The Garden of Evening Mists
Tan Twan Eng
This is a complex and interesting story, provoking questions on some interesting themes. It is set in Malaya during the Japanese Occupation of World War II and the later communist rebel uprisings, and in Malaysia 34 years later. The two main characters are Aritomo, an esteemed Japanese gardener previously employed by the Emperor, who had moved to Malaya before the war, and Yun Ling, an Anglophile "Straits Chinese" woman, the sole survivor of a Japanese POW camp. A third major character is Magnus, the owner of a tea estate, Majuba, in the Cameron Highlands, and a survivor of the British concentration camps of the Boer War.
The main theme is how survivors of the brutality and treachery of war can live out the rest of their lives in a multi-cultural world. I found it an interesting and original problem.
The characters of both Yun Ling and Aritomo provoke questions and their mysterious pasts propel the narrative. How did Yun Ling manage to survive the notorious internment camp system, and why did Aritomo stay aloof from the Japanese rape of Malaya? (Another question is raised about Yun Ling's father and brother, businessmen who prospered during the war at a time when those who were not against the Japanese were abetting them. Yun Ling's mother seems to know the answer and has collapsed into mental illness.)
Aritomo is clearly a man of influence; during the war, he intervened with the Japanese invaders on behalf of Magnus and the workers on his estate. After the war, he paid off the Communist rebels to ensure the safety of Majuba and his own garden, Yugiri. Is he protecting his friends or subsidizing the rebels? Is he an accommodator or a pragmatist or a Japanese agent? What are his motives?
Yun Ling's life is brought together with Aritomo's when she apprentices herself to him in order to learn the art of Japanese gardening so she can make a garden to commemorate her sister who perished in the camp.
The two develop a complicated relationship and eventually become lovers. She learns gardening and archery from him and the serenity of the garden helps in her healing. He learns about the atrocities committed by the Japanese and in a sado-masochist exchange creates a personalized "horimono" or tattoo over her entire back. Then he mysteriously disappears forever into the jungle whose many trails he knows by heart.
There are many tangled threads in this plot and the switching of time frames does not make it easy to unravel them. This is part of the mood - the misty garden edging the jungle, and the clouded, complicated past of Aritomo and Yun Ling.
The character of Aritomo is particularly enigmatic. I could not even establish his sexual preference. He is passionless and controlled; his Japanese men friends have been gay. His wartime relationship with Tominaga, the leader of Yun Ling's internment camp is suspicious. My conclusion is that he had been embedded in Malaya by the Emperor of Japan and that the story of his falling-out with his employer was false. He has to face his past when he hears Yun Ling's accounts of the suffering in the camp. His suicide says that some actions are unforgiveable.
Unfortunately, in his effort to create a mood of mystery and secrecy around his main characters, the author fails to create empathy for them. The complexity and culpability of both Aritomo and Yun Ling make their dilemmas intellectual rather than emotional. The story of the wartime love affair between Tatsuji, the kamikaze pilot, and Teruzen who flew in his place, is more moving than the love affair between the two main characters.
Tan Twan Eng has set himself a difficult task: how to sustain sympathy for unlikeable main characters. Aritomo is a man who would show his love and contrition by creating a work of art and also lie to his lover that he had never done one before. Likewise we learn that Yun Ling survived the prison camp because she was an informer on her fellow captives and countrymen. After the war she became a judge who was merciless with Japanese militants and their collaborators, partly to appease her own conscience. She is not an easy person to like; she does not like herself and her medical diagnosis leaves us unmoved.
Both characters are trying to become, "straight-shooters" with their archery practice and their search for the centre of the target, but these are not Cupid's arrows, and the characters remain passionless in their romance and appeal to readers.
This novel interested me especially because of the accounts of the Japanese labour camps during the war. Having had an uncle who barely survived working on the Burma Railroad, I was appalled to learn recently that although the horrors of the Holocaust are well publicized, the Japanese atrocities and the Rape of Nanking have been subsumed by the horror of Hiroshima, and are not taught to today's students. Jewish people have rightly taken steps to ensure that their loss will never be forgotten, but there is no lasting support group for the victims of the Japanese, and their suffering seems in vain. A novel such as this keeps the historical record of Japanese atrocities in World War II on the public conscience.
However, I was disappointed to have these historical events lumped together with the activities of The Golden Lily, an organization that exists in the realm of conspiracy theorists. The Golden Lily is supposed to have been a cadre trusted by the Emperor of Japan to loot the treasures of conquered countries and hide them until after the war when they could be put into the Emperor's coffers. The remarkable resurgence of the Japanese economy after the war is said to have been financed by this plunder. The answer to the riddle of Aritomo is that he was part of The Golden Lily. Although this plot resolution is clever, I resent that it is coupled with the facts of the Japanese labour camps, putting the historical camps in the same category as the conjectured Golden Lily organization. The strong message about the horrors of the camps is diluted by association.