Garden of Evening Mists – Tan Twan Eng

15 February 2013
Chapters 1-6
This is a complex and ambitious novel. The epigraph concerns memory and forgetting, and there’s a clue on the second page that the first-person narrator has a problem: she has forgotten about the death of the woman whose final weeks of healthcare she paid for only a few years previously. But there’s a different kind of memory and forgetting at work. Thinking back, she re-lives a time in 1951 when, following her own torture and her sister’s death in a Japanese prison-camp in the Second World War, she could hardly bring herself to speak to a ‘Jap’. The novel’s framing chapters, set in the late 1980s, allow us to see that it’s something she still hasn’t quite got over. But there’s a lot here about coming to terms with prejudice, about the horrors of Imperialism, about immigration and ‘aboriginal’ populations…. Who are the immigrants, asks one character. (I’m paraphrasing.) In a cobbled-together political construct like Malaysia – in fact, a collection of diverse populations from long before colonial times – who indeed?

There seem to be two time-lines. In the present-day (i.e. 1980s) framing chapters Yun Ling Teoh, the first woman judge in Malaysia’s supreme court, has unexpectedly taken early retirement. We have it confirmed that the reason, which she’s been able to hide until now, is a brain disorder that will entirely destroy her memory in a year or so. She has been known for her spiky professional persona, the tight grip she keeps on her courtroom and her unwillingness to suffer any signs of incompetence. Ok. (Tan winds back early on to the day of her retirement, in order to establish this.) She wears a glove to hide the loss of two fingers that she suffered in the prison camp.

By the time we’re introduced to the old friend she is going to stay with – her only true friend, she tells us – on his tea plantation near to the eponymous Garden of Evening Mists, we have already been present as she re-encounters a man we later discover to have been the gardener’s servant. (It was his wife whose medical bills she paid for.) The gardener had left 34 years before, two years after she had first arrived there. The friend is Frederik Pretorius, someone else not from native stock, the nephew of a man we’ll meet in the earlier time-line. They are South Africans, with the uncle a proud Boer, so Tan will be able to add to the mix not only their take on national identity and indigenous peoples but also some gruesome aspects of British Imperialist methods. And there’s a small crisis for our narrator: Frederik wants to have the gardens of the tea estate re-landscaped. (I’m not sure if this includes the garden, built in the Japanese style by ‘the man who had been the gardener to the Emperor of Japan’, as we read in the novel’s opening line.) He plans to have it re-landscaped – destroyed, as she corrects him – and we don’t yet know why this is so distressing to her. Later we begin to understand…. By the end of Chapter 1, Frederik seems to have agreed not to go ahead with the plan.

There are other threads in these present-day chapters. Spiky Judge Teoh has agreed to meet a Japanese professor who wants to study some wood-block prints she owns. They were made by Aritomo, the gardener, who gave ‘twenty or thirty’ to her years ago. Until now she has never let them be exhibited or even seen and the meeting is, well, spiky. As with all Japanese, she gauges whether he is old enough to have fought in the war. (He is.) She agrees to the research, on condition that there is no mention of a fact that he has just revealed about the artist: he was also, according to what he considers to be an unimpeachable source, a tattoo artist. If he breaches any of her terms, his books ‘will be pulped’. That’s told him – but we can only guess why there is such a taboo connected to the idea of tattooing. (Her sister, the one who died in the camp, had also been an artist. Keep hold of that.)

Yun Ling decides to record memories of her life. Chapters 3-6 deal with the beginning of her stay at the tea plantation in 1951, an introduction to Frederik’s Uncle Magnus, and the emergency that is under way. Magnus had left South Africa in 1905, had gone into business in a rubber plantation with Yun Ling’s father, but had sold his share just before a crash. The estrangement this led to accounts for Yun Ling’s family not seeking safety with Magnus during the War despite his offer – he’d kept a lot of workers out of the camps – a fact that she only learns now. Oh dear.

This is one of several back stories hanging on to the main one: Yun Ling’s wish to have a Japanese garden created in memory of her sister, for which she will have to seek Aritomo’s help. The mixture of admiration for the culture and revulsion at the behaviour of some Japanese during the war is typical of the way that Tan never goes for the straightforward response. Yun Ling isn’t going to be allowed to see anything in terms of black and white – and all this at a time when communist insurgents seeking independence are committing what are presented as terrorist acts. It isn’t only the government presenting them in this way: Tan has an ‘aboriginal’ girl take Yun Ling by the arm to show her three members of her family with their throats cut while, she says, they were on a harmless hunting expedition.

Any other back stories? Magnus tells Yun Ling about his time in British custody during the second Boer War. Like Yun Ling, he is scarred by the experience literally as well as metaphorically: he has lost an eye – although he has come to terms with it, realised years ago that you can’t go on hating forever. Yun Ling hasn’t learnt this yet, and tells of her time in the Japanese camp, beaten almost unconscious for not bowing low enough or some other petty infringement of the rules. She is the only survivor, and spent three months before going to study law at Cambridge as a kind of clerk in the war crimes trials. She was looking for one man in particular, but never heard any reference to him…. Then there’s Aritomo, seemingly in complete control of himself despite two months in British custody after the war, in fear of his life, despite having no charges brought against him. We know about the death of Yun Ling’s sister, but not how she died.

And we come to Chapter 6. Yun Ling – we discover she’s been sacked from her government job after protesting too much about the way things are done in the early 1950s – has enough money saved to commission Aritomo to design a garden. Except he won’t do it. He chooses how to spend his time, and he is still working on his own garden, trashed by the Brits. However… Yun Ling pleads with him, and is somehow able to get under his skin because of her sister: he has the only painting of hers that wasn’t destroyed at the start of the Japanese occupation. He tells her he will teach her how to design her own: she can be his apprentice for six months. Who would have thought it?

(Before realising that Tan Twan Eng had reached the Man Booker longlist in 2007, I took this to be his first novel. In fact it’s his second – he’s previously been a lawyer, which explains why that had been his main character’s profession until her recent early retirement – and his biographical details go some way towards accounting for my mistake. He is clearly writing about something he knows about – the experience of the ‘Straits Chinese’ in Malaysia of his grandparents’ generation – a sign of a novelist who hasn’t exhausted that seam yet.

And there’s a self-consciously poetic feel to almost all his descriptions. On every single page there are sentences and phrases that sound as though they’ve escaped from a haiku. At random: ‘Memories I had locked away had begun to break free like shards of ice fracturing off an arctic shelf.’ (Page 1) ‘The hollow of the valley reminds me of the open palms of a monk, cupped to receive the day’s blessing.’ (Page 3) ‘At the … waterfall, the spray opened its net of whispers over us, rinsing the air with moisture….’ (Page 31) In fact, you can find at least one and often a whole handful of these on any page that doesn’t consist of dialogue, and on some of those as well. Sometimes, like the ones I’ve quoted, they nudge the reader into recognising a symbolic subtext in a way that strikes me as arch. Sometimes they just seem fussy, and interrupt the flow of the narrative: ‘I found the wooden viewing-tower half-hidden in the trees, like the crow’s nest of a galleon that had foundered among the branches, trapped by a tide of leaves.’ It’s one of the things that made me guess – wrongly, but not very – that I was reading a debut novel.)

20 February
Chapters 7-10
Things have settled down. Or do I mean that Tan takes it slow…? Most of these chapters are set in 1951, and Tan follows through with what he’s already set up in that time-line. Yun Ling learns much more about Japanese gardens than her sister ever knew, and we see her beginning to understand some of the philosophy behind the techniques. She also learns about their history, how they began as a Japanese versions of Chinese gardens until Buddhist monks began to see them as a way to create a vision of paradise. Yun Ling describes one technique as a sharing of the landscape, when the gardener carefully incorporates a section of a view of what is outside the garden. (In Chapters 1 and 2 we have seen how Aritomo even seems to be able to incorporate or harness climatic conditions, making use of a breeze or plantings that create a pocket of silence. And so on.)

Aritomo, in all the chapters so far, is described from the outside. Yun Ling takes us through the way she slowly comes to understand things about him – but also that there are probably depths we know nothing about. The big stones that Yun Ling and the Malaysian labourers have to place become a metaphor: only one third of their bulk is visible above the soil, after Aritomo has issued his instruction to ‘dig deep’. You bet. He’s also into martial arts. Archery we know about, and see again in these chapters. But we also see how he responds to a threatened attack: a sacked worker comes at him with a machete, and Aritomo does that thing where he seems to move with the swing of the weapon and, as though effortlessly, parries it and gains the advantage. And when, at one of Magnus’s barbecues, Yun Ling sees Aritomo laugh… she realises it’s something she’s never seen before.

Aritomo is carrying a lot of weight in this novel. He is the Japanese that Yun Ling is forcing herself to work with and, increasingly, respect. Later at the same barbecue she sees his woodblock prints for the first time. In fact they are rejects that he has made into lanterns – and that he burns at the end of the evening. And something in the 1980s time-line brings us up against that taboo concerning tattoos again. Yun Ling has a further meeting with Tatsuji, the historian who is interested in Aritomo’s prints. We find out that there are collectors of tattoos – and yes, that does mean what you think it means – but that nobody has ever seen one by Aritomo. Tatsuji tells Yun Ling that the only way he could gain the trust of these collectors was to have a his own upper arm tattooed and, contrary to all the usual rules of courtesy, he shows it to her. Nearly forty years after she first began to work with Aritomo, there are still things she is learning about the Japanese.

I’m guessing that tattoos hold a special resonance for Yun Ling, and that she herself has one, made in the Japanese camp in the war. It would account for her insistence that there must be no reference to Aritomo’s tattooing skill in Tatsuji’s book – and for the fact that Frederik tells her about one that Magnus used to have on his chest, that he was not in the habit of showing to anyone. A prisoner-of-war number, perhaps – something else he might have shared with Yun Ling.

Other things happen, in both time-lines. The first time Frederik takes Yun Ling to the local town for supplies in 1951 – she’s moving into a bungalow, safe on the tea estate, for the duration of her so-called apprenticeship to Aritomo – they end up in bed. But he’s in the Rhodesian army, in Malaysia to deal with the ‘communist terrorists’ (CTs), and moves around a lot. The ‘Emergency’ continues, with stories of assassinations and atrocities, and the local Chinese police tell Yun Ling that she should move back to Kuala Lumpur. She doesn’t, obviously, despite her having prosecuted CTs and therefore being a possible target.

And there seems to be the beginning of a new theme: stories from the mythologies of different countries. So far we’ve had Frederik explaining the existential-sounding Norse myth of Yggdrasil, which he presents as the tree of knowledge that is destined ultimately to die. (Got that, Yun Ling? Knowledge dies for everybody.) The other is the Chinese myth of the Moon, told by Magnus’s Malaysian wife, in which a woman gains immortality dishonestly and can be seen walking on the moon once a year at the Moon Festival. I’m not sure if that means anything beyond the fact that everyone seeks understanding by making stories. Is that Yun Ling again?

Finally, for now, Aritomo’s legacy again. Tatsuje counts 36 wood-block prints in Yun Ling’s collection, and they both wonder why most – all? – seem to be unique proofs. Why go to all the trouble of making up to eight blocks per print, only to make a single copy of each? It’s another emerging theme – or another take on a theme that’s already there: the ephemeral nature of the world. In the 1980s present, Yun Ling goes to the garden, which is becoming overgrown, and expresses a desire to get it back to its former state. She wonders if the landscape designer, the one who is all for indigenous planting and naturalism, will help. Frederik doubts it – but if there’s one thing Tan likes to do it’s force people to look very hard at their own prejudices.

23 February
Chapters 11-16
There’s a danger in offering the reader all these interlocking stories with their interlocking themes. Sometimes Tan’s impulse to create a cohesive metaphorical and thematic structure gets in the way as, yet again, we have to put our questions about the characters on hold as he brings in a new story to add another layer. This has just happened in Chapter 16 with the story told by Tatsuji, the historian studying Aritomo. A week or so ago in the 1980s time-line, Yun Ling was suspicious and unsure about even letting him see the prints. Now she listens to what he tells her about the war, and the parallels with stories we’ve already heard begin to pile up. Like her, he’s the sole survivor of experiences that killed everybody else involved. (Her freakish survival of the internment camp is becoming a bigger deal in these chapters. It’s one of the mysteries we have to put on hold as Tatsuji gives what is essentially a stand-alone story, presented verbatim with no intervention from Yun Ling.)

Those parallels. The more she finds out, the more Yun Ling sympathises with a man who, for her, had previously been just another ‘Jap’. This is exactly what we have been watching in the chapters set during the earlier time-line – to the extent that Yun Ling has become Aritomo’s lover. Tatsuji tells of the futility of war, the lies of governments, the breaking up of families, and of how he lost the person in the world who was dearest to him. There’s even a character who, at the top of his profession, is no longer allowed to do what he does best. (This is Tatsuji’s father, designer of the best planes in Japan, an exact parallel to Aritomo.) All of these tick this novel’s boxes so neatly that I began to wonder if Tan might have dispensed with any pretence to realism. Sure, we get a reference to that tattoo – another exact parallel, and I’ll come back to it – that offers an explanation why Tatsuji is so keen to seek out Aritomo’s artistic legacy. But, basically, realism is now secondary to what is becoming one of Tan’s major themes: the ways in which we construct stories to bring order to a world that often seems chaotic to the point of meaninglessness.

I said at the start that this is a complex and ambitious novel. The complexity is part of the ambition, and Tan likes to give us clues about how best to understand the patterning that’s going on. The central metaphor is the eponymous garden, obviously, and that’s where he places his most direct pointers. What I called the ‘sharing of the landscape’ early on has developed as a theme. It’s the technique of ‘borrowed scenery’, and one of the characters, Aritomo I think, makes the metaphorical meaning explicit. What the telling of stories does is enrich an unsatisfactory or restricted present with borrowings from the much wider landscape – it really is spelled out like this – of the past. Memories, in other words – a theme never far beneath the surface – can become an integral part of a full life. This is what Yun Ling is terrified of losing. In the first chapter, in the present-day 1980s, she wonders whether identity can exist without the ability to remember. In the 1950s memory is already fundamental to her sense of who she is.

Memory is foregrounded in other ways. We find out that no neurosurgeon has been able to find the cause of her ‘aphasia’: there’s no tumour, no disease, no injury…. Is there something psychosomatic going on? Usually in films and novels, if someone can’t remember something it’s because it’s too painful – and the mystery of Yung Ling’s survival and her sister’s death has still not been explained. Does she, rightly or wrongly, feel responsible for her sister’s death? Is there lurking somewhere a truth she doesn’t want to face? (I’m usually wrong in my speculations. Last time it was to do with Magnus’s tattoo, and I’ll come back to that.) Another time, after describing in some detail her own behaviour towards a particular Japanese ‘war criminal’ – she failed to post his last letter to his son – she describes how the act of recording has made the memory clearer. Now, over forty years later, it has made her wonder about the hardness of her own heart.

What else? Lots of things. We see Yun Ling and Aritomo growing closer, beginning with lunch in his house and ending… well, it hasn’t ended yet. He’s even taken her to his secret suppliers of birds’ nests, as in the soup. It must be love. But some of the stories that pepper these chapters concern him. There’s the one he tells about his own apprenticeship – all his childhood and adolescence, with his father – culminating in a walk through spring, summer and autumn to get in touch with the landscape gods, or something. It works, and what he gets on the back of it is a job with the Emperor. What we get is a lot of mysticism to do with harmony, inner stuff, emptying the mind. As I’ve said, gardening as a metaphor of how to see, behave, live…. But there are stories told by others. He didn’t resign because of artistic differences with a relative of the Emperor, he was sacked. He’s a spy. He is in contact with the Japanese who now fight with rebels…

…or fought, until the Communist leader of the insurgents decided they couldn’t be trusted any more. Aritomo’s house servant is the half-brother of one of the Malayan rebels, who asks Yun Ling to help him to take up the government’s open-ended offer of a reward to those who turn themselves in and name names. In other words, the themes of Empire and colonialism continue, with Yun Ling, a former government prosecutor, in the thick of it. The new high Commissioner visits the garden, and his British-born chief of police talks to Yun Ling about what she thinks she’s doing. She knows there’ll be a thick file on her.

Why am I telling you all this? Isn’t there anything more interesting going on? There are tattoos: Magnus’s is of a Transvaal symbol, put there by – guess who. (Yun Ling is finding this out in 1951, so her embargo on any mention of tattoos in the book is even more mystifying.) The link is with the man Tatsuji knew, the colonel who trained him, who is the one with the tattoo. After a series of freakish events prevents Tats from flying his suicide mission near the end of the war, he is finally ready to do it. His own father has committed Hara-kiri because of it, and the colonel can’t dissuade him. But – I’m not making this up – by now, he and the colonel are soulmates, talking of the life they could have together after the war. The only way the colonel can save Tats is by flying the mission himself. Go figure.

Anything else? Plenty, I should think. I can think of another story, of a Chinese philosopher from 2500 years ago who left the kingdom after writing down all he knew at the border then disappearing forever. This must represent… how should I know? I think it’s time to read on, and hope that Tan will start to answer some of the questions he’s been throwing up – about Yun Ling’s defective memory, if that’s what it is, about her family (and I realise I haven’t even mentioned the difficulties there), about Magnus, about Aritomo. But as I said at the start of this entry, there’s a danger in putting together all these interlocking stories. I’m not sure how interested I am any more.

28 February
Chapters 17-22
Maybe Tan realised that he needed to bring his novel back to one main narrative thread. The one he focuses on is Yun Ling’s own, and what we find out is most of the story of the slave-labour camp. I say most, because I’m not at all sure that we’ve had every last detail. I still think there’s something that the 60-something Yun Ling is still not fully remembering…. Framing her long description to Aritomo of what happened to her and her sister during the war there’s another thread, and that’s to do with him. Some of it is to do with the relationship between them, but not all. Aritomo is carrying a huge amount of weight in this novel, and he seems to be growing into some kind of symbol of admirable core values. I suspect that at some level the philosopher, the one who passed on all he knew before disappearing, might actually be him.

I wrote some time ago that Tan might have dispensed with any pretence to realism. It’s certainly becoming difficult to imagine these stories to be factual accounts. Even if Yun Ling is remembering it all correctly – a big if, in her case – their interlocking themes fit together just too neatly. Yun Ling herself seems to have become a symbol, this time of survivor guilt, and in order to give her a powerful story, Tan has to stretch plausibility a long way. Realism? Who needs it when you’ve got some important history to resuscitate?

Before we get her story, we get a visit from some Japanese who want to invite Aritomo back into the Imperial fold: he can have his old job back. You can imagine, in his scrupulously polite way, how he treats the offer. But the meeting is interesting because they mention the death by suicide, shortly after the war, of Tominagi. He is the Emperor’s relative, the one ultimately responsible for Aritomo’s decision to leave Japan. Aritomo is saddened by this – he had known Tominagi almost all his life – and Yun Ling is electrified. He is the very man she had been hoping to find, because he was deeply involved with the slave-labour camp and would have been able to tell her its location. You couldn’t make it up.

Aritomo’s response to the news of the suicide is to take Yun Ling to a picturesquely mouldering shrine almost lost somewhere in the jungle. He is quiet on the way, not at all like the man who took her birds’-nesting and pointed out the plants and scenes…. And when he asks about her war – a lot of her bitterness had come out during the meeting with the Japanese – she decides to tell him. I’ll spare you the details, but it’s horrible. The behaviour of the Japanese is uniformly brutal, and the prisoners are worked literally to death. Punishments are vicious… etc. We find out that Yun Ling’s sister is one of a half-dozen women chosen to be camp prostitutes, a word Yun Ling can’t bring herself to use, while most of the prisoners are forced to work in a mine. We also find out that the loss of her two fingers is a punishment for attempting to smuggle two chicken claws to her sister.

Yun Ling herself seems, relatively speaking, to lead a charmed life. She uses her smattering of Japanese to get a job in the kitchens, where the treatment she receives is no better, but at least she has more to eat. And… clues emerge that there is something about her own behaviour that might cause her shame later. She translates a Commonwealth soldier’s tattoo as ‘God Save the King’ and, when the Japanese remove the offending skin he does not recover from his injuries. And she begins to help as a translator for the important-seeming man we now know to be the Emperor’s cousin. He and Yun Ling share an interest in – guess – Japanese gardens and, in her telling of it, this seems to have created some sort of bond. He also becomes a link between her and her sister. Ok.

The point is, there is some secret about this camp. Mysterious boxes are brought there by Tominagi in a Red Cross vehicle, and when one Aussie prisoner attempts to sneak a look inside one his punishment eventually kills him. And when the war is lost, all the prisoners are taken into the mine, where explosives bring down the whole mountain on top of them. All, of course, except one. Tominagi has persuaded Yun Ling’s sister to write a note reminding her that she’d promised to escape alone if the chance arose, and he drives Yun Ling away, blindfolded. But not far enough. She finds her way back in time to see the way the Japanese cover their tracks and kill everyone in the camp. It’s around now that she admits that she was more than a trusted prisoner. She was an informer, doing whatever she had to do to keep herself alive. Not just survivor guilt then: she really did betray some of her fellow-prisoners. (I suppose what I’m wondering is whether she might be hiding one last thing from herself. Maybe, specifically, she betrayed her sister.)

In the 1950s timeline – I realise that in these chapters it has come to be the frame for another, earlier one – we have two or three important things happening. For a start, the fact that she’s told Aritomo her story demonstrates the degree of trust that there is between them now. He has been teaching her – what? – a way to deal with her bitterness and anger not only through garden design, but also through the discipline of Japanese archery. (Like everything else he does, it’s all about following established rules in order to gain control over the chaos of the self. It certainly works for her.) And, once the monsoon arrives, he asks her a huge favour. Would she allow him to tattoo her? Not just a little flower, but a full body tattoo? She says yes, obviously, and that explains a lot.

The political thread concerns the insurgency in their area. First, Yun Ling is beaten up for her role as a prosecutor before she gave it up. (If we wonder why she isn’t killed outright, it is explained later. Aritomo and Magnus have been paying protection money.) It doesn’t stop there. Later she, Aritomo and Magnus’s family are rounded up by a terrorist leader who isn’t sticking to the rules. He has already killed members of Magnus’s staff as he interrogates them about the gold that the Japanese have long been rumoured to have hidden somewhere locally. He asks Aritomo, who says, as he always has, that it is no more than a rumour. He raises his gun to Yun Ling’s head, and – it’s Magnus who saves her. He knew the Japanese commander, thinks he knows where the gold must be…. He is taken to show them, and is never seen alive again. So it goes.

One last thread for now: Yun Ling’s family. She has no time for her father, the anglophile who put his faith in the British for far too long. Throughout the novel she has been disregarding his orders that she leave the Highlands and return to Kuala Lumpur…. But now there’s another twist. Independence from Britain is going to come, and he is involved in the negotiations. This is interesting: it was the Brits’ colonial mind-set that made it impossible for Yun Ling to continue as a prosecutor, and we can see how independence might lead to her life as we know it from the 1980s time-line.

Does this all sound a bit plot-laden? A lot happens, certainly… and we wonder about what resolution we’re going to get in the final chapters.

2 March
Chapter 23 to the end
There are resolutions, but not all of them feel complete. This might be deliberate on Tan’s part – after the kinds of experience these people have gone through it isn’t ever going to be a simple matter of moving on and getting on with life – but… I’m not sure.

We don’t get any more from the WW2 time-line: there are no further revelations concerning Yun Ling’s guilt beyond her sense that she never did right by her sister. That thread does reach a kind of resolution: she’s always felt bad about not keeping her promise to build a garden for her. I think it’s Frederik, who has been hovering in the background throughout most of the main time-lines, who finally makes her realise that Aritomo’s garden is a fitting memorial for her. It isn’t only because Yun Ling worked hard for over a year on it, and has always held it in great affection; there’s a sense that for Aritomo himself it represents some kind of atonement for his part in the war. (I’ll come back to him later.) ‘The Pavilion of the Sky’ – everything has to be named in the well-ordered Japanese way of doing things – is a quotation from a favourite Shelley poem of Yun Ling’s sister’s. I can’t be sure, but if that isn’t a reference to Heaven I’d be surprised. Bless.

Yun Ling herself has got to get some closure, but it’s complicated and it takes a long time. It takes, in fact, until the very end of the novel, and the end of the 1980s time-line. We find out that after Aritomo’s disappearance into the jungle – and it’s made absolutely clear that it was deliberate and premeditated – she’s never had other lovers. She pretends it’s because she didn’t want any rumours of her tattoo leaking out, but we know better. Something inside her is still tightly closed, which accounts for her spiky professional manner and what she thinks of as the hardness of her heart.…

What saves her is close contact with other people for the first time in nearly 40 years. Her recording of her memories seems to have begun the process, as she forces herself to think back to a time when she was just beginning to come to terms with what had happened to her. But the process had never been completed, and Aritomo’s disappearance somehow crystallises this: she knew it was deliberate – she witnessed his almost ritualistic farewells to his life – but she never knew his reasons. So she left and made a different life, one in which she could never describe her wartime experiences, or come to terms with the disfigurement of her hand, or find love.

When she first returns to the plantation in the 1980s, we see how closed up she still is. She will not talk about anything intimate, issues those spiky conditions to Tatsuji about what he might or might not publish, has conversations with Frederik that make no reference to what we later find out about their former relationship. But it’s these two men who help her. Tatsuji has a key role, because when it turns out that she wants something from him he is able to deliver more than she could have guessed.

She wants him to see the tattoo on her back and, Reader – I was almost disappointed by the revelation – it’s a treasure map. Throughout the 1980s time-line Yung Lin has been piecing together Aritomo’s secret links with ‘The Golden Lily’, a wartime organisation for plundering and putting into storage great art-works. The main purpose of the ‘mine’ at her slave-labour camp was to hide the treasures that Tominagi was bringing, and it turns out to have been near the plantation. The schematic map Aritomo leaves is a kind of posthumous message to her expressing, I suppose, remorse. Yun Ling had always said how she wanted to find where her sister was buried, and now she can. But its incorporation of the plan of the garden also makes it plain, as Frederick realises, that for Aritomo it became her sister’s memorial. (He had baulked at the naming of the ‘Pavilion of the Sky’ – too oriental-sounding – until he realised it was in commemoration of her.)

In fact Yun Ling decides not to go searching for the remains of the camp. Instead she will spend what remains of her conscious life opening up the garden to the public and making it a place of remembrance. And, having previously decided that she will have the tattoo preserved after her death, she decides against this too. As the aphasia becomes more noticeable – she now has attacks that cut her off completely – it is as though she has recognised that remembering is not always the best thing. Don’t you sometimes have to let go?

This might all sound too neat. In fact, Tan doesn’t spell it out like this and, as I wrote before, not everything is resolved. We’ve seen how Tan neatly places one character’s experiences next to those of another, so that we’re constantly struck by the parallels. But this doesn’t necessarily make for a satisfying read. What is it with the South African link and the parallel experiences of people who might have been settled for generations but are certainly not ‘aboriginal’? (I’ve recently learned that Tan currently lives in Cape Town, but that’s no answer.) And history is full of cases of ‘terrorists’ being re-branded as freedom fighters, but Tan raises that issue only to gingerly put it back down again and leave it where it is. And… so on. Tan seems to want to create a work of art as intricate and well-composed as something produced by a Japanese master – including, in those parallel insights, borrowed scenery – and maybe I should leave it at that.

It was Magnus, early in the 1950s time-line, who had said that you can’t go on hating forever. The novel appears to be Tan’s attempt to demonstrate that there’s a place for forgetting.


4 Responses to Garden of Evening Mists – Tan Twan Eng

  1. Paula says:

    Thanks. That clarified things somewhat.

  2. Thank you! I read the book last summer, and tonight I have a book club meeting to discuss it. I needed a refresher!

  3. Susan says:

    An astute analysis of this complicated, many layered book, very helpful to an overwhelmed reader even one very versed in Japanese culture, (lived in Kyushu, Japan for three years in the 60 ‘s )South African history and CapeTown where have now lived for the past 22 summers!

  4. Liz says:

    Thank you for this analysis. I’ve been making notes for bookclub, and it’s good to read another’s account in advance!

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