The Garden of Evening Mists

Tan Twen Eng is two-for-two. Each of his first two novels has made the long list for the Man Booker Prize. The Garden of Evening Mists actually made the short list, but no matter. The point is that Eng, a Malaysian, is a formidable novelist with a powerful, poetic voice. (See my review of his first book, The Gift of Rain.)

There are similarities between the two works. Both are set in Malaya during and after World War II. Both protagonists are molded, chiseled, and damaged by that catastrophic conflict that raises doubts about the adage: “whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” Too, both novels weave together biographies of a protagonist who is at least partially Chinese and who is confronted by another major character who, in each case, is Japanese. Both of the Japanese men are somewhat mysterious, and in attempting to solve their mysteriousness the protagonists go some distance towards understanding themselves. The likenesses aside, the two novels tell distinctly different stories.

Evening Mists, “Yugiri” in Japanese, is the name of the Japanese garden that Nakamura Aritomo designed and is installing in Malaya. Aritomo, formerly a gardener for Emperor Hirohito, came to Malaya in 1940 under secretive circumstances. He had previously become friends with Magnus Pretorius, a South African tea planter living in Malaya. He settled on a piece of land sold to him by Magnus, owner of the Majuba Tea Estate.

In 1951 Teoh Yun Ling, a twenty-eight year-old unemployed Malayan barrister of Chinese descent, appears at Yugiri (Evening Mists) to request that Aritomo create a Japanese garden in memory of Yun Hong, her sister who loved Japanese gardens and had died during the war. Magnus, a business partner of her father’s before the war, has arranged for the meeting to take place. Even so, Aritomo rejects Teoh Yun Ling’s request. Still, Aritomo-sensei eventually agrees for her to be his apprentice until the monsoon begins. While helping to finish Yugiri, she will be able to learn enough about Japanese gardening in the six months prior to the monsoon to create a garden of her own for her dead sister.

All of these past events exist only in the memory of Teoh Yun Lin, now a retired Malayan Supreme Court Justice circa 1992. Judge Teoh seems to be in a hurry to get her memories onto paper before they disappear or are transformed into incommunicable sensations. She duly narrates her story but has obstacles to overcome, such as her anger, her loneliness, and the complicated personal and national history she has experienced.

Since the unfathomable death of Aritomo forty years previously and her release from a Japanese prison camp six years before that, she has seemed to exist in a bell jar that separates her from the emotional and family support she might otherwise have relied upon. Despite her obvious success in the judiciary, she feels the incompleteness of her life. Now there is the terrifying likelihood that even the memories she still clings to will slip away. “A memory drifts by. I reach for it, as if I am snatching at a leaf spiraling down from a high branch. I have to. Who knows if it will ever come back to me again?”

Judge Teoh feels impelled both to remember the past and to restore Yugiri which was willed to her on Aritomo’s death, but she hasn’t visited for decades. Although Yugiri is famous, in part because the dead Aritomo is famous, the garden has been untended. No one is allowed to visit it. Nor is anyone allowed to see the exquisite wood block prints that Aritomo created during his life. Nor is anyone allowed to know about a less respectable art form that Aritomo may have practiced. And what exactly was Aritomo doing in Malaya during the war? Was he only tending his garden?   – Neal Ferguson

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