Years ago, I read Tan Twan Eng's first book 'The Gift of Rain', which was excellent. I procrastinated and last year, finally read his well written and evenly paced 'The Garden of Evening Mists', but somehow forgot to blog about it. It's a beautiful story, heartrending and painful. Unfortunately, it isn't my kind of book. It's a good story, leaving loads to reflect upon if you choose to think about it. (Reviews here, here, here and here.)
The timeline moved between the present-1980s and the past of the Japanese Occupation in the 1940s and post-war 1950s. Survivor's guilt and trauma. Yun Ling had lost two fingers and survived one of the most obscure POW camps in the Malayan jungles during the Japanese Occupation 1942-1945. Her beloved older-by-three-years sister Yun Hong perished. Post-war during the Emergency and Communist insurgency, she fled to Cameron Highlands for a time-out and wanted to commission Japanese gardener Nakamura Aritomo to build a memorial garden for her sister, but he turned her down. Aritomo was reticent, unapologetic and taciturn, quietly going about creating Yugiri, a Japanese garden in post-war Malaysia and making his art of wood-block prints.
Yugiri, we are told, "lay seven miles west of Tanah Rata, the second of the three main villages on the road going up to Cameron Highlands." In the end, Yun Ling became Aritomo's apprentice in order to build it herself. She had to deal with her love for Aritomo and the atrocities of the Japanese versus the calm zen of the gardens. That specific garden for Yun Hong was never built, or perhaps it was Yugiri all along... One day, Aritomo was lost in the jungle and was never found. Yun Ling left Yugiri, never returning till she was an old woman, a good thirty-six years later.
Cultural complexities abound in the storyline. Of relatives, family, political and social circumstances of those turbulent times. War stories, lost kin and friends, and places where painful memories resides. The accents that came through in the words and phrases of different languages, the thinking of the people, et cetera. So familiar, and in some scenes, I might well be reading about my own extended family, and hearing words tumble out of my grandaunts as they recalled their flight (via ship actually) from war-time Malaya to India then England.
I'm curious about the horimono on Yun Ling's back. Trying very hard to envision it. And failing. The tattoo was etched on her whole back, a design inspired by wood-block prints, something for the commoners in the Edo period, but very popular nowadays as an intricate piece of ukiyo-e body art. But it certainly wouldn't have been welcomed in the early post-war years on a Chinese woman in Southeast Asia had more people known about it. Yun Ling kept her horimono hidden. Hers wasn't framed. It was a fade-away, a 'daybreak'. She would later discover that her horimono corresponded to the layout of Yugiri. With the exception of the intentional missing rectangle on the body canvas that was filled in the actual Garden.
'The sketch of the kore-sansui garden you saw in Tominaga Noburu's hut,' said Aritomo. 'What did it look like?'
I thought for a moment. 'Three stones in one corner, and two low, flat grey rocks diagonally opposite them, and behind them a miniature pine tree shaped like a dented temple bell.'
'The dry mountain-water garden at his grandfather's summer home at Lake Biwa,' said Aritomo. 'Three centuries old and famous all over Japan.' He paused. 'Tominaga-San was a knowledgable man where the Art of Setting Stones is concerned.'
'But he is not as skilled as you.'
'He considered himself to be. Tominaga-san was a cousin of the Empress,' he continued, so softly that I thought he was talking to himself. 'We have known each other since we were boys of five or six.'
'It was him you quarreled with over the garden designs.' I should have realised it sooner. 'Tominaga was the reason the Emperor had to sack you.' When Aritomo did not reply, I said, 'It was absurd to fight over a garden.'
'It was not merely about a garden. It was about what each one of us believed. He was always unyielding in his views, his principles. I once told him he would make a good soldier.'
'He couldn't have been that rigid,' I said. 'He disobeyed his orders. He helped me escape.'
'Now that was uncharacteristic of him. He was always our government's strongest supporter, always loyal to the Emperor, to our leaders.'
'He never said anything bad about you. In fact he often praised the gardens you had designed.'
Aritomo's face seemed to age. 'But what he did to the prisoners...what we did to all of you...' He became quiet, then said, 'You have never told this to anyone?'