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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]