First Impression Friday will be a meme where you talk about a book that you JUST STARTED! Maybe you’re only a chapter or two in, maybe a little farther. Based on this sampling of your current read, give a few impressions and predict what you’ll think by the end.
Malaya, 1951. Yun Ling Teoh, the scarred lone survivor of a brutal Japanese wartime camp, seeks solace among the jungle-fringed tea plantations of Cameron Highlands. There she discovers Yugiri, the only Japanese garden in Malaya, and its owner and creator, the enigmatic Aritomo, exiled former gardener of the emperor of Japan. Despite her hatred of the Japanese, Yun Ling seeks to engage Aritomo to create a garden in memory of her sister, who died in the camp. Aritomo refuses but agrees to accept Yun Ling as his apprentice “until the monsoon comes.” Then she can design a garden for herself.
As the months pass, Yun Ling finds herself intimately drawn to the gardener and his art, while all around them a communist guerilla war rages. But the Garden of Evening Mists remains a place of mystery. Who is Aritomo and how did he come to leave Japan? And is the real story of how Yun Ling managed to survive the war perhaps the darkest secret of all?
Happy Friday everyone! Finally, it is the weekend. I know, we are all looking forward to it. Anyway, I hope you ended your work week on a high note. Such is the life of an adult. Since it is the weekend, it’s time to ditch those work clothes and don comfortable clothes. Here in the Philippines, we are going to have a damp and cold weekend. It is bed and sweater weather. A cup of coffee will certainly complete the atmosphere. Wherever you are, I hope you are doing well. The threat of the pandemic remains pregnant in the air, coupled with the looming presence of monkeypox. I hope that you are all observing the minimum health standards to prevent the further spread of both diseases. I do hope that you are doing fine and that you are healthy, in mind, body, and spirit. Do rest well during the weekend.
Before I can dive into the weekends, let me close this week with a fresh First Impression Friday update. This is my first update for August. I can’t believe we are already seven months down into 2022. I hope the last five months of the year will be brimming with blessings and great news. After immersing myself in the works of Japanese literature in July, I have decided to travel to other parts of the Asian continent through the works of Asian literature. While Japanese literature has become a familiar territory, it has recently dawned on me how lacking my venture into the parts of Asia is. This is contrary to what I initially thought. I know that Asian literature is a vast sphere and I am hoping that in exploring other parts of the continent, I will get to learn more about its colorful cultures, diverse people, and history. I am commencing this journey with Tan Twan Eng’s The Garden of Evening Mists.
The Garden of Evening Mists is my first novel by the Malaysian writer whose presence was brought to my attention by a fellow book reader. He sang nothing but praises for Tan so when I was able to acquire a copy of one of his works, I was ecstatic. I even included The Garden of Evening Mists in my 2022 Top 22 Reading List. A work of historical fiction, it is just right up my alley. At the heart of the story is Yun Ling Teoh who we meet in the present as a recently retired Supreme Court judge. She returned to the Cameron Highlands. The story then nosedives into the past as Tan lays out the story of Yun Ling. In 1951, a couple of years after the end of the Second World War, Yun Ling traveled to Cameron Highlands to commission Nakamura Aritomo to build her a Japanese garden in memory of her sister.
Aritomo was once the imperial gardener of Emperor Hirohito. However, after a couple of misunderstandings, Aritomo left Japan for Malaya, as it was called then, and settled there. It was in the Cameron Highlands that Aritomo designed and built his own garden, Yugiri. Yugiri, which literally translates to “evening mists”, is the only Japanese garden in Malaya. Speaking of Japanese gardens, some of the things that first come to mind are the rock gardens of Kyoto and bonsai. Harmony with nature is also right up there. I have seen pictures of Kyoto’s rock gardens when I was younger and I thought them pretty, almost a balance. Back to the story. Interestingly, Aritomo declined Yun Ling’s request. However, he offered her apprenticeship, something that she was reluctant at first but soon agreed to.
At the start of the story, it was already underscored the reason for Yun LIng’s reluctance. She bore witness to the atrocities of the Japanese during their occupation of Malaya and most of South East Asia for that matter. It drove her angst and her hatred for anything Japanese, which was ironic considering she wanted to build a Japanese garden. Although it was not elaborated, the motivation for it was Aritomo’s sister’s travel to Kyoto. Tan, however, was not straightforward about Yun Ling’s experiences during the war. It came in trickles and always lingers in the background, especially when she is around Aritomo. There is a bitterness about her that makes her an unlikeable character, to some extent. This is one of the reasons why I want to push forward with the story. What other forms of atrocities has she witnessed? Or will Tan assume that his readers will already know what these atrocious acts are?
I am midway through the story and there are quite a lot of mysteries. Will these mysteries eventually be solved? It is the solution to these mysteries that are keeping me at the edge of my seat. For one, I want to learn what happened to Yun Ling’s sister and what their relationship was. While the story explicitly examines the legacy of the Second World War on Malaysia and its denizens, Tan was also astutely painting a vivid portrait of his nation’s contemporary history. The war, it seems, is a springboard for the rest of the story. We read of the communists that plagued Malaysia. We also read of the cultural divides that persist in the contemporary. The convergence of different elements makes The Garden of Evening Mists a multilayered story.
Japan’s role in the Second World War will always be a sensitive subject, especially among South East Asians and their Korean neighbors. I have belatedly been discovering works that have explored this tumultuous part of history and its legacies; we often read of the consequences of the Second World War through the works of European and American writers. Among the books that tackled this subject is Singaporean writer Jing Jing Lee’s How We Disappeared and, to a limited extent, Indonesian writer Eka Kurniawan’s Beauty is a Wound. How about you fellow reader? What book or books are you taking with you for the weekend? I hope you get to enjoy them. For now, happy weekend! And as always, happy reading and take care!