Of the Wounds of History

Among contemporary Malaysian writers, Tan Twan Eng is certainly one of the most accomplished. Tan was born in Penang, an island off the northwestern coast of Malaysia. He grew up in both Penang and the country’s capital Kuala Lumpur. However, it was not writing that was his original occupation. After completing his degree in law at the University of London in the United Kingdom, Tan returned to Malaysia and worked as an intellectual property lawyer for one of the country’s leading law firms. It was while taking up a master’s degree in shipping law at the Univesity of Cape Town in Cape Town, South Africa, that he started working on his debut novel; his longing for his country led him to pick up the pen and started writing. In 2007, The Gift of Rain was finally published. It was warmly received by both the general public and the literary pundits. The book was even longlisted for the prestigious Booker Prize in Fiction in 2007.

More success will ensue following the success of his debut novel. Riding the wave of momentum he gained after the publication of The Gift of Rain, Tan worked on his sophomore novel. Published in 2012, The Garden of Evening Mists, like its predecessor, was heartily received by the reading public and literary critics alike. It was a literary sensation, even making it to the shortlist of the prestigious Booker Prize in 2012. The following year, he bested no less than Nobel Laureate in Literature Orhan Pamuk to become the first Malaysian recipient of the Man Asian Literary Prize. The novel also won him the 2013 Walter Scott Prize for best historical fiction, edging a maven of historical fiction, Hilary Mantel, a reversal of the 2012 Booker Prize which was won by Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies. The novel was also recently adapted into a film.

The Garden of Evening Mists has, without a doubt, established Tan as a globally recognized wordsmith. Tan’s sophomore novel commenced in contemporary Kuala Lumpur. The Garden of Evening Mists mapped the story of Yun Ling Teoh, a recently retired judge of the Supreme Court; she was just the second woman to be appointed to the Malaysian Supreme Court. Following her retirement, Yun Ling decided to return to the Cameron Highlands of Malaya. Prior to her trip, she received an ominous diagnosis of primary progressive aphasia; this made her want to complete one final mission. Medically, aphasia is defined as a language disorder caused by damage to the part of the brain that is responsible for language expression and comprehension. In worst-case scenarios, those suffering from aphasia can experience difficulties communicating with others as several facets of communication are impaired. They lose the capability to understand words and sentences that are heard or read. This degenerative disease can be a precursor to dementia.

“I have become a collapsing star, pulling everything around it, even the light, into an ever-expanding void. Once I lose all ability to communicate with the world outside myself, nothing will be left but what I remember. My memories will be like a sandbar, cut off from the shore by the incoming tide. In time they will become submerged, inaccessible to me. The prospect terrified me. For what is a person without memories? A ghost, trapped between worlds, without an identity, with no future, no past.”

~ Tan Twan Eng, The Garden of Evening Mists

Before she could finally lose control of her mental faculties – her diagnosis gave her about a year – Yun Ling returned to the Cameron Highlands in order to reckon with a past event that has significantly impacted who she is in the contemporary. She was also about to start working on her memoir. What was this seminal event and how did it transcend time? From the present, Tan then whisked the readers to post-Second World War Malaya – Malaysia officially adopted its current name in 1963 – particularly to 1951. Following the end of the Second World War, the young Yun Ling was fixated on the idea of creating a Japanese garden for her older sister Yun Hong. The garden will serve as her memorial. Her goal brought her to the Cameron Highlands where a renowned Japanese gardener, Nakamura Aritomo, has taken residence. Yun Ling was hoping that Nakamura would look favorably into her proposal.

The Garden of Evening Mists was a multilayered story that was wrapped in several layers of mystery. But as the story moved forward, the story’s layers were slowly unpeeled. One of the first layers unpeeled was Nakamura. Prior to moving to Malaya, Nakamura was the imperial gardener of Emperor Hirohito. However, after a couple of misunderstandings, he left Japan for Malaya and settled there. It was in the Cameron Highlands that Aritomo designed and built his own garden, Yugiri, the titular garden. Yugiri, which literally translates to “evening mists”, was the only Japanese garden in Malaya and was one of the reasons why Yun Ling sought Nakamura’s assistance. Nakamura, however, refused her proposal. Instead, Nakamura made a counteroffer: he will take her as his protege for six months. Despite her reservations, Yun Ling reluctantly accepted Nakamura’s proposal. What ensued was a journey of learning and growth, and a reckoning with the wounds of the past.

Yun Ling approaching and seeking Nakamura’s help went against her nature. From the onset, we learn that she loathed Japan and everything that represented it. The reason for the anger stemmed from her traumatic experiences during the Japanese occupation of peninsular Malaysia during the Second World War. There was anger there as it was a touchy subject for her. As the story progressed, we learn that the Teoh sisters were forcefully taken from their home by the Japanese forces. They were moved into a camp where they were kept as captives, along with other women from other parts of the former British territory; Malaya would eventually earn its independence from British rule in 1957. In finding herself in the company of Nakamura, Yun Ling was reckoning with the trauma left behind by the war.

Through Yun Ling’s post-war story, we read how Tan captured a sensitive but seminal subject: what happens to the individuals who have survived the war? How do they pick up the pieces of their lives? It was at this crossroads that Yun Ling found herself. When she approached Nakamura, the memories of the traumas beset by the war were still fresh in her mind. She refused to forget, hence, the anger and hatred that fueled her. Nothing in life, however, is permanent, even anger and hatred, as Yun Ling would soon realize. Sure, the pain was still there but the universe has its interesting way of realigning the stars, making burdens feel lighter, and reducing the potency of such anger. Yun Hong’s love for Japanese gardens would lead to her younger sister’s meeting a man from a race she vowed to despise.

“Bats are flooding out from the hundreds of caves that perforate these mountainsides. I watch them plunge into the mists without any hesitation, trusting in the echoes and silences in which they fly. Are all of us the same, I wonder, navigating our lives by interpreting the silences between words spoken, analyzing the returning echoes of our memory in order to chart the terrain, in order to make sense of the world around us?”

~ Tan Twan Eng, The Garden of Evening Mists

Memory was a seminal element of the story but history also figured prominently. Through the sisters’ wartime experiences, Tan provided a glimpse into the horrors that women from the Southeast Asian region and Japan’s neighboring Korea have experienced. By truckloads, women and girls were taken from their homes and moved to military “comfort stations”. They were taken as sexual slaves and suffered all kinds of atrocities from the Japanese occupiers. These women would earn the infamous name “comfort women”. Years later, the subject of comfort women remains a sensitive diplomatic subject between Japan and the countries it occupied during the war. The passage of time has not healed the wounds and the trauma experienced by comfort women. Literature has lately become a vessel for their stories to reach a broader audience. The subject was tackled in Singaporean writer Jing-Jing Lee’s How We Disappeared and, to a lesser extent, in Indonesian writer Eka Kurniawan’s Beauty is a Wound.

Providing further historical context were the references made by Tan to Operation Golden Lily (金の百合, Kin no yuri); it was a subject that captured Tan’s interest while he was writing the novel. Operation Golden Lily was a covert Japanese program rumored to have been instituted during the war. The Operation’s primary objective was to either smuggle to Japan or hide the different artifacts the Imperial Japanese army looted and seized from Asian countries. One of the most popular legends connected with this supposed operation was the Yamashita Gold, a work of myth that continues to tickle the imagination of many a Filipino treasure hunter. These layers of historical details made for a lush tapestry.

Tan also astutely painted a vivid portrait of his nation’s contemporary history. The war was a springboard for the rest of the story. Subtly tackled by Tan was the country’s growing concern with the communists that hounded the country following the war. These communist guerillas, comprised of ethnically Chinese rebels under the leadership of the Malayan Communist Party, were originally organized to launch operations designed to dispel the British colonizers. On the other side of the fence, nationalists were also pushing back on the British. But despite gaining its independence, insurgency persists in the contemporary, on top of other social concerns such as the growing cultural divide. Malaysia is a melting pot of different cultures, mainly Chinese, Malay, and Indian. These cultures don’t often meet eye-to-eye.

The ugly realities of history, war, and memory were contrasted by cultural touchstones. Yugiri and Japanese gardens in general were among them. There is an understated quality to the classic Japanese garden. Often designed to establish affinity with its surroundings, Japanese gardens are renowned for the understated quality of their beauty. They might lack the ostentatious displays of a typical English garden, e.g., animal topiaries and vivid colors, but they still appeal to one’s sensibilities. Developing and creating one is an experience as its intricacies involve different elements, including secrets, memories, and time devices. These gardens also take time to fully flourish, a reflection of our journey. Elsewhere, horimono, which literally translates to “the carving of images,” was referred to in the story. It is the traditional form of Japanese tattooing. Nakamura was also a master of the ukiyo-e, woodblock prints of “the floating world.”

“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. That point in time just as the last leaf is about to drop as the remaining petal is about to fall; that moment captures everything beautiful and sorrowful about life. ‘Mono no aware’ the Japanese call it.”

~ Tan Twan Eng, The Garden of Evening Mists

The development of Yugiri reflected Yun Ling’s own growth. When she first met Nakamura, she was consumed by her anger and hatred. However, her hatred for the Japanese belied an even bigger form of hatred: the hatred she had for herself for being able to survive the war when her sister was not able to. Nevertheless, with Nakamura’s guidance, Yun Ling’s apprenticeship turned transformational. It became a form of healing that she never knew she needed. This gradual character development, from acrimonious to cynical to forgiving, was one of the novel’s finest facets. On the other hand, Nakamura, poised and composed, provided an antithesis to Yun Ling. The enigma that shrouded him provided the story a level of mystery.

Tying together all the novel’s fine elements was Tan’s prose. His writing and storytelling were both captivating. It was He was able to capture the transformation of both the garden and Yun Ling. Tan’s uncanny ability to write evocative descriptions made Yugiri come alive. He was able to capture, in intricate details, the idyllic Malaysian countryside, from the understated beauty of the tea plantations to the allure of the forest surrounding the area. The novel was brimming with vivid images of even the most mundane objects, from rocks to a waterwheel to a cave, with each description written with such precision that the readers experience them firsthand. Like the novel’s structure, the story takes the readers on a roller coaster journey. It was turbulent and tranquil, beautiful and ugly – all at the same time – and when it was over, I found myself sitting by the window crying for reasons I cannot discern. The story, however, did drag at parts but Tan wrote too many components finely that this flaw was negligible.

In his sophomore work, Tan again gifted the literary world with a literary work that transcends memory, history, and beauty. With its dive into history, The Garden of Evening Mists is a quiet masterpiece that provided glimpses into the contemporary history of Tan’s country of birth. In rich and descriptive prose, it was a work that vividly captured the initial quandaries that usually follow the culmination of a war. Does one go on hating? How does one find the heart to heal and move on after witnessing the atrocities men are capable of? The intersection of history, memory and the vast spectrum of humanity made The Garden of Evening Mists a potent and memorable work of contemporary fiction, a triumph of storytelling. It was a stellar book worthy of the accolades it earned, consolidating Tan’s status as one of the contemporary’s promising literary voices.

“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.”

~ Tan Twan Eng, The Garden of Evening Mists
Rating

91%

Characters (30%) – 28%
Plot (30%) – 
27%
Writing (25%) – 
23%
Overall Impact (15%) – 
15%

It was through a Facebook friend that I first learned about Tan Twan Eng. My friend has nothing but praises for the Malaysian writer’s debut novel, The Gift of Rain. This naturally piqued my interest. A couple of years later, I would reencounter Tan. I came across one of his books while browsing through the bookstore catalog. The Garden of Evening Mists captured my interest and the author looked familiar. I was right! He was the same author my friend recommended. I did not hesitate to obtain a copy of the book which I also included on my 2022 Top 22 Reading List. I was also hitting two birds with one stone as I have been working my way through the best of Southeast Asian literature. When I decided to immerse myself in the works of Asian literature, including the book in my reading journey was a no-brainer.

At first, I was a little reluctant about the story. I had reservations about the main character. Nevertheless, I pushed through and I am thankful because as the story moved forward, I found myself losing in the narrative. I loved the details of Malaysian contemporary history woven into the tapestry. The sensitive and dark subjects were also adeptly handled by Tan; these are parts of history I have rarely encountered in literature, particularly in works related to the Second World War. The Garden of Evening Mists, with its beautiful language and heartbreaking story, is one of my favorite reads this year. However, it has been a decade since Tan released a novel. I hope he gets to publish a new one for I would also devour it.

Book Specs

Author: Tan Twan Eng (陳團英)
Publisher: Hachette Books
Publishing Date: 2020
Number of Pages: 332
Genre: Historical

Synopsis

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?

About the Author

Tan Twan Eng (Chinese: 陳團英) was born in 1972 in George Town, Penang, Malaysia, and descended from Straits Chinese. He was raised in Kuala Lumpur and is fluent in both English and Penang Hokkien. He also has a first-dan ranking in aikido. Tan complete a degree in law at the University of London. Post-university, he worked as n an intellectual property lawyer for one of Malaysia’s leading law firms. However, he resigned from his job and traveled to Cape Town, South Africa to pursue his master’s degree in Law at the University of Cape Town.

It was while studying in Cape Town that Tan started working on what would be his first novel. In 2007, his debut novel The Gift of Rain was published to both critical acclaim and commercial success. The book was even long-listed for the 2007 Booker Prize for Fiction and has been translated into different languages such as Italian, Spanish, Greek, Romanian, Czech, Serbian, French, Russian, and Hungarian. His second novel, The Garden of Evening Mists, which was published in 2012, ushered in more success and global recognition for Tan. The book won him the Man Asian Literary Prize and the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction. It was also shortlisted for the 2012 Booker Prize, making Tan the first Malaysian writer to earn recognition from all three literary awards. The Garden of Evening Mists was also adapted into a film starring Hiroshi Abe, Lee Sinje, John Hannah, David Oakes, and Sylvia Chang. The movie was released in 2020.

His success as a writer led to more engagements. He has spoken at different literary festivals in different parts of the world including the Singapore Writers Festival, the Ubud Writers Festival in Bali, the Asia Man Booker Festival in Hong Kong, the Shanghai International Literary Festival, the Perth Writers Festival, the Abbotsford Convent in Melbourne, Australia, the Franschhoek Literary Festival in South Africa, the Borders Book Festival in Melrose, Scotland, the George Town Literary Festival in Penang, and the Head Read Literary Festival in Tallinn, Estonia. He was chosen to be one of the judges for the  International Booker Prize 2023, making him the first Malaysian writer to be appointed to that role.

Tan Twan Eng divides his time between Kuala Lumpur and Cape Town.