In this country, Dec. 7, 1941 is still the “date which will live in infamy,” when waves of Japanese aircraft began their devastating surprise assault on Pearl Harbor. The day is remembered in different parts of the world, however, for different reasons. On that same day (which was Dec. 8 on the other side of the International Date Line) Hirohito also commenced attacks on British Malaya.
Thousands of civilians wound up in Japanese prison camps after this invasion: Indians, Straits Chinese, Malays. Tan Twan Eng’s sumptuous second novel, “The Garden of Evening Mists,” named last month to the 2012 Man Booker prize short list, imagines the story of one survivor. It is a thoughtful book full of war’s exiles and survivors, one that breaks down the barriers between the two as it meditates on forgiveness.
The novel moves with a tidal pulse familiar to readers of Michael Ondaatje’s books. As it begins, newly retired Supreme Court judge Yun Ling Teoh, who has been diagnosed with a malady that will leave her with dementia, has returned for a visit to a tea plantation in the Cameron Highlands, where she arrived 36 years earlier as a freshly released prisoner. Yun Ling begins a memoir in an attempt to untangle the memories and survivor guilt that claw at her conscience, while she still can.
The heart of her story is her relationship with Aritomo, an exiled former gardener of the Emperor Hirohito, who lived next door to Yun Ling’s host, Magnus, an Afrikaans tea plantation owner who wears an eye-patch courtesy of his time in the Boer Wars. In 1951, Magnus suggested Yun Ling ask Aritomo to build a garden in memory of her sister. Yun Ling hated the idea: “They’d have to hang their emperor first before I’d ask for help from any of them.”
Magnus’s suggestion is not as insensitive as it seems. In flashbacks, we learn that Yun Ling and her sister, who died while a prisoner, preserved their sanity in the camps by constructing Japanese gardens in their minds. There is a philosophy of intermingling at work, too. Japanese gardens took their inspiration in part from Chinese texts. Aritomo, like Lao Tzu, the Chinese court philosopher before him, walked out of his courtly position in Japan when he disagreed with what was asked of him.
“The Garden of Evening Mists” is full of extremely subtle references to the interdependence of Chinese, Japanese, and Malay history and culture. Eng’s 2007 debut novel, “The Gift of Rain,” which was set in Penang during the Japanese occupation, somehow never found an organizing principle to order the lush exuberance of his story. “The Garden of Evening Mists,” however, has found the perfect metaphor to marshal Yun Ling’s memories into a heartbreaking tale.
The garden is more than a memorial. It is a way of preserving time and reordering the world. In flashbacks that ripple with lyrical touches, Yun Ling recalls the gradual slackening of her hatred for Aritomo, who agrees to teach her how to create her garden tribute to her sister. He works her hard, giving her no quarter as a woman. When she expresses interest in archery, Aritomo begins to teach her this, too. Their work is threaded through with rituals and pauses, a kind of chess game of dominance and submission that Eng choreographs fantastically well.
The most important principle Aritomo instructs Yun Ling in is that of shakkei, the art of borrowed scenery, “taking elements and views from outside a garden and making them integral to his creation.” As her time on the estate stretches to months, Yun Ling learns to see the rising forces of nationalism in Malaysia, and war, as borrowed scenery. Her life, if she follows Aritomo’s instruction, is to become like the garden itself, a place of peace.
If this were a Merchant Ivory film of the 1990s this courtship would eclipse all else. Eng is impatient with simplification, however, and so this novel sprawls in welcome fashion across many years and includes a whole host of moral shadings. Magnus’s wife is a fantastic character: outspoken, long-living, a practical survivor to contrast the idealistic Yun Ling.
The ideological and ethnic soup, too, which was British Malaya in the 1950s is wonderfully sketched. The jungle crawls with CTs, the Malay terrorists who during this period began attacks on plantation owners who were not sufficiently anti-British, or who were anti-Communist. They were partially armed by defected Japanese soldiers. In one scene, Aritomo’s house servant asks Yun Ling to help him get his brother — a CT soldier who fears his days are numbered — out of the jungle. She refuses.
Yun Ling’s evolution from fiery revenge-seeker — her first years after the camp are spent prosecuting Japanese war criminals in Kuala Lampur — to time-addled memoirist is not swift. It hiccups and circles back, and occasionally her hatred redoubles. Always there is the pit of her loss waiting for her. “I wondered what I was doing here,” she recalls thinking, “living the life that should have been my sister’s.”
Yun Ling clearly suffered in prison, but Eng is far more interested in the aftermath of her trauma than its gory particulars. How to excise trauma, rather than mulch it, how to inscribe it on the present without tainting the world itself: there are the grand issues of this novel. With each one of its sentences, “The Garden of Evening Mists” poses a beautiful answer to these questions.
John Freeman is the editor of Granta and the author of “The Tyranny of E-mail.”