The Garden of Evening Mists – Tan Twan Eng

The Garden of Evening Mists


“The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.” — Milan Kundera

In the evening when the clock strikes six, to the rampant chirping of sparrows the church bells ring, filling the languid air with its magnificence. These days the regal resonance of the bells is buried under the boisterous traffic, yet when the sparrows chirp at six in the evening, I know the bells are ringing. When memories flood within and tears swell up in the eyes, I love sitting by the ocean; the coquettish waves flirting with the moss covered rocks. Watching the ocean grumble at the setting sun, I think of Aritomo. If the stones really had soul, would these wet stones remember the time when a child had scrapped her knee on them while collecting sea shells? Would the ocean remember how humans uncaringly restricted it glorious waves by several feet so houses could be build on the land? Does the stylish curves of horimono, ink the memories of its earliest crude stigmatization when its embraces the skin of aristocracy? The saltiness of the ocean that slapped my face, the juice of a lemon glistening over the sliced papaya, Frederik’s noisy coffee slurps, the whiteness of the cranes on Tatsuji’s arm ,Magnus’s songs from the Cape; filled my senses. The moon had appeared greeting the sun and I wondered what if the moon could speak. Would this beaming star agree to be the prime witness to Yun Ling’s melancholy? Could it narrate Yun Hong’s nightmare? Does the hand cries in the memory of its two severed fingers? Memory is an amusing thing. Like the mulish demeanour of a passionate love bestowing copious tears of pain and ecstasy, memory becomes a convoluted burden. The escape route may look favourable but the notion of emptiness shudder the fortitude. Puzzles were formed on whether it was the chill in the night air or the musings of Yugiri that gave me goose bumps. The waves were infuriated at the moonlit spectacle. Time had come for me to walk home and draft this appraisal. But, I resisted the very act. How would I be able to write? Especially when the thought of Yugiri was itself overwhelming, penning down my opinion would throw me over the edge. Then, what if? What if someday Mnemosyne decides to abandon me? Would her twin be as lovable? Will Lesmosyne be able to take care of me?

Memory is like patches of sunlight in an overcast valley, shifting with the movement of the clouds. Now and then the light will fall on a particular point in time, illuminating it for a moment before the wind seals up the gap, and the world is in shadows again.

Japan had signed the Peace Treaty, but treachery did not depart from its Malayan abode. The external warfare had trickled into the conflicted communist corridors of the Malayan Emergency. Questions over the authenticity of “bumiputera” (true sons of the soil) had been raised. Old countries may have had died, but their staunch loyal memories had bypassed the generational course. War had not left the residents of Cameron Highlands and the rest of the Malayan realm. War had not left Yun Ling. The warmth of menstruation had freed her unyielding body, but the memories of the war had still shackled her soul. Each time when a judgement was passed from the Supreme Court bench or files were researched at the War Crimes Tribunal; Yun Ling fought a war of her own, chaotic memories propelling her into a perplexed vortex where naivety became a circumstantial victim in the hunt for perpetrators. The sight of faces, the humming of the rainforest, the stench of the “logs”, the night air lit in moonlight were patches of memories that were knitted into a quilt of a horrific past failing to produce warmness to Yun Ling. The leathery odour of Magnus’s eye patch revealed a life torn apart by war and still in the process of being accepted by his adopted homeland, its memories adorning the walls of a graceful house at the Majuba Estate and in the very last flavours swirling in a cup of tea. The remnants of war could be seen in Frederik’s blue eyes cramping his spirit and in the stillness of the mountains above the clouds that spoke about the quandary of an Emperor’s gardener who now was far away from the Emperor’s reign but not far from the love for the aesthetically woven gardens. War had not left the Malayan landscape where the recurrent question,  “Have you ever gone home since then?” was greeted with nostalgic tears revealing the mistiness of consoling memoirs, clouding the joyful sunshine with poignant trepidation. To slaughter someone else’s children, so that your children could survive; to rape someone else’s woman so that the women in your household would be safe guarded and to bulldoze other houses so that you could build yours. Is this a world where one dreams to build lovable homes? Is this how one constructs a secure world? How can one find kindness and love in a home that is built on a guiltless grave? Will the present patches of sunlight be able to eradicate the looming sinister shadows of a horrendous past?

The rainwater may wash the physical remains from the surface of the earth. The graceful showers of the rain may clean the grimy blood stains from the feeble soil. But, can it expunge the memories embedded in the heart of the earth? Dig up the dampness and one can view the dryness of bones peeking through the layers of clammy soil. Dig up the graves and can you hear the agonizing cries of jugun ianfu (military comfort women) as atrocious rapes ravaged their souls along with their adolescent bodies. Dig up the earth on which victorious flags proudly flap through the wind and one can hear the howls of innocent lives being annihilated as the defenseless heavens watched the brutality on earth. I am quite certain that if the pouring rain would in reality sponge down the polluted dregs, the ethnic populace of Malaya would pray for the rain to wash away all their facial features along with their caste and creed taxonomy, for no longer would they have to time and time again prove their allegiance for their cherished domicile. The “cherry blossoms” tainted by the blood oozing from the numerous death poems darted into the cerulean heavens; the delicate scent of the cherry blossoms lingering over the affectionate waves of the sea, the rising sun illuminating the love residing within Tatsuji’s excruciating memories as the boat sailed into the horizon looking upon the two forlorn cranes circling in the open the skies.

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….

The embellished pages of Sakuteiki flickered with every stone that was scrupulously placed under Aritomo’s keen scrutiny. From every fractions of the garden scenery borrowed from the inspirational elements of nature, one could see the smile brighten on Yun Hong’s face. Like the heron that never left the pond, the teachings of shakkei had found permanence within Yun Ling’s heart. The lush trails of the garden had reached within Yun Ling; a paradise that she and Yun Hong had dreamed had been sketched in Yugiri. Aritomo constructed a heaven among the magnanimous mountains questioning the cowardice skies for being a silent spectator to the hellish existence of humans on the earth. Does one throw away an entire bushel due to a single mouldy apple? Does one chop a whole body due to one gangrene infested foot? Then why do we harbour abhorrence for an entire nation due to some rotten elements? Nothing is permanent. Beauty is ephemeral and so is sadness. The principles of  mono no aware prevailed in the aesthetic ambiance acknowledging the enlightenment of the century old Buddha statue which had bypassed the malice of time. From the callousness of war comes the sagacity of peace. The frostiness of hate dies away when the warmness of love awakens. The beauty of a horimono shines through the misery of a bleeding skin and the exquisiteness of an ukiyo-e (woodblock prints) rises from the ache of a chopped tree, its wood being meticulously craved while the splinters clutch onto the memories of a once budding tree. The swift arrows released from the bow imparted lessons of life hinting for the body and mind to live in utmost harmony. Yun Ling’s body and mind was at war unaware of the love that would eventually walk from the perfect curves of the garden melting away the simmering anger into the equanimity of the Usugumo pond. Through the unattractiveness of Yun Ling’s antagonism came the radiance of Aritomo’s love synchronizing the mind and body into an unforgettable bond of greatest admiration and compassion deeper than the darkest shade of a horimono ink, radiating the relationship between a pupil and a mentor; between a man and a woman encumbered under the burdensome stones of obstinate memories. Does the Japanese garden ever kowtow in the honour of the memories of its Chinese ancestry?

Gardens like Yugiri’s are deceptive. They’re false. Everything here has been thought out and shaped and built. We’re sitting in one of the most artificial places you can find…

The artistic origins of a Japanese garden rests in the principles of shakkei(borrowed scenery). Part by part, scene by scene, shapes are calculated, panoramic dimensions are artfully weighed,imperfections are cautiously hidden and imitating the forces of nature an heavenly art is created through the shades of quietude and edifying aesthetics. The opaque stones that cart all the clandestine memories are deceptively submerged in the pond, the elusive movements of the koi fish cunningly pleading the heart to liberate the reins of the resolute hatred so life can finally exhale in the sphere of genuine forgiveness.Our memories are a 3-dimensional painting similar to the assemblage of a Japanese garden. Over a period of time when the memoirs swell up a pandemonium, we meticulously bury our ghastly memories deep within our heart setting a dais on which we then construct a sanctuary embracing the rosy sweetness of our wonderful memories. The line between fact and fiction is misplaced when memories can no longer differentiate between what was real and what were only reflections in life. Aren’t the books we read, a form of shakkei too, a form of deception? The literature amalgamates the essence of realism with borrowed imagination churning out a tome where a sequence of mottled emotions are released and memories are created that would last even after the book has withered with time. If so, then at what point in the game of memories does deception becomes a burdened criminal? When does the ignominy of memories weigh down the sacredness of humanity? And, if memories do become dishonourable making one frets to acknowledge it, in that case why make such shameful memories in the first place? Ask the British? Ask the Japanese? Ask the communist hidden in the trenches of the rainforest? Ask those military officials who blatantly veiled the sadistic crime of harbouring sex slaves under the civilized titular functioning of “comfort women”? Were the deep terrains of the quarry mortified of its memories when it dug tombs of several powerless POWs for a couple of Golden Lilies?

For what is a person without memories? A ghost, trapped between worlds, without an identity, with no future, no past..

Proficiently with heartfelt tenderness, Tan Twan Eng breathes life into Teoh Yun Ling, Aritomo’s inspired unruffled gardens, Emily’s nightly musical notes, Magnus’s enjoyable utterance of “baie dankie”,Tatsuji’s crane horimono adorning his arm and the landscape of a country that after been bitterly ravaged by decades of fierce hostilities courageously rose like a phoenix treasuring its painful memories deep down in the frigid hub of its earth. The journey of Yun Ling from being a POW during the Japanese occupation to a Supreme Court Judge resembles the sturdiness of a tree that had just lost its last leaf, agonizingly infertile, hitherto had the strength to once again revel in new shoots of foliage, awaiting a revolutionizing spring. Like the chaotic rocky path of a wildly grown forest, it was in the need of a serene Japanese garden. The South African import; the arum lilies that embraced the Malayan soil as it robustly grew standing tall approximated the existence of its planter – Magnus, the sweet fragrance conveying memoirs of his homeland. The petals blossomed to the Larghetto from Chopin’s piano caressing a heavy-eyed Emily; its colours animated as they touched Frederik’s memories. The wheeling water echoed the sensitivities of a surreptitious immigrant, the hidden melodies illuminating Aritomo’s artistic brilliance and humane empathy. The time obedient spider whirled silken threads of love, hate, anger, peace, war and humanity into an adhesive mesh of memories; a web so powerful that it would last for a lifetime. Nothing in this life is everlasting, not even memories, yet it is only the inevitable bundle of memories that a man truly owns in his lifetime. Emptiness is indeed ghostly. The Evening Mists had settled on the elegant Pavilion of Heaven, tears from the Cloud Forest glistening among the precious dew on the tranquil Wisps of Clouds.

The fragments of the war had somehow found a trail to reach within the core of my being, muddling with the reverberations of the glorious church bells. A quiescent conflict was simmering in my consciousness as I was penning these sentences; a war of words, inequitable confrontations of my sentiments and a battle of my sanity trying to comprehend the cruelty of mankind in a world that lights up to the serene sounds of birds at sunrise and to the delicate scent of dewy gardens. I’m glad that I finally wrote this review. For then, if one fine day Mnemosyne abandons me and the whispers from this book become unfamiliar; there will be someone who will be able to read from a bounded journal the sanctity of my words etched forever in the fluttering pages. Just like the purity of the garden that was etched in Yugiri, its beauty prevailing among the mountains long after the pond had dried up; its memories lingering in the palest inky shades of a horimono.

Thank you , Tan Twan Eng!



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