I read Tan’s first novel, The Gift of Rain, when it was longlisted for the Booker Prize in 2007, and loved it. The evocation of Malaysia after the Second World War, and the repercussions of the Japanese Occupation, were pitched perfectly. So I was happy to see that he has (finally) released another novel – five years after his first. The hardcover edition from Myrmidon Books is beautiful, too, by the way, so if you’re thinking of reading it, check it out.
The first female judge of the Malaysian Supreme Court, Teoh Yun Ling, is retiring, though she seems unhappy about it. In an attempt to stave off an illness creeping into her mind, she begins to write her memoirs, explaining for herself as much as anyone else how she has come to be where she is. How she was rounded up into a concentration camp with her mother and sister during the Japanese Occupation. How she escaped. How she rebuilt her life as a lawyer for those wronged by the Japanese. And most importantly, how she fell in love with a Japanese gardener.
For anyone who has read The Gift of Rain, the territory covered in this second novel is nothing new. As with his previous novel, in which history was a backdrop that permeated the lives of its characters, Tan once again explores the ways in which the Japanese Occupation has shaped and affected not only the big picture politics and culture of Malaysia, but also the ways in which individuals have been influenced by living through the Occupation. What makes Tan’s take on this interesting is that he is keen to not paint all Japanese people as intrinsically evil, and all Malaysians as helpless victims. This is nowhere more apparent here than in the surprisingly complex relationship between Teoh Yun Ling and Nakamura Aritomo. The initial tension between them – for Yun Ling, Aritomo is the epitome of the suffering she endured as a child – is understandable, and had Tan continued in this vein, I would not have been surprised. But instead of taking the easy route, he asks bigger questions of his readers. What happens when you begin to not hate, and in fact, love, a member of a group of people who did such terrible things to you, the physical and metal scars remain with you to this day? Is it possible to find love and redemption with such people? Or can the past never be forgotten?
Tan seems optimistic in his own response to these questions. Yun Ling and Aritomo do fall in love, and they do have a fairly functional relationship, even though others may seem less approving. In that sense, I think he does see a way for reconciliation through forgiveness and discussion, rather than an never-ending, festering hatred of a culture and country that has moved on from its imperial days. Fortunately, Yun Ling is a complex character, and it takes time for her to let go of her memories of the past. It is this that is perhaps the novel’s greatest irony – in a desperate attempt to ensure her story is not forgotten – by others, or by herself – she has to come to terms with these memories that have shaped her, and examine them in a new light. It is not good enough for her to simply wallow in self-pity; she must instead find beauty in the life she has lived, even if it was not something she had planned.
Even though some character names don’t quite ring true for me, you can tell Tan has done a lot of research into Japanese culture. What interests me most is that he has taken two diametrically opposed forms of Japanese artistic expression – gardening and tattooing – and found a way to combine them. I think it’s safe to say no one in Japan would do this, and it’s nice to see outsiders finding ways to appropriate Japanese culture and find news ways to engage with them and reinterpret them. For a variety of reasons, tattoos are considered the mark of the yakuza, or the Japanese mafia, and as such, it is, even today, very rare to see Japanese people with tattoos, particularly full body ones like the ones presented in this novel. I have Anglo friends (that is, people who could not possibly be members of the Japanese mafia) who have been denied entry into public baths in Japan for having a small tattoo on their ankle, such is the cultural connection. (Interesting language tidbit for anyone who cares: the word for tattoo in Japanese, as I was taught, is irezumi [刺青], though here, the word used is horimono [彫り物])
So there’s some kind of beautiful vulgarity in the idea that Aritomo’s garden, Yūgiri (夕霧), should become a kind of shakkei (借景), or borrowed scenery, to complete Yun Ling’s tattoo. It is the restrained that completes the vulgar; the two are intertwined in a way that, for Yun Ling, is inescapable. She has become the literal embodiment of Aritomo’s life’s work, a fact she was certainly unaware of when she agreed to be tattooed. It’s an interesting development, and one that is perhaps symbolic of Tan’s wider writing project – violence and beauty, vulgarity and refinement, binary opposites coming together in post-colonial Malaysia.
Before I finish up, a quick word on the structure of the novel. Perhaps in an attempts to evoke the sympathy of his readers for his main character, Tan jumps quickly and often without warning between several time periods throughout the novel. Just as Yun Ling’s ability to reconstruct her memories in a coherent and reasonable way becomes compromised by her illness, the reader, too, is forced to reconstruct her life without clues.
I apologise for this slightly biased review. There’s a lot more to this excellent novel than a discussion of Japanese aesthetics and culture, but since that’s what I do, that’s what I’ve picked up on for discussion. Malaysia itself gets a good look in, too, and so does South Africa, which is where Tan currently lives. The Garden of Evening Mists is a deeply complex novel that asks many questions of its readers about topics as varied as post-colonial politics to the best way to design a garden.