Saturday, May 16, 2020

The garden of evening mists by Tan Twang Eng – A book review

‘The garden will remember it for you!’

‘The goddess of Memory’, I said. ‘Who’s the other woman?’ ‘Her twin sister, of course. The goddess of Forgetting.’

‘For what is a person without memories? A ghost trapped between worlds, without an identity, with no future, no past.’

'My memory is like the moon tonight, full and bright, so bright you can see all its scars.' 

In the middle of the forest, amidst the plantations, I see a garden; a quaint Japanese garden. As I enter, I realize there’s no-one. A thick mist shrouds the garden. There’s something strange about the place. It’s beautiful, but is that why it’s strange? I hear voices but I can’t see anything. I wonder if the ubiquitous mist protects or hides what lies underneath; it looks heavy, yet balancing itself perfectly; it’s movement, if any, is inconspicuous. The heaviness conceived by the eyes isn’t really there; I don’t feel anything but a tingle as I trespass further. Like a savage, the cloudy white scatter engulfs me, eating parts of me, making them disappear; I’m walking but I don’t see my legs. I’m floating.

I try and listen carefully. The voices are many; they crave for attention; they want to be heard. In the cacophony of faint whispers, they’re telling me loud stories of the Occupation war, the concentration camps, of atrocities, of power, of belonging, of separation. There seems to be a strange complicity in the voices of those who’ve committed them and the ones who’ve endured them.

I attempt to listen carefully; they disconcert me. They seem to read my thoughts, “Why did you chop her fingers, why did you rape those girls, why did you inflict so much pain, why did you behave so grotesquely, did you not feel anything when you buried them alive?”

“No”, they say, “I did it because I could. Because she was beautiful. Well, I was raped once. I had my urges to satisfy. They were brought here for this. They needed to be punished. I was asked to.”

I move further across and there’s a part where the mist seems unwelcome; a patch of grass trimmed to different heights, manipulated to make a Taoist symbol. A misery emanates from the waving grass and I ask, “So a lot happened to you, now what?

They answer in myriad echoes “I’m trying to forget. Like Magnus, I have forgiven and forgotten else life will be difficult to live. I carry all the angst and hatred with me like Judge Teoh. I won’t rest until I know, I will avenge. It’s my fate, I have nothing against anyone.”

‘What words could have healed my pain, returned my sister to me? None. And he understood that. Not many people did.’

‘They couldn’t kill me when we were at war. And they couldn’t kill me when I was in the camp.’ He said finally, his voice subdued. ‘But holding on to my hatred for forty-six years … that would have killed me.’

I move away from the voices but they linger in my mind. I reach a pond and the mist lifts as beguilingly as it appeared and stayed and now I see clearly. The voices disappear with the mist, their lives swept away. Tan Twang Eng’s enchanted garden is more beautiful than I had imagined. Everything seems to be perfectly pleasing to the eye. I sort of understand the strangeness now, the fusing of things from the surrounding, borrowing from it - ‘Shakkei’. The mist is part of the garden, a part of the décor like the scattered leaves.

All the characters from his lush, manicured garden are sitting around the pond, oblivious of my presence. Most of them are mutilated, more in the minds and hearts than physically. I see a landscape of human frailties and strength, of a war infested cosmopolitan Malaya; being ravaged by the Japanese, British, and Communists alike. It’s an unacceptable, unaccepted, unwelcome cosmopolitan Malaya.

A lone heron stands in the pond, confused by its own reflection, fusing into one. Only when it alights to disappear into the sky, is the reverie broken. The clouds drift in the water. I look in the sky and they’re the same. I wonder if it’s the same sky everyone sees, the same mountains, the same air that everyone breathes. Thankfully, there’s no line drawn, no fence erected there; yet!

My thoughts drift as I wonder – This love for one’s country, why isn’t it enough by itself; why does it inevitably induce hate for another? Does it need to be proven by conquests and hatred for the ‘not you’? And what brings this hatred, the looks, the mannerisms, the dissimilarity? Or is it the inability of acceptance? Every war is less a story of the brave and more a saga of inhumanity from the interminably grotesque power that we yield to, anger arousing from the throes of helplessness and being overworked.

No! No! It isn’t inhuman. How can we call it so when it’s so common a trait and event? We’re better off accepting that selfishness, jealousy, hatred, anger are what we are. We’re human! It is just the mist of power and situations that keep it unexposed; it is, was always there, though.

‘Sparrows rise from the grass into the trees, like fallen leaves returning to their branches. I think about those elements of gardening Frederik is opposed to, aspects so loved by the Japanese – the techniques of controlling nature, perfected over a thousand years. Was it because they lived in lands so regularly rocked by earthquakes and natural calamities that they sought to tame the world around them? My eyes move to the sitting room, to the bonsai of a pine tree Ah Cheong has so faithfully looked after. The immense trunk the pine would have grown into is now constrained to a size that would not look out of place on a scholar’s desk, trained to the desired shape by copper wire coiled around its branches.’

In the fight of memory against forgetfulness, the power of acceptance, I think is what makes all the difference. We can tell the mind a thousand reasons but the heart has its own way of behaving; happy are those people who can hear their mind stronger than their heart. What else justifies Yun Ling’s love and respect for Aritomo, the Japanese emperor’s gardener after all that was inflicted upon her sister and her and millions of others at their concentration camps; she was the lone survivor? I want to see the thin line where the hatred is gradually erased and love trickles in. In this fusion, does there still remain a line? Yes, I guess, but it comes and goes.

‘What is gardening but the controlling and perfecting of nature?’

It all looks deceptive to me now, the gardener Aritomo’s work of art. Like his ‘horimono’ (tattoos), though beautiful, it is nothing but a manipulated and contrived design. In the understated elegance of the garden, like his life, is a dexterous touch of cunningness. Like his rocks, deliberately placed to imperfection, he craftily uses the people around him to complete his enigmatic design. There’s no map, no blueprint; he schemes, what one doesn’t know doesn’t hurt, but a discovery later, will

If there’s one prayer I want to make today in all earnestness, it’ll be to not let one to ever gain power over another. Let us not see the worst side of ourselves.

‘The palest ink will outlast the memory of men.’ - True Tan Twang Eng, your story will outlast the memory of men.

‘The sounds of the world outside faded away, absorbed into the leaves.’

‘When the work is done, it’s time to leave.’

My rating - 9/10

Image courtesy:

Book cover - ©

Tan Twang Eng - ©

Shakkei 1 - ©

Shakkei 2 - ©

Shakkei 3 - ©


Girish M said...

Is the book as difficult to read, as your writing? if not, I shall definitely give it a try.

Having said that, it’s interesting how you have described a man’s attempt to beautify his surroundings into a selfish deed to control nature. It reminds me of what someone once told me, 'There isn’t a selfless deed.’ Do you agree?

I second your prayer, though, I am more worried about the psychological overpowering than physical.

Cheers, Bro!

comfortably numb said...

Don't judge the book by my review of it; it's a beautiful story.

I wouldn't say there aren't any selfless deeds at all but yes, definitely difficult to find selfless people and hence deeds.

I too had psychological power in mind more than physical when I wrote that.

Thanks for dropping by and taking the time to read the review.