Some books have exotic contexts – there is a story about the story, and it helps the promotion of the book if it has an aura of mystery about it. I recently discovered one such, The Garden of Evening Mists, by Tan Twan Eng. The copy I got was so grotty and dog-eared I thought surely it is an old book from the seventies. But no – it was first published in 2012, and was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize that same year. And it won the Man Asian Literary Prize and the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction for this author of whom I’d never heard. It is so popular, particularly in South Africa, that even my mother, who is picky, pressed me to read it.
I was suspicious of the credentials of the author and the quality of his writing since the subject and setting looked both exotic and unlikely, but I was wrong again. TAN Twan Eng (Chinese: 陳團英) is the author’s real name, and his surname is Tan, not Eng. And he divides his time between Kuala Lumpur and Cape Town. The Garden of Evening Mists is about a Malaysian woman attempting to build a Japanese garden next door to a tea estate owned by a veteran of the Second Boer War. And the he certainly has the background to write a novel with such so many interconnected themes.
An author with roots in many places
Tan Twan Eng was born in Penang, Malaysia in 1972, and grew up in Kuala Lumpur. He studied in London, UK, and also in Cape Town, South Africa. A former intellectual property lawyer, he began writing his debut novel The Gift of Rain (2007) while studying for a master’s degree in law at the University of Cape Town.
And now he is a cause célèbre in South Africa, speaking at book festivals and being seen as a “local boy” – which he is, by adopted heritage, I guess. He’s a bit like a literary Charlize Theron – South Africans tend to forget he is a global citizen, and think of him as their national icon.
He is obviously a fascinatingly multi-cultural person – but aside from that, just judging by the novel alone, he is a really fine writer. I was terribly taken by this novel. I thought I wouldn’t be. I was critical as I read it, looking for mistakes and anachronisms and poor language. There weren’t any. This is the real thing, and it is compelling, has depth, and it is exciting to read.
A difficult time – a complicated plot
The plot has many twists and turns, and shifts forwards and backwards in time. It is about the traumatic aftermath of the Japanese occupation of Malaya and the postwar insurgency against British rule. In 1824, British hegemony in Malaya (before the name Malaysia) was formalised by the Anglo-Dutch Treaty, which divided the Malay archipelago between Britain and the Netherlands. The Dutch evacuated Melaka and renounced all interest in Malaya, while the British recognized Dutch rule over the rest of the East Indies. This lasted until the Japanese invasion during World War II which ended British domination in Malaysia. The subsequent occupation of Malaya, North Borneo and Sarawak from 1942 to 1945 unleashed nationalism. In the Peninsula, the Malayan Communist Party took up arms against the British. British occupation lasted until 1957.
But while Tan weaves together the politics of many different countries, the focus is on the postwar rebellion against British occupation of Malaya, and the unexpected relationships between people from three very different cultures. His skill with connecting these different storylines in such a way that the suspense is maintained is quite remarkable.
Characters from Malaya, South Africa, and Japan
The main character and narrator is “Teoh Yun Ling”, meaning “Cloud Forest”, a Supreme Court judge from Kuala Lumpur who retires to Malaysia’s Cameron Highlands to an estate where, decades before, she had recuperated as the sole survivor of a Japanese prison camp. She recalls her apprenticeship and passionate relationship, during the 1950s Malayan Emergency, with the enigmatic “Nakamura Aritomo”, a Japanese landscape artist who was once gardener to Emperor Hirohito of Japan.
The tea plantation estate where she now stays is owned by “Magnus Pretorius” and “Frederik Pretorius” and the home is called “Majuba House”. (The Battle of Majuba Hill was the final and decisive battle of the First Boer War.) The elder Pretorius, Magnus, had left South Africa in 1905 after the end of the Second Boer War between the Republic of Transvaal, the Orange Free State, and the British Empire, and established the plantation. He is married to a Chinese woman, “Emily”, and Frederik, his nephew, is about the same age as Teoh Yun Ling. Yun Ling is a Straits Chinese which means her parents spoke English rather than Chinese at home, and they considered themselves loyal British, rather than Chinese, subjects.
So, here we have people whose countries of origin are or were at war with each other. The Malayans are supposed to hate the Japanese, the ex-South Africans are supposed to hate the British, the British occupiers are supposed to hate the Malayan Communists, and the Afrikaners, and so on. Each person carries with them so much damage from their pasts. They are all, in some way, scarred survivors.
Not to give the plot away, the core of the story is the relationship between Aritomo and Yun Ling. Tan’s descriptions of the design and creation of a Japanese garden and the philosophy behind that, are fascinating. It made me wish the book had illustrations.
Made into a film that premiered October 2019
No wonder The Garden of Evening Mists was adapted for the screen – though I see the producers and screenwriter dropped the Afrikaans surnames, replacing “Pretorius” with “Gemmell”, and with not one Afrikaans-speaking or South African-born actor in those roles. So I cannot imagine that part of the story was kept intact. On October 4, 2014, it was announced that The Garden of Evening Mists would be adapted into a feature-length film by Malaysian film production company Astro Shaw in collaboration with HBO Asia and the National Film Development Corporation Malaysia. The film had its world premiere at the 2019 Busan International Film Festival on October 4, 2019 and is scheduled to be released on November 29, 2019 in Taiwan, and on January 2020 in Malaysia. It has already been nominated for nine Golden Horse Awards at the Taipei Golden Horse Film Festival 2019. I would suggest you quickly grab and read the book before seeing the film.
No translation provided
As for my wish to see illustrations of the garden, Tan is one of those writers who lets his books speak for themselves. He has refused to add maps or illustrations to this novel, or explain, translate or annotate the Malay, Afrikaans or non-English words he uses. When using more than a phrase, or quoting a line, the characters provide the translations, for instance:
“She stood up and held out her hand to Magnus and together they went out to the verandah that looked onto the back garden. A gust of wind, moistened with rain from over the mountains swirled into the room, lifting the curtains. After a moment’s hesitation I went out as well, standing apart from them. ‘Nou lê die aarde nagtelang en week in the donker still genade van die reën,’ Magnus said softly, putting his arm around Emily’s waist and pulling her to him. For some reason the sounds of those words shifted something in me. ‘What does it mean?’ I asked. ‘Now lies the earth night-long and washed in the dark silent grace of the rain,’ Emily said. ‘It’s from his favourite poem.’” (pp. 92-93)
I would’ve translated “week” as “soaked” not “washed” but the essence is there. The line is from the poem “Winter” by famed South African poet of the Thirties Group, N.P van Wyk Louw, from his collection “Die Halwe Kring” (“The Semi-Circle”), 1937.
Tan’s explanation for this is as follows:
“[…] I refused to have a glossary of Malaysian words. If you go to a foreign country and you listen to people talking around you, you won’t understand most of it anyway, and that’s the feeling I wanted people to have. So in my second novel, The Garden of Evening Mists, I said absolutely no maps, and no glossary, either. I didn’t even want the Malay or Chinese words to be in italics. The Malaysian writer, Preeta Samarasan, I really respect and admire her—the Malay and Chinese words in her novel [Evening is the Whole Day] are not in italics, ‘char kway teow’ is not in italics. I find that italics are a distraction. You’re trying to immerse the reader in this world, and suddenly there are words that are slanty—you disturb the reader’s train of thought. I wanted to leave the words as they are, but my publisher said, ‘No, cannot lah…’”
(Nicole Idar, An interview with Tan Twan Eng, Asymptote Journal)
I’ll say this for him, he definitely got the Afrikaans language and names right in the novel. There was none of that awkward, semi-correct use of hackneyed Afrikaans phrases. He hit it on the nail every time. The novel is dedicated to his sister and to someone else, in Afrikaans, “Opgedra aan AJ Buys – sonder jou sou hierdie boek dubbel so lank en halfpad so goed wees. Mag jou eie mooi taal altyd gedy.” Meaning: “Dedicated to AJ Buys – without you this book would have been twice as long and half as good. May your own beautiful language always thrive.” (AJ Buys, also credited in his previous novel, is a South African judge who encouraged him to write.) Even all the cultural references to all things Afrikaans and South African were spot-on, and so were, as other critics have pointed out, his references to Malayan, British and Japanese language and culture of those periods.
What the garden of the title is about
I thoroughly enjoyed the descriptions of the back-breaking work involved in establishing a proper Japanese garden at Aritomo’s secluded estate, “Yugiri”. The design of Japanese gardens are driven by Japanese aesthetics and philosophical ideas, they avoid artificial ornamentation, and they highlight the natural landscape. Plants and worn, aged materials are generally used by Japanese garden designers to suggest an ancient and faraway natural landscape, and to express the fragility of existence as well as the passing of time.
“Twilight dampened the air with a watery haze, weighing down every leaf in the garden with the sadness of another day ended. Aritomo stopped beside me and leaned on his walking stick, gazing at the heron. For the first time since I knew him, it struck me that he was no longer young. […] The heron flapped its wings once, twice, beating the stiffness out of them, the sounds echoing away into the trees. Droplets of water fell from the bird’s legs as it flew off, blooming into overlapping bracelets on the pond’s surface.” (p. 215)
From where did Tan get the idea of Japanese garden design – about which there are entire schools of thought and hundreds of years of history?
“[…] I met an actual gardener of the Emperor of Japan at a cocktail reception in South Africa. I was introduced to him, I said hello, and five minutes later he probably forgot about me, but I remembered him. I thought about it for a few days, the evocativeness of his job description. I started creating [the character of Aritomo] from the ground up: if it’s the 1950s, he has to be this particular age, and I worked backward…but I didn’t have his full story until I started writing. Sometimes it’s a requirement of the narrative, and I work my way backwards. You can’t just make a character an expert in woodblock prints. You have to build up his story.” (Nicole Idar, An interview with Tan Twan Eng, Asymptote Journal)
I would describe The Garden of Evening Mists as epic or tragic. Moments of love and redemption are balanced by great sadness. The novel leaves you with an overall sense of time passing, melancholy, resignation and loss of memory and beauty – like the evening mists of the title.