Malaysian author Tan Twan Eng's novel THE GARDEN OF EVENING MISTS is as delicate and comfortingly elegaic as its tile, even as it deals with the most terrifying and lingering elements of nationality and memory, war and forgiveness. Narrated by a recently retired female judge, a strong-willed Malay of Chinese descent, the book has the kind of warmth and generosity, openness and tenderness that often seemingly emerges from only women writers, and so I was a little stunned, after finishing, to discover that the author was, in fact, a man. (Go figure.) There's this kind of traditionally feminine spirit he's tapped, a feeling of forgiveness, that bleeds through the whole book, and an approach to detail that illuminates its grand and troubled themes.
Tormented by aphasia, a neurological condition which means that one can sometimes no longer make sense of alphabetical letters on the page, the narrator commits to put pen to pater while she still can, remebering in detail her disturbing years as a teen -- a time that was spent in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp, after which she struck up an unlikely friendship (are there any other kinds?) with a Japanese gardener who stayed in Malaysia past the end of the war, and who also, long ago, had worked in the gardens of the Emperor of Japan. What follows is a narrative that painfully tries to explore how we can forgive and forget -- which makes it sound maudlin and mediocre, the stuff of a thousand clunkly memoris, but the subtle grace of the prosem and the soul-killing pain of these events, combine in an artistic elixir that soothes as it stings.
Eng uses his main character and her Japanese friend as metaphors for what many Asian countries have had to grapple with since the end of that war -- namely, how do you move on and reconcile the irreconcilable? Issues of war-time forgiveness and inter-nation animosity would have held no interest for me, at all, fifteen years ago, but living in Japan, Cambodia and the Philippines has sort of sensitized (or at the very least interested) me to these kinds of issues.
Japan, China and Korea are swept up in a kind of perpetually antagonistic state of eternal sniping; the idea of 'saving face' is fucking huge in Asia, and no country wants to give in, or even appear that might be doing so. China and Korea have not forgiven Japan for its wartime atrocities; Japan does not seem to educate its young people well about all the shit that went down. All sides, at least in my view, have points worthy of contention. Yes, Japan, in many respects, has done a piss-poor job of reconciling with its war-time imperial ambitions. (However, Japan is also such a group-think environment that those who have done legitimate research into what actually went down are not usually guaranteed the widest of audiences.) Yet China and Korea will not let anything go. Do England and France contine tu shut out Germany due to the sins of the past? No. They've moved ahead. Because what other choice do we have? We're talking about events that occurred almost a century ago. At a certain point, one has to move on.
Yet, inside of these intensely political and national(istic) arguments reside actual people and their tangible pain. THE GARDEN OF EVENING MISTS does a good job of illustrating the complexity of moral capitulation. Can you truly befriend a person from a country who has inflicted such harm? Can we trust what anyone says? What do we owe to our fellow citizens, to strangers, to the past? And what should we give to our own furture?
These are all important, but rather ephemeral topics to establish any real narrative grounding, but Eng creates a portrait of a Malaysia post World War II in which these ideas are populated by real characters in pain. If you know a little bit about the Emperor of Japan, or Japanese gardening, or the Chinese in Malaya, or wartime history, you'll be more than intrigued, but you don't need to know much to get something from this book. There is a steady, even abiding sense of sorrow that percolates through every page and its prose. This can, admittedly, sometimes get a bit tiresome; how many descriptions of mountains and insects and the sun slowly setting does one need to read in a single story?
Then you glance again at the title, at the quiet pulse of place invoked by those simple words, and you realize, or at least I did, that sometimes the way best way to approach the human heart and its endless emotional and historical offshoots is through suggestion itself, a slight sketch here and there.