The Garden of Evening Mists
by Tan Twan Eng
"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, p 307.
Thomas Mann begins his magisterial novel, Joseph and His Brothers with this line: "Very deep is the well of the past. Should we not call it bottomless?"
The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng demonstrates the truth of Mann's remark. For in this beautiful and haunting novel it seems that the main character is continually dipping into the well of her own past to search for the memories that made her the aging judge that she is as the novel begins.
The story is told by Judge Yun Ling Teoh in flashbacks as she prepare her memoirs of a life that included a brutal period during World War II when she was interned in a Japanese wartime camp. The main events of the story focus on the period just after this in 1951 when she and others in Malaya (soon to become Malaysia) are recovering from the adversity and tribulation of the wartime experience. She had been employed as a researcher for the War Crimes Tribunal in the immediate aftermath of the war, but she came to visit a family friend, Magnus Pretorius, at his tea estate in the fall of 1951. It is during this visit that she comes upon Yugiri the only Japanese garden in Malaya and meets its enigmatic creator, Aritomo. In spite of her hatred for the Japanese she agrees to allow Aritomo to teach her how to build a garden - one that she wishes to prepare as a shrine for her dead sister.
The events and developing relationships as related from the memories of Judge Teoh form an exciting and suspenseful tale. But there is always the mist of memory like an aura surrounding the events she records. The author uses two statues of Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory and her unnamed sister, the goddess of forgetting, as a metaphor for the aura of memory. It is at the tea estate of Magnus that she encounters these statues:
"A pair of marble statues stood on their own plinths in the center of the lawn, facing one another. On my first glance they appeared to be identical, down to the folds of their robes spilling over the plinths. . . "The one on the right is Mnemosyne. You've heard of her?"
"The goddess of memory," I said. "Who's the other woman?"
"Her twin sister of course. The goddess of Forgetting."" (pp 35-36)
The memories are always there in the story, but the story tells of danger, sinister events and an eeriness from potential danger - terrorist gangs roaming the countryside in the aftermath of war. One aspect of the novel that provides a counterbalance to the edginess of the story is the beauty of the natural surroundings. The garden of Aritomo is in the highlands and there are the mountains in the distance. "My eyes wandered from on end of the mountains to the other. "Do you think they go on forever?"
"The mountains?" Aritomo said, as though he had been asked that question before. "They fade away. Like all things."" (p 187)
Gradually the terror abates and the Emergency it caused comes to an end. Aritomo, who is as much a philosopher as an artist, responds to this with the words. "Life has been suspended , somehow, during the Emergency," Aritomo said. "I often feel I am on a ship, heading for a destination on the other side of the world. I imagine myself in that blank space, between two points of a mapmaker's calipers"
"That empty space exists only on maps, Aritomo."
"Maps, and also in memories."" (p 284)
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