Destination: Malaysia (Malaya)
Winner of the Man Asia prize for 2012 (announced March 2013)
When I finished reading The Garden of Evening Mists late one night in Tucson, Arizona, I sat quietly for a while. I had to leave Malaysia behind and say a reluctant farewell to the brave, intelligent and resilient Yun Ling, the woman who had been telling me her life story.
I thought about the farewell that takes place in the first chapter, as Yun Ling (by then known as Judge Teoh) parts from her assistant on the day of the judge’s retirement.
We stood there both of us uncertain of how to conduct our partings. Then she reached out…pulling me into an embrace before I could react, enveloping me like dough around a stick.
From this opening, set in Kuala Lumpur in the present-day Malaysia, novelist Tan Twan Eng bends and twists time. He takes us with Yun Ling’s memories back to the 1950’s, when Malaysia was Malaya, before independence, during the time of Communist insurgency, and further back to the Japanese occupation of Malaya during World War II.
From 1948 until July 1960, the insurgents slaughtered anyone seen as tied to the British colonial structure of Malaya, and Yun Ling is drawn into The Emergency. Even more important to her story, Yun Ling never has fully escaped her imprisonment by the Japanese during World War II.
The momentary confusion the reader experiences as time collapses or expands reflects the mental state of Yun Ling. The evening mists that cover the garden and the tea plantation high in the Malaysian hills, reflect the haziness of memory slipping away. She struggles to record all the important events of her life. The theme of ageing and memory returns again and again in many forms.
In the 1950’s, she leads visitors into the Japanese garden she works in.
The light in here seemed softer, older, the air sharp with the tang of the yellowing bamboo leaves. The turns in the track disoriented not only our sense of direction, but also our memories, and within minutes I could almost imagine that we had forgotten the world from which we had just come.
As a bona fide tea snob, I thoroughly enjoyed the fact that most of The Garden of Evening Mists takes place on (and next door to) a tea plantation. The owner of the plantation, an old friend, tells Yun Ling about a Chinese tea grown by monks. The monks claim that the original tea tree there was planted by a god.
To preserve the innocence of the tea, he said, only the monks who hadn’t reached puberty could pick the leaves. And for a month before they started picking, these boys were not allowed to eat chiles or pickled cabbage, no garlic or onions….Once picked and packed it was sent to the Emperor.
Although her family was Chinese, they spoke only English and supported the Colonial government of Malaya. So Yun Ling did not care one way or the other about that Chinese Emperor and his fancy tea. However, she despises the Japanese Emperor and still hates the Japanese who invaded Malaya and imprisoned her and her sister. She still calls them “Japs” and confronts Japanese people with their wartime atrocities.
She overcomes her distaste in order to become an apprentice to Aritomo, a Japanese master gardener who once created gardens for the Emperor. While she never forgives “the Japs,” she opens herself to this one man and his skill. As she struggles to reconcile her deep hatred with her love of the beauty of Japanese gardens and her adoption of some Japanese ways, she adopts concentration and new ways of seeing, but never adopts the custom of bowing. These contradictory forces in her life form the second major theme and purpose of the book.
How can people at one moment seem dedicated to peaceful calm and beauty and the next be devastatingly cruel? The randomness of such violence, we are reminded, is not limited to the Japanese. The tea plantation owner is a refugee from South Africa and he carries deep resentment against the British who subdued his people, the Boers.
How important–or accurate–is our memory of past events? Will we ever understand even those who are closest to us?
We learn along with Yun Ling about Japanese gardening, the practice of zen archery, and the art of tattooing. The Garden of Evening Mists combines a history novel, a study of philosophy, and an unusual love story.
This remarkable novel is short-listed for the Booker Prize. For those not familiar with the award known formally as the Man Booker Prize for Fiction, “it is chosen to reward the best novel of the year written by a citizen of the United Kingdom, the Commonwealth or the Republic of Ireland.” Tam Twan Eng and his book could not be better positioned to qualify. He lives in Malaysia and in South Africa, both former colonies of Britain. And the book itself not only is set in Malaya/Malaysia, but tackles the question of colonial rule head on.
The finalist for the Booker will be announced on October 16, so if you want to get ahead of the curve, you have a few weeks to read The Garden of Evening Mists and see how you judge it. I haven’t read the other books, but nevertheless, I’m rooting for this one.
The talent of the author, a Malaysian native, was first recognized with his first novel, The Gift of Rain, a novel about the Japanese occupation of the Malaysian peninsula. It was long-listed for the Booker. The Gift of Rain sits waiting on my to-be-read stack, and now that I’ve read the 2nd book, I’m eager to dive in.
Personally, I have not traveled to Malaysia, but I have toured Malaya. How’s that? We booked travel in Singapore, which was part of Malaya (long before I was there) and separated when the new country of Malaysia declared independence. What is your experience in that part of the world? Ever visit a Japanese garden in Japan or Malaysia? A tea plantation? Share your experiences, please.
And learn more about Malaysia today at Malaysia Meanders, by an ex-pat German; and this photo-essay on Penang’s Georgetown , mentioned often in this novel, from Budget Traveler’s Sandbox.
Disclaimers: The British publishers Myrmidon provided this book for review. It is published in the United States by Weinstein Books, and that is the American book cover image at the top. The cover image also links to Amazon, as do book titles in the text. Those are Amazon affiliate links which means that when you do your Amazon shopping through those links you are supporting A Traveler’s Library. Since it doesn’t cost you any more, why not always shop Amazon through our links?
Photos are used with the kind permission of photographers who use Creative Commons and show their photos at Flickr.com. Click on each photo to learn more.