On Sunday 14th of August, the STEAR book club enjoyed a close discussion of the book ‘The Garden of Evening Mists’ by Tan Twan Eng, a Malaysian author. In this fictional story, we follow Malaysian Supreme Court Judge Teoh Yun Ling. She had been detained in a Japanese camp during the Second World War with her sister Yun Hong, who was a ‘comfort woman’. As the only survivor of the camp, Yun Ling had to process the traumatic loss of her sister. Her sister wanted to have a Japanese garden, so Yun Ling wanted to make one in her memory. To learn the necessary skills, Yun Ling turns to Aritomo, a former gardener of the Japanese emperor Hirohito, who had moved to Malaysia’s Cameron Highlands. Paradoxically, Yun Ling becomes the apprentice of Aritomo, a man who once maintained the garden of the emperor who caused the death of her sister. One day, Aritomo suddenly disappears. Did Aritomo die when wandering through the forest? Or… was he a spy for Japan’s Golden Lily operation during 1945 and did he choose to return to Japan? Yun Ling chose to believe the former, perhaps against better judgement.
The book, which touches upon history, art, gardening and different cultures, all enriched us with knowledge in one way or another. The writing style was quite cinematic, consisting of many dialogues, but overall everyone found the book pleasant and enjoyable to read.
What sparked some thought processes was the way in which Japan handles its past full of war crimes. In the book, the portrayals of the Japanese camps were horrifying - mainly the descriptions of the ‘comfort women’ left us feeling revolted. While Germany has fully come to terms withtheir actions during WWII, Japan is reluctant to discuss or accept its wrongdoings. Why would this be the case? Losing face is apparently something that is out of the question. Nevertheless, the group also discussed that certain government actions do not necessarily reflect the feelings and opinions of all citizens. This became evident from the scene in which a Japanese army member voices his opinion on the kamikaze pilots: he finds it a terrible waste of life.
Interestingly, Yun Ling, who had suffered tremendously in a Japanese camp and had lost her sister there, was able to not completely reject Japan. She was still fascinated by Japanese culture, wanting to build a Japanese garden for her sister. Her relation with Aritomo alternates between anger and admiration. Both the Japanese and those who suffered under their occupation, struggle with giving a proper place to Japan’s deeds during the Second World War.
Besides war, Japanese art was a present theme in the book. Everyone enjoyed reading about the specific Japanese gardens and the philosophy behind the different varieties and the art of tattooing also sparked our imagination. The different languages that one comes across in the book add another interesting dimension to it. The use of Afrikaans and the Singaporean accent (-lah) gave the book an authentic feeling, however, this might require some Googling.
We also discussed the progressiveness of the book: a female main character who has sex with different men without it being framed as negative and a story about two men falling in love. Nevertheless, the group was not completely sure if the book would pass the feminist test, as all female side characters are one-dimensional and not that present.
In short, this was an interesting book that combines Malaysia’s and Japan’s history, culture and art brilliantly in one story. If you are interested in reading something by a less known author from a country less represented in the literary world, this book by Tan Twan Eng would be a great recommendation.