I was sad when I finished this The Garden of Evening Mists. I was sad mainly because I loved the book, but it is also a melancholic book dealing with loss and the complexities of memory. Two people recommended me to read the book, which is always a good sign, and I recommend it without hesitation. Indeed, I’ve bought it for my wife.
The book is preceded by a quote from 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.” Everybody in the book, just like all of us, has things they won’t to forget and things they want to remember. Sadly, we may remember what we would chose to forget and forget what we would chose to remember.
Statues of the twin sisters appear in the book, on the terrace of the house at the centre of the Majuba tea estate in the Cameron Highlands of Malaya. By the end of the book, the face of one of the statues has been badly eroded, while the other is still complete. Majuba, a battle that the Boers won in the Boer War, is something that the owner of the estate wants to remember but the visiting British official would like forgotten. Tan Twan Eng does a wonderful job of creating the smells and feel of the estate, jungle, tea plants, and gardens. Every day while I was reading the book was uncharacteristically hot in London, but I felt and enjoyed the coolness of the evenings and the mists in the Highlands.
The novel has everything you hope for: a plot that engages; characters that interest you and you care about; wonderful, evocative writing; interesting allusions; excellent quotes; and learning. Plus the novel immerses you in a new world. Although I read many novels I love, I rarely find a complete set of these characteristics.
The novel jumps backwards and forwards in time from when the Chinese narrator was a child in Penang before the Second World War through her time in a Japanese prison camp and working with her lover after the war to build a garden to the time at the end of her life knowing that she has a disease that will soon wipe her memory and kill her. I was reminded of The English Patient, which has just been declared “the Booker of Bookers.” As well as the jumping backwards and forwards in time, the war, the colonial feel, and the melancholy, the two books share a strong filmic feel. The film of The English Patient has already been made, and I was pleased to learn that a film of The Garden of Evening Mists is soon to begin. Great books rarely make great films, but The English Patient was an exception–and I hope that The Garden of Evening Mists will be as well.
The book deals with Japanese, Chinese, Malayan, Afrikaans, and English cultures, but Japanese culture is at the heart of the book, although it is set in Malaya. We learn with great pleasure about Japanese gardens, art, archery, buildings, and tattooing, but we also learn about the brutality and cruelty of the Japanese during the war. How, we wonder, do these two sides of the Japanese fit together? We don’t understand, but the main story of the book is how the Chinese narrator who hates the Japanese for making her sister a prostitute during the war before murdering her comes to love a much older Japanese man.
One of the pleasures of the book was that I anticipated what was going to happen before it happened, which gave me the illusion of being clever. Tan Twan Eng, with great calculation I’m sure, dropped just enough hints to fool the readers into thinking themselves clever in seeing what was coming but not so many as to make the plot predictable.
This is a book to read again before I die.
Here are quotes I took from the book:
I felt I was about to enter a place that existed only in the overlapping of air and water, light and time.
And yet it was only in the carefully planned and created garden of Yugiri that I had found a sense of order and calm and even, for a brief moment of time, forgetfulness.
‘Though the water has stopped flowing, we still hear the whisper of its name.’
For what is a person without memories? A ghost, trapped between worlds, without an identity, with no future, no past.
‘Nou lê die aarde nagtelang en week in die donker stil genade van die rëën,’ [‘Now lies the earth night-long and washed in the dark silent grace of the rain,’]
I am writing one of my judgments, experiencing the familiar sensations as the words snare me in their lines until I lose all awareness of time and the world beyond the page. It is a feeling in which I have always taken pleasure. It provides me with more than that now: it gives me some control over what is happening to me. But for how long this will last, I have no idea at all.
‘The palest ink will outlast the memory of men.’
The garden has to reach inside you. It should change your heart, sadden it, uplift it. It has to make you appreciate the impermanence of everything in life,’ I say. ‘That point in time just as the last leaf is about to drop, as the remaining petal is about to fall; that moment captures everything beautiful.’
Old people are allowed to be tactless. Otherwise where’s the fun in growing old?’
‘At my age, you know what I wish for? That I should die while I can still remember who I am, who I used to be.’
It was odd how Aritomo’s life seemed to glance off mine; we were like two leaves falling from a tree, touching each other now and again as they spiralled to the forest floor.
‘What other beverage has been drunk in so many different forms, by so many various races, over two thousand years? Tibetans, Mongolians and the tribes of the Central Asian steppes; the Siamese and the Burmese; the Chinese and the Japanese; the Indians and, finally, us Europeans.’ He paused, lost in his dream of tea. ‘It’s been drunk by everyone, from thieves and beggars, to writers and poets; from farmers, soldiers and painters to generals and emperors. And if you enter any temple and look at the offerings on the altars, you’ll see that even the gods drink tea.’
Memory is like patches of sunlight in an overcast valley, shifting with the movement of the clouds.
I have spent most of my life trying to forget, and now all I want is to remember.
‘When the work is done, it is time to leave,’ the nun says softly. ‘That is the Way of the Tao.’
‘You’ve never recovered from being a prisoner.’ ‘Do you know of anyone who has?’
Are all of us the same, I wonder, navigating our lives by interpreting the silences between words spoken, analysing the returning echoes of our memory in order to chart the terrain, in order to make sense of the world around us?
‘It was Magnus who first told me the story of the Garden of Eden. I had great difficulty imagining it,’ he remarked. ‘A garden where nothing dies or decays, where no one grows old, and the seasons never change.
‘What’s so miserable about that?’ ‘Think of the seasons as pieces of the finest, most translucent silk of different colours. Individually, they are beautiful, but lay one on top of another, even if just along their edges, and something special is created. That narrow strip of time, when the start of one season overlaps the end of another, is like that.’
‘A horoshi will always leave a section of the horimono empty, as a symbol that it is never finished, never perfect,’
‘My memory is like the moon tonight, full and bright, so bright you can see all its scars.’
We are the same, I realise. The people we loved have left us and we have been trying ever since to go on with our lives. But the one thing we cannot do is forget.
The pond is a meadow of stars.