Design in fiction: The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng

Updated: 9 Apr 2014

Having reviewed Tan Twan Eng’s first book in Time Out KL’s inaugural issue, SH Lim ventures into the author’s latest, especially after a friend’s provocative comment

'The sun was breaking free of the mountains. A flock of birds unspooled into a black wavering thread, pulling across the sky,’ writes the narrator describing dawn. And I fall. I am a sucker for a beautiful line, which some might think is evidence of purple prose. But these evoke such clarity of image – maybe even clichéd – with such a break-of-day fresh string of words. Crafted no doubt. That’s one of the major appeals of Tan Twan Eng’s novels. However, a friend and fellow reader of serious fiction complains, ‘His writings purport to locate themselves within a Malayan/Malaysian historical context and identity, but then he makes up all these details which have no relationship to reality. He exoticises the East to sell his novels in the West.'

That, for my culture-observing reader friend, is Twan Eng’s cardinal sin. Yet I suspect the Malaysian author, who now metaphorically speaking dips his pen more often in an inkwell in South Africa, already anticipated this response to his works. In his latest novel, his second act, ‘The Garden of Evening Mists’ (following ‘The Gift of Rain’), he details a central character who is accused of something similar.

Nakamura Aritomo, the gardener of the Emperor of Japan finds himself in the Cameron Highlands, just before the dawn of WW2. After the Japanese flag has been lowered and in the midst of the armed conflict between the Malayan communists and the colonial powers, Penang-born Teoh Yun Ling comes to Aritomo. She wants him to design and build a Japanese garden in memory of her sister who died in a Japanese prison camp.

Instead of consenting, Aritomo offers to teach her – till the monsoon season starts – so that she herself can carry out the task. So Yun Ling apprentices under someone from the nation of her former captors, and in the process helps complete Aritomo’s Japanese garden, Yugiri. The garden becomes the locus for the discussion on art.

Frederik Pretorius, another character in the novel, is an Afrikaan-transplant to the Cameron Highlands. He has this to say about gardens: ‘The older I get, the more I don’t believe in having nature controlled. Trees should be allowed to grow as they please.’ Then he zings in on the Japanese garden, like my politically correct friend on Twan Eng’s novels: ‘Gardens like Yugiri’s are deceptive. They are false. Everything here has been thought out and shaped and built. We’re sitting in one of the most artificial places you can find.’ Anyone who has seen a bonsai tree or a raked stone garden will know exactly from where his objection rises. Nature ordered; nature controlled.

Yun Ling counters, ‘What is gardening but the controlling and perfecting of nature? When you talk about “indigenous gardening”, or whatever it’s called, you already have man involved. You dig out beds, you chop down trees, and you bring in seeds and cuttings. It all sounds very much planned to me.’ And maybe that too can be said of a work of fiction. Even a novel that situates itself in this country’s history and tells about the people who inhabit this land.

A novel as a work of art is not natural. It can’t spring up willy-nilly through a collision of words and then fall into an accessible coherence. Storytelling – like gardening, like memory and remembering – results from consciously or unconsciously selecting specific details and skimming over others. Choosing what to highlight with a marker and what to ignore. Sometimes creating ex nihilo. But the end result is an imagined world that appeals through its artfulness, the dexterity of words calculatingly placed to be evocative. There’s self-conscious crafting of his novels. It is as if, like Aritomo, the artisan choosing where to place each plant, trim each tree, locate his water feature. In ‘The Garden of Evening Mists’, time is parcelled out as judiciously as the arrangement of the large boulders in Yugiri. All apart in measured distance and buried to measured depth. The novel opens in present Malaysia with Yun Ling retiring from the bench and returning to the garden. From there the novel retreats into the past as Yun Ling writes her memoirs and the reader is given a view into her life in each period. Through the snatches of time – as it oscillates among present, past and distant past – small portions of her history is revealed. Therein lies the visible story. And like the aesthetically placed boulders in the garden she helps to build, ‘the rest was buried deep within hidden from view’.

Reading a novel occasions an engagement with the imagined world ‘where there is a sense of order and calm and even, for a brief moment of time, forgetfulness’. To create that pleasure of the sublime, of forgetting your present corporeal and emotional concerns and being transported by the created story – that’s the goal of some writers. While some may think that Twan Eng’s art may not have basis in the lived experience of Malayans and Malaysians and some reviewers may think that Twan Eng’s themes ‘include the treacherous lure of loveliness, and the pitfalls of aesthetic nostalgia’, I think he thrives on writing loveliness almost as an end in itself. And that’s not necessarily a fault.

‘The Garden of Evening Mists' has been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2012 and won the Man Asian Literary Prize 2012. Recently, the book is also shortlisted for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award 2014. The book is out now at all major bookstores. For more on the author, see website.

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