This is a remarkable novel, but first of all, let’s look at the bare bones of the story. The Garden of Evening Mists tells the history of an ethnic Chinese woman, Teoh Yun Ling, a judge in Malaya, her horrifying experiences under the Japanese occupation from 1941 to 1945, and episodes from her later life. She was detained in an internment camp, undergoing terrible treatment at the hands of the Japanese, having two of her fingers cut off with a knife and without any anaesthetic by a sadistic officer as a punishment for stealing some food, a chicken’s foot. Her beloved sister was forced to work as a ‘comfort provider’ for Japanese soldiers. Teoh survived by chance, apparently the only survivor from the camp. Her sister did not. After the war Teoh became a research clerk for the War Crimes Tribunal before studying law at Cambridge. The story opens with her retirement in the 1980s, when she conceived the idea of creating a formal Japanese Garden as a memorial to her sister, who learned to love these gardens during visits to Japan before the war. Teoh becomes the apprentice of a Japanese gardener, Aritomo, who, after losing his post as gardener to the Emperor (long before the war), created a Japanese Garden in the Cameron Highlands in Malaya. The novel touches on many other things. There’s the communist insurgency in Malaya after the end of the war, and the independence movement. The Japanese gardener is also not only a creator of formal gardens, but also of Japanese woodblock prints, of formal Japanese body tattoos, and so on. There are numerous excursions into other activities such as archery, and an account of the experiences of a suicide pilot which throws a refreshingly different light on that dreadful aberration. The book is filled with descriptions of the beauties of Malaysian scenery and plants. There is a great deal of Japanese sub-text (one might call it mysticism) about these activities. Archery is a mental, not a physical activity. You follow the arrow to the target in your mind. A crude European interpretation is that you will the arrow to the bull. But that falls far short of Aritomo’s explanation.
But at a deeper level, what is it about? The epigraph at the beginning of the novel quotes from A Meander through Memory and Forgetting, a book 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. It’s certainly about memory, flitting backwards and forwards over the course of Teoh’s life. There is a river, Mnemosyne, in Hades from which worthy souls may drink and become omniscient, and return reincarnated to enlighten their fellow men. There is another river, Lethe: to drink from this river is to forget everything about the soul’s former life, before reincarnation in the next life, but this is available, of course, only to the dead souls. As for forgetting, Judge Teoh is suffering from a degenerative neurological disease which means she will gradually be less able to understand what people are saying or writing, and less able to make herself understood, and such episodes recur in the later part of the book. But as an explanation of what the book is about this business about memory and forgetting seems unsatisfactory, superficial even.
More interesting than the plot are the characters, as usual. Teoh is a ‘Straits Chinese’, a descendant of ethnic Chinese who left their native China, settled in what were known as the Straits Settlements under British rule after 1820, and which later became Malaya and Singapore. The Straits Chinese learned to speak English, and allied themselves with the British. They were rich, highly educated, people, anglophile and anglicised, filling important places in commerce and public service, but retaining much of the culture of their ancestors. It’s difficult for someone who doesn’t share their cultures to understand the characters of Teoh and Aritomo. It’s all very puzzling. Why did an educated Chinese judge, who hates the Japanese, become an apprentice to a Japanese gardener, whose background is decidedly murky? Why did she allow the Japanese gardener to create a formal Japanese body tattoo over a large part of her back? The answer to these questions lies somewhere in her cultural beliefs. Some British and American reviewers write that Teoh and Aritomo become lovers. They certainly sleep together, but there is little sign of love, as a westerner would understand any of the meanings of that word. It’s interesting to compare these two with two other characters, Magnus Pretorius, an Afrikaaner who owns a tea estate, and his son Frederik, with whom Teoh also sleeps. It’s impossible to tell if Teoh is ‘in love’ with Frederik, but he certainly is with her. He is deeply hurt when she turns away from him, and Tan shows this through Frederik’s actions and words. Tan has been able to write both of Teoh and Aritomo, whose characters are hard for a European to fathom, and of Magnus and Frederik, who can be understood by those who share a European mindset with them. But Tan has told us a great deal about Aritomo and Teoh. Aritomo lives through his beliefs and feelings, about the garden, archery, and his woodblock prints. There’s a Japanese word for it, sanmai, the concentration of the mind on a single object; a state of enlightened awareness. Is this what world-class athletes have: the single-minded concentration that drives them to succeed. European’s don’t seem to extend this into their pursuit of art forms. But this is what appears to give meaning to Aritomo’s life. He seems to have put aside, if he ever had them, the things that a European values: relationships with others based on an understanding of the other’s needs and desires, and a willingness to forgo something of self to satisfy that other person. Why did Aritomo accept Teoh as his apprentice, and why did Teoh take on that role? She must take him as he is. That is how the bond between them seems to be.
An interesting comparison is with Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel, An Artist of the Floating World, seemingly about a very similar subject, much easier to understand. But then Kazuo is really a European; his parents are Japanese, but he was brought to England as a baby, educated and has always lived here. He has said that when he goes to Japan he is always giving offence, because he can’t pick up the cultural references.
There are faults, of course, time shifts that catch you unawares, and you’re often some way into a new chapter before you realise that it relates to a time some years before or after the time of the previous chapter. There’s a liberal sprinkling of non-English words. Sometimes Tan follows the non-English word by the English meaning. Shakkei, he writes, borrowed scenery, and even explains what this means. You can often make a reasonable guess at what the word means, or look it up on the internet. Magnus asks Judge Teoh when he meets her off the train ‘Is this is all your barang?’ a Malay word meaning personal belongings. So why not use the word ‘stuff’ or ‘luggage’? What is added by the use of barang? This is a real question, not just for this word, but for all the non-English words. Tan is a fine writer: there must be some reason for using these words.
Sometimes it matters. A word that recurs frequently is ukiyo-e, meaning literally ‘Pictures of the Floating World’, a genre of Japanese woodblocks and prints. This seems to be central to the understanding of this deeper level, but few Europeans will know much about ukiyo-e, so another resort to the internet is needed. How much homework are readers expected to do? It depends how well they want to understand, in the deeper sense, this novel. Are many readers really going to read a book listed as ‘of assistance to me in writing this book’: Sakuteiki: Visions of a Japanese Garden, or a book about ukiyo-e? Probably not.
There’s some poetic writing, very moving and illuminating: ‘I will dance to the music of words, for one more time’, Teoh says, hoping to enjoy this before she loses her mind.
I remember scenes from The Garden of Evening Mists, and I keep picking up the book, finding the scene, and re-reading it. This is a book worth reading, illuminating our understanding of the relationships between peoples of different cultural backgrounds. Tan was a worthy winner of the Man Asian Literary Prize in 2013. The Garden of Evening Mists was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize in 2012, up against Hilary Mantel with Bring up the Bodies, a book I shall probably never read again.