a post office. Usually the crowd will make a way around and hop back on the funicular for the descent because it does get congested and the wait can be dreadful. I take my time knowing this will be my last view of Penang and the roundabout trail is such tranquil and memorable way to conclude the trip in Malaysia. I find a shaded spot overlooking the bay and sit down with my book. I lounge away the rest of the afternoon on the hill undtil sunset.

Off to Bangkok today for a friend’s art opening tomorrow. I just finished Mrs Craddock by W. Somerset Maugham, stay tuned for the reviews and I’m officially done with the Outmoded Author Challenge, with the completion of 6 books. But I’ll continue on as I’ll be scouring the wonderful bookstores in Bangkok.

Penang | Ecstacy Temple!

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Often time tourist makes the mistake of taking too many pictures too soon at the site of attraction. Before he even gets to the heart of it the camera battery is dead. Refraining one’s impulsive whim is exactly what one has to exercise at Kek Lok Si Temple, for the view only gets better as one climbs up the steps to higher terraces. Kek Lok means extreme happiness or ecstacy. This temple of “ecstacy” is a buddhist one that sits on a hilltop at Air Itam, about 3 kilometers southwest of Penang city. It’s the largest of its kind in Malaysia. Founded in 1890 by a Chinese Buddhist immigrant, it took 20 years to complete and it is still being added to.

I was forewarned that tourists and locals alike (December is school holiday in Malaysia) will jam pack this place so I headed up early. The bus ride takes about 30 minutes to the town of Air Itam, which is already in it’s full bustle for the morning market. Locals sit under tarps that are setup for meals at the food stalls. Old ladies clutch bags full of incenses and fruits and set out for a moderate hike up to the temple. To reach the entrance, which is a bit hidden, one has to walk through a poorly ventilated, packed maze of souvenir shops, past a filthy turtle pond and murky fish pond, until one treads on the base courtyard. Ascends from here is chamber upon chamber, all lined with images of buddhas, bronze and porcelain, that eventually opens to a three-storey shrine that houses a large Thai Buddha image.

Before reaching the main hall where monks pray, chant and perform ceremonies, the four awe-inspiring heavenly kings, symbolic guardians of Buddhist practitioners, sit staidly on both sides of an ante-chamber. The heart of the complex is a 30m-high (100 feet) Ban Po Thar (Ten Thousand Buddhas Pagoda). You can climb to the top of this 7-tier tower to take an the airy view of Penang. The design is said to be Burmese at the top (the round chedi), Chinese at the bottom (the moderately pitched eaves), and Thai in between. The imposing temple complex is a perfect place for a tranquil stroll, if you know how to evade the families and kids.

I saunter for about three hours, with many kind offerings from other travelers to take picture. I have this notion about the divinity and sacredness of buddha and buddha images that I would never be in the same picture with them. But I cherish them, appreciate them, make wishes to them, and capture their tranquilty. The dress code and picture policy at temples, as you can see through my pictures, are way more relaxing than Thailand and Burma. In Thailand, it’s an outright offence if you step into the shrine with shoes on or pointing your feet at the buddha.

With one more day in Penang my trip in Malaysia will conclude. Then I’ll be off to Bangkok via Phuket.

Penang | Colonial Town

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It’s a quiet day around Penang. That most of the shops are closed makes me wonder if everyone is going to the mosque and the church. For the Muslims daily prayers are steadfast rituals that they perform 5 times a day, facing west, to the direction of Mecca. The first page of the newspaper will provide the exact times. A stroll in the colonial district does afford sightings of different religious activities.

St. George Church  is holding the Sunday service while I lurk around outisde, appreciating its marbled floor and the towering spire. The oldest Anglican church in Southeast Asia has an elegant pavilion that would make a great spot for reading. The tranquility and modesty of the church lends an air of countryside England. A few doors down is the double-spired Cathedral of the Assumption in which a mass is in progress.

Across the street, facing a padang, an open area surrounded by public buildings, are two beautiful, elegant mansions that make me for a moment forget that I’m in Malaysia. The yellow Town Hall, completed in 1880, is Penang’s oldest municipal building. The more imposing but without the fine porticos of its neighbor, is City Hall, which was built later in 1903 as the British government had to accommodate for the growing affairs in the colony. The City Hall testifies Penang’s affluence and significance during the turn of the 20th century.

Arrivals by sea will be greeted by the Victoria Memorial Clock Tower, a gleaming white tower topped by a Moorish dome. It was erected in 1897 to honor Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee. Each meter of the 60-meter tower signifies a year of her throne.

*   *   *

My paunchy stomach (from the unbridled intake of the delicious treats of local bites) is a warning sign that I need to hit the gym in no time. So I have been on the treadmill for 30 minutes since I arrived in Penang. I am picking back up my weight-lifting routine after a 10-day suspension. As far as my reading goes, I finished The Gentleman in the Parlour and will post the review soon. To gratify my whim for more of Maugham, I start Mrs. Craddock this morning over coffee, with also the anticipation to On the Chinese Screen, yet another Maugham that I find in a second-hand bookstore. Do I mention that they shelf the books according to the first names of the authors? It’s rather queer.