The palest ink will outlast the memory of men – Chinese proverb quoted in The Garden of Evening Mists
Persian carpets have flaws in them; horimono—traditional Japanese tattoos—contains blanks:
‘A horoshi will always leave a section of the horimono empty, as a symbol that it is never finished, never perfect,’ said Aritomo, wiping his hands on a towel.
In that respect The Garden of Evening Mists, which was shortlisted for last year’s Man Booker Prize, is not a perfect novel assuming one were to define a perfect novel as one where every question a reader (or even a character within said novel) might ask is answered to their satisfaction. There are definitely questions left unanswered at the end of this book, some by the characters themselves, some by the author. In some cases there’s an unwillingness to say more than needs be said; in others it’s an inability to adequately answer those questions. In an interview the author writes:
I’m interested in exploring realistic and flawed characters. I don’t set out to judge or to preach morality, but to convey what all of us have to confront daily — our own flaws, our own weaknesses and strengths. If my books feel ambiguous, it’s because life is ambiguous. Nothing is in black and white, and this is what makes writing so fascinating and challenging. I’ve always wondered what I would do, if faced with certain alternatives: would I have the courage and the strength to make the right decision? I’m still looking for the answer.
The book opens with a quote from ‘A Meander Through Memory and Forgetting’ by Richard Holmes:
There is a goddess of Memory, Mnemosyne; but none of Forgetting. Yet there should be, as they are twin sisters, twin powers, and walk on either side of us, disputing for sovereignty over us and who we are, all the way until death.
The author even incorporates the two sisters into his novel:
A pair of marble statues stood on their own plinths in the centre of the lawn, facing one another. On my first glance they appeared to be identical, down to the folds of their robes spilling over the plinths.
‘Bought them ridiculously cheap from an old planter’s wife after the planter ran off with his fifteen-year-old lover,’ said Magnus. ‘The one on the right is Mnemosyne. You’ve heard of her?’
‘The goddess of Memory,’ I said. ‘Who’s the other woman?’
‘Her twin sister, of course. The goddess of Forgetting.’
I looked at him, wondering if he was pulling my leg. ‘I don’t recall there’s a goddess for that.’
‘Ah, doesn’t the fact of your not recalling prove her existence?’ He grinned. ‘Maybe she exists, but it’s just that we have forgotten.’
‘So, what’s her name?’
He shrugged, showing me his empty palms. ‘You see, we don’t even remember her name anymore.’
I was born in 1923 in Penang, an island on the north-west coast of Malaya. Being Straits Chinese, my parents spoke mainly English, and they had asked a family friend who was a poet to choose a name for me. Teoh is my surname, my family name. As in life, the family must come first. That was what I had always been taught. I had never changed the order of my name, not even when I studied in England, and I had never taken on an English name just to make it easier for anyone.
Like Mnemosyne, Yun Ling also has a sister—in her case an elder sister, Yun Hong—who died while both girls were ‘Guests of the Emperor’ towards the end of the Second World War.
When we first encounter Yun Ling she is sixty-four years of age, has served as a judge in Malaya for many years and has, two months earlier (and without offering any explanation), announced her intention to retire two years earlier than expected. After leaving her court in Kuala Lumpur for the last time she drives to Yugiri, a house she owns but has not visited in many years, situated in the Cameron Highlands. It had been willed to her, along with its famous garden, by its previous owner, Nakamura Aritomo, a man who had once served as gardener to Emperor Hirohito of Japan and was also highly regarded as a woodblock artist. Yugiri means ‘Evening Mists’, hence the book’s title. The statues I just mentioned are not, however, his; he is a master of shakkei, the art of Borrowed Scenery, and one would imagine he might look on statues of Grecian titanesses as perhaps a little tacky. These belonged to his neighbour, Magnus Pretorius, who was at-one-time-at-least a friend of Yun Ling’s father. Magnus was an ex-patriate from the Transvaal who settled in Malaya and established the Majuba Tea Estate which has been taken over by his nephew, the now sixty-seven-year-old Frederick Pretorius. Some thirty-six years have passed since Frederick and Yun Ling first met in the October of 1951. A great deal of history binds these two but this is not their story.
The reason for Yun Ling’s early retirement is not kept from us. She confides in Frederick:
‘Something in my brain, something that shouldn’t be there.’ I pull my cardigan tighter over my body. I sense him waiting for me to explain. ‘I’ve been having problems with names.
‘The neurosurgeons ran their tests. They told me what I had suspected. I’m losing my ability to read and write, to understand language, any language. In a year – perhaps more, probably less – I won’t be able to express my thoughts. I’ll be spouting gibberish. And what people say, and the words I see – on the page, on street signs, everywhere – will be unintelligible to me.’ For a few seconds I am silent. ‘My mental competence will deteriorate. Dementia will shortly follow, unhinging my mind.’
Although I don’t think it was her intention when she first set out on this trip to write a memoir, she heeds Frederick’s advice and begins to tell her story, a story which hinges on the two years she lived there, initially as a guest of the Pretoriuses. She had travelled there originally to ask Aritomo to design a garden for her sister. When they’d been in the internment camp the two of them had often talked about building a garden once the war was over. Interestingly, despite the fact they were in a Japanese camp, it’s a Japanese garden her sister wants. On her first meeting with Aritomo Yun Ling tells him:
‘Yun Hong was fascinated by Japanese gardens even before we heard about you. Before you came to Malaya,’ I said.
‘How did she know about our gardens?’ he said. ‘I doubt there were any in Penang in those days, or in the whole of Malaya. Even today, mine is the only one.’
‘My father took all of us to Japan for a month. In 1938. Your government wanted to buy rubber from him. He was busy with his meetings, but the officials’ wives showed us around the city. We visited a few of the temples and the gardens. We even took the train to Kyoto.’ The memory of that holiday – the only time I had been overseas till then – made me smile. ‘I’ll never forget how excited Yun Hong was. I was fifteen, and she was three years older than me. But on that holiday... on that holiday she was like a little girl, and I felt I was the elder sister.’
That final comment is worthy of highlighting because when she asks Magnus which of the two twins was the older he said to her…
‘Mnemosyne, of course.’
‘Really? She looks younger, don’t you think?’
‘Memory must exist before there’s Forgetting.’ I smiled at him. ‘Or have you forgotten that?’
Aritomo, who had been in Malaya for eleven years at that time having resigned on a point of principle as gardener to the emperor (although later on some doubt is cast on whether he resigned, was sacked or had been assigned other duties), says he’s only interested in completing his own garden and refuses the job. Later on, having been unhappy for some time with the labourers he’s been working with, he reconsiders his position and makes her a counteroffer:
It took me a moment or two to grasp the nature of his proposal. ‘You’re asking me to be...apprenticed... to you?’ It was not what I had wanted from him at all. ‘That’s ridiculous.’
‘I will teach you the skills to build your own garden,’ he said. ‘A simple, basic garden.’
‘A half-hearted Japanese garden isn’t good enough for Yun Hong.’
‘That is all I can give you,’ he said. ‘I do not have the time – or the desire – to create a garden for you. Or for anyone else. The last commission I undertook taught me never to accept another.’
‘Why would you want to do this? Why did you change your mind?’
‘I need someone to help me.’
She agrees to work for him until the monsoon rains come, a period of about six months. It proves to be an interesting, a life-changing six months and, if you’ve been paying attention, you’ll have realised that she stays on longer than that. The core of the book focuses on this then, the awkward (certainly at first) relationship between an ex-POW and the ex-gardener of the emperor who authorised her capture and, had circumstances not intervened, her death.
Aritomo is… I’m tempted to write ‘a shady character’ but that has certain unpleasant connotations… he is, however, a man who is not given to shining too bright a light on himself or his past; he is very much the archetypal Japanese scholar: terse, principled, controlled, refined, private. Despite the fact that he bows before a portrait of the emperor every time he enters his study he was not, however, a fervent supporter of what his emperor was doing and went out of his way to ensure the safety of as many of the locals as he could during the Japanese occupation. Magnus tells her:
[I]f it hadn’t been for him half my workers would have been rounded up and taken down to some mine or worked to death on the Railway.
That helps their relationship but only a little. So many of the things he does remind her of her imprisonment. She tells Frederick:
Aritomo had brought me to a stack of trees he had had felled a month earlier. They had been trimmed. ‘Get one of the men to saw these maruta into smaller pieces and take them away,’ he ordered. Instead of carrying out his instructions, I had turned around and hurried away. I heard him calling out to me, but I did not stop. I walked faster, heading deeper into the garden. I tripped, got up and continued walking, going up the slope until I came to the edge of a high drop, with only the mountains and the sky before me. I did not know how long I stood there. After a while I sensed Aritomo coming up to my side. ‘Maruta,’ I said, staring ahead. ‘That was how the officers in the camp referred to us: logs. We were just logs to them. To be cut up, incinerated.’ For a few moments the gardener was silent. Then I felt him take my arm. ‘You’re bleeding.’ He gripped my elbow and pressed his handkerchief against my wound.
Little by little a bond forms between the two, at first a bond of convenience and necessity but later on this deepens. Then one day Aritomo, who had been in the habit of taking an evening constitutional, says he would prefer his own company that particular evening and walks off into the jungle; he is never seen again. Was he murdered by “the communist-terrorists” (which the government referred to as ‘CTs’ or, more commonly, ‘bandits’) or did his disappearance have anything to do with the Golden Lily?
The operation was not under the control of the army … but was headed by Prince Chichibu Yasuhito, the Emperor’s brother. Chichibu was assisted by some of the other princes. ‘They had accountants, financial advisers, experts in art and antiques working under the direction of these princes.
‘They knew where to look, and they stole everything they could lay their hands on: jade and gold Buddha statues from ancient temples; cultural artefacts and antiques from museums; jewellery and gold hoarded by wealthy Chinese with their distrust of banks. Golden Lily emptied royal collections and national treasuries. It removed bullion and priceless artworks, carvings, pottery and paper currencies.’
Perhaps Aritomo is not the man Yun Ling and others thought him to be? And, of course, it takes no great leap of the imagination for her to realise that the camp she had been in, which had been involved in mining, was probably run by the Golden Lily.
So this is a mystery novel; it is also an historical novel, a political novel and a love story, albeit not one Mills & Boon would’ve jumped at the chance to publish. It is also a literary novel in that it is fundamentally an exploration of the nature and desirability of memory. At 448 pages it’s not a quick read although it’s certainly not a hard read; the biggest problem most people will have is their unfamiliarity with the history surrounding Malaysia. A lot of people—myself included—will probably have difficulty even locating the country on a world map.
The bulk of the novel takes place during the Malayan Emergency. After Malaya had been reconquered by Allied Forces—it had been occupied for three years by the Japanese—a growing need for independence began to show its face.
The Malayan Union, established in 1946 and consisting of all the British possessions in the Malay Peninsula with the exception of Singapore, was quickly dissolved and replaced by the Federation of Malaya, which restored the autonomy of the rulers of the Malay states under British protection. During this time, mostly Chinese rebels under the leadership of the Malayan Communist Party launched guerrilla operations designed to force the British out of Malaya. The Malayan Emergency lasted from 1948 to 1960, and involved a long anti-insurgency campaign by Commonwealth troops in Malaya. After this a plan was put in place to federate Malaya with the British crown colonies of Sabah, Sarawak, and Singapore. – Wikipedia
Just because Yun Ling is Chinese, Aritomo is Japanese and the Pretoriuses are South Africans (from 1910–1994 Transvaal was a province of the Union and Republic of South Africa) doesn’t mean they’re safe by any means and there are a number of run-ins, one fatal.
Gardens obviously loom large in this book and are a strong metaphor. When Yun Ling arrives on the first day of her apprenticeship the following exchange takes place:
He pointed to my writing pad. ‘I do not want you to make notes,’ he said, ‘not even when you go home at the end of the day.’
‘But I won’t be able to remember everything.’
‘The garden will remember it for you.’
Later he tells her:
A garden is composed of a variety of clocks […] Some of them run faster than the others, and some of them move slower than we can ever perceive.
The terms ‘memory garden’ or ‘memorial garden’ are not used in the book but they don’t need to be. In an interview Tan Twan Eng says:
I wanted the reader to feel that he or she is walking through a garden, with each bend in the path revealing something new, something different, and yet connected to the overall design and themes of the garden. If the reader were to read the book again after he had finished it, his experience will mirror that of walking through the same garden again, but the scenery and the views, and his awareness of them, will differ from what he saw on his first walk through it.
There is much talk in the book about the time when the garden will be completed but, of course, it’s the nature of gardens that they’re never finished; they continue to grow and so the gardener’s work is never done; he has to continue to work to maintain their artificiality. And this is an important thing to remember about most gardens but especially the kind of Japanese gardens in the book: they are constructs with a specific goal in mind. Frederick doesn’t much care for Yugiri’s “artificial” look. He says:
‘Gardens like his are designed to manipulate your emotions. I find that dishonest.’
‘Is it?’ I fired back. ‘The same can be said of any work of art, any piece of literature or music.’ I had worked extremely hard in the garden, and to hear someone denigrating it angered me. ‘If you weren’t so stupid you’d see that your emotions are not being manipulated – they’re being awakened to something higher, something timeless. Every step you take inside Yugiri is meant to open your mind, to lead you to the heart of a contemplative state.’
Books, like she says, are also artificial constructs made up mostly of lies and half-truths and yet if we approach them with the right attitude they can also open us up “to something higher, something timeless.” I don’t want to make more of this book than it deserves—it’s an aspirational work certainly—but I found it a far more engrossing read than I expected it to be. The story is fine, told well enough even if it does meander a bit—and story is clearly important to the author—but I was more taken with the book’s “higher” purpose if you like. Perhaps this is because over the last five or six years I’ve also been preoccupied by the ephemeral nature of memory. The worst I could say about this book was that it was good research material but if that was all I was to say I’d be selling it short. Most other reviewers have been positive in their comments, the only really negative one that crops up from time to time remarks on how boring the narrator can be—in her review in The Guardian Kapka Kassabova writes, “There is no discernible personality in the dutiful, dull voice of Yun Ling”—and it’s a fair comment—she’s not the most exciting person who’s ever told her story—but I think much of this can be blamed on her upbringing, history and nationality; the same goes for Aritomo. I’m not saying Orientals can’t be passionate but it’s not the first thing that jumps to mind, is it?
I’m not sure many really expected The Garden of Evening Mists to win the Man Booker Prize but for any writer to get his first and second books both at least considered for the prize says something about the man if only the fact that hard work pays off:
The structure of the story has to have balance and harmony. And this I achieved only with endless rewriting. I was constantly changing the sequence of chapters and scenes until I was satisfied with the balance in the book.
I will be interested to see how his third book pans out.
Let me leave you with a short clip of the author reading from the first chapter:
Tan Twan Eng was born in Penang in 1972 but lived in various places in Malaysia as a child. He studied law at the University of London and later worked as lawyer in one of Kuala Lumpur’s most reputable law firms before becoming a full-time writer. He has a first-dan ranking in aikido and currently lives and works between Cape Town and Kuala Lumpur. His first novel, The Gift of Rain, was published in 2007 and long-listed for the Man Booker Prize that year.