Whenever Anna and I are near Kensington High Street, we try to find a moment for the Kyoto Garden in Holland Park. Donated to the borough by that Japanese city in the early 1990s, the space is hardly the most rococo example of its kind – if that busy, showy word can be used to describe the Japanese gardening tradition at all – but it nevertheless attains a harmony and a peace not on offer elsewhere in West London. That is, the garden’s very virtue is explicitly in its separateness, its confection. In Tan Twan Eng’s Booker-shortlisted novel, The Garden of Evening Mists, Aritomo, the Emperor of Japan’s former gardener, intones: “Every aspect of gardening is a form of deception.” [pg. 150] It is the sort of gnomic commonplace with which the novel is littered.
The garden is the novel’s guiding metaphor, a place in which harmony is arrived at through conscious manipulation, co-option and transplantation. This is contrasted with the more earthy physicality of the subjects of the ukiyo-e Aritomo also produces – we come to see that gardens are not separated from the baser urges of the Floating World, but part of it, feeding from and into it. (Ukiyo, the Japanese word for the ‘Floating World’ of geishas and tea houses, is pronounced in the same way as the word for ‘Sorrowful World’ of death and rebirth.) The metaphor is piquant not just because Aritomo’s banishment from Japan – we encounter him in the hills of Malaysia during the Communist uprising of the 1950s – is, it is hinted, due to a dark secret; but also because our narrator, the retired judge Teoh Yun Ling, looking back on her time as Aritomo’s apprentice during the Emergency, spent World War II as an inmate of a Japanese labour camp.
The depredations Yun Ling and her sister underwent in that camp have left her with a deep and abiding hatred of the Japanese. “They’d have to hang their emperor,” she snarls at the Boer tea farmer on whose Malay estate she lives following the War, “before I’d ask for help from any of them.” [pg. 50] It is of no interest to Yun Ling that Japanese gardening was initially “designed to replicate the extensive pleasure gardens of the Chinese” [pg. 90], or that her own sister, who suffers much worse in the camps, can still gasp, “Their gardens are beautiful” [pg. 269]; for Yun Ling, and therefore for the novel she tells, there can be no erasure of the past. “Your apology is meaningless,” she snaps at a Japanese academic she invites upon her retirement to join her in Malaya to research Aritomo’s life. “It’s worth nothing to me.” [pg. 186]
It is in this context that the garden becomes so important to Eng: it is a symbol of the heterodox husbandry Yun Ling desperately needs to undertake on her own soul. The concept of “borrowed scenery”, which Aritomo disputes upon at some length, offers an analogue in the landscape for taking elements from other cultures to strengthen your own: indeed, Aritomo’s ukiyo-e depict not the Floating World but the lush Malay countryside he comes to love. These lessons are important, because it is impossible, of course, to consign to a distant past difficulty and strife: “When the war ended,” Yun Ling sighs of her time in Malaya, “I had hoped I would never have to experience something like that again. But here I was, in the heart of another war.” [pg. 68] If those sentences suggest a distrust of the mere implicit, then they hint at the novel’s major weakness: its over-neat metaphor spreads into what is stiff and clogged prose.
Reading even the first pages of The Garden of Evening Mists was a bewildering experience for anyone expecting a supple voice from a novel shortlisted by a judging panel whose chair has been championing “exhilarating prose”. “In sleep, these broken floes [of memory] drift towards the morning light of remembrance,” we read [pg. 9]; we see another character fond of awkward plurals “watching my breaths fade away into the garden” [pg. 11]; our attention is drawn to “a colonial structure, erected to outlast empires” [pg. 12], but we are not encouraged to ask which ones precisely; and, finally, we share some empathy with Yun Ling as she bemoans, juddering, “the potholes of my attention” [pg. 14]. These are weird formulations, phrases which stretch on the page even as they over-reach.
At other times, Yun Ling is asked to set out every implication of her self-reflection. “Once I had recovered from my [wartime] injuries, and to convince myself that I was still physically attractive,” she tells us having just gone to bed with someone she’d just met, “I had slept with a number of men. […] Looking back on that period of time, I wondered if all I had been trying to do was to asset my influence over another person, after having been powerless for so long.” [pg. 108] This is deadening stuff. Perhaps the reader of this novel has to buy more readily into the mindset of the characters – who can feel, when placed in a natural environment of uncommon beauty, that they are “inside a living, three-dimensional painting” [pg. 189]; perhaps the reader must accept that people really do say things to each other such as, “We’re the only ones left from those withered days. [….] The last two leaves still clinging on the branch, waiting to fall. Waiting for the wind to sweep us into the sky.” [pg. 343] If so, I am a poor reviewer of such a book.
The novel’s epigraph is taken from Richard Holmes’s A Meander Through Memory and Forgetting, and the novel indeed revolves around remembrance – the tea farmer has a statue in his grounds not just of the Goddess of Memory, but of Forgetting (“I don’t recall there’s a goddess for that,” offers Yun Ling). It also, however, feels very much like a meander: circular, diverting but rather stymied. It is a novel not without strengths – in particular, its conjuration of post-colonial Malaya is atmospheric and mealy – but it is also rather ponderous and oppressive. I might still prefer the open air, and the careful poise, of Holland Park.