Friday, 23 August 2013

The Garden of Evening Mist by Tan Twan Eng

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.

Richard Holmes, A Meander Through Memory and Forgetting

This is the introduction to this wonderful book on memory and trying to forget. The book is written on such wonderful prose so it is almost like reading poetry. It tells the story of Yun Ling. She is a chinese malayan and she and her sister are taken prisoners by the Japanese during their occupation of Malaysia 1941-42. Yun Ling is the only survivor of this prisoner's camp. After the occupation she is trying to find out where this camp was situated but she finds out that nobody knows. 

The introduction of the books is as follows:

'On a mountain above the clouds once lived a man who had been the gardener of the Emperor of Japan. Not many people would have known of him before the war, but I did. He had left his home on the rim of the sunrise to come to the central highlands of Malaya. I was seventeen years ofd when my sister first told me about him. A decade would pass before I travelled up to the mountains to see him.

He did not apologise for what his countrymen had done to my sister and me. Not on that rain-scratched morning when we first meet, nor at any other time. What words could have healed my pain, returned my sister to me? None. And he understood that. Not many people did.'

After the war Yun Ling goes into law, partly to be able to trace and sentence war criminals but when she realises that this takes her nowhere, in the end she becomes a judge. She retires a little bit early from this work due to a fatal illness. She goes back to Yugiri (the garden of evening mist) to await her death. From here we get glimpses from three different times of her life. 

After she left her first job she goes to visit her friends Magnus and Emily, boers who came to Malaysia in the beginning of the century to set up a tea plantation. There is also Magnus nephew Frederik. She stays with them while her real purpose is to see the Japanese gardener, Aritomo, to ask him to make a garden in the memory of her sister. He refuses, but after some consideration he tells her he will take her on as an apprentice so that she can create the garden herself.

What from the beginning seems like a simple story develops with the political situation in Malaysia into a mystery. Who is really Aritomo? Why does he not go back to Japan after the war? How come Yun Ling was the only survivor of the camp? What happened to the others? And why can't she find out where the camp was?

And what was time but merely a wind that never stopped?

On her first day as a apprentice Yun Ling comes loaded with her note pad not to miss anything of what the master tells her. However

'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.'

'Despite my fears of a CT attack, I enjoyed living on my own again, in these mountains where the breath of tress turned to mists, where the mists entered the clouds and fell to earth again as rain, where the rain was absorbed by the roots deep in the earth and drawn out as vapour again by leaves a hundred feet above the ground. The days here opened from beyond one set of mountains and ended behind another, and I came to think of Yugiri as a place lodged somewhere in a crease between daybreak and sunset.'

And so this poetic books goes on. There is a surprise at every turn. There is also a different kind of love story that put it on my favourite list of great love stories.

I would like to end with the following lines that ends the book.

'Before me lies a voyage of a million miles, and memory is the moonlight I will borrow to illuminate my way.
The lotus flowers are opening in the first rays of the sun. Tomorrow's rain lies on the horizon, but high up in the sky something pale and small is descending, growing in size as it falls. I watch the heron circle the pond, a leaf spiralling down to the water, setting off silent ripples across the garden.'

1 comment:

  1. I am reading this book right now and it is truly beautiful, thank you for recommending it to me!