By SHALINI MUKERJI
Malaysian author Tan Twan Eng’s The Garden of Evening Mists, which was shortlisted for the 2012 Man Booker, glides on Zen awareness just as his 2007 Man Booker longlisted debut The Gift of Rain did. Like Gift, Garden is a luminous, imagistic and affecting narrative of conflict and intrigue — Malaya during the Japanese Occupation and Emergency — with characters that rip your heart not just in their loss or ache but in the choi ces they must make to survive, in their fierce steadiness when the world as they know it is shifting. They read as koans about how one can live with conscience and clarity when everything seems broken and bloodied, truth is elusive; even remembrance.
“If one steps out of time, what does one have? Why, the past of course, gradually being worn away by the years as a pebble halted on a riverbed is eroded by the passage of water.” (Gift)
Exploring flawed characters
I catch Twan in “a quiet place” while he is touring with his book in the U.K. and discuss these novels that try understand evil, look for humanity in wartime. “Moments in time when the world is changing bring out the best and worst in people. A character who doesn’t have hard choices to make doesn’t appeal to me as a writer and a reader,” says Twan. “I’m interested in exploring realistic and flawed characters. I don’t set out to judge or to preach morality, but to convey what all of us have to confront daily — our own flaws, our own weaknesses and strengths. If my books feel ambiguous, it’s because life is ambiguous. Nothing is in black and white, and this is what makes writing so fascinating and challenging. I’ve always wondered what I would do, if faced with certain alternatives: would I have the courage and the strength to make the right decision? I’m still looking for the answer.”
Gift, the coming-of-age of Philip Arminius Khoo-Hutton — a motherless Anglo-Chinese boy in Penang who trains in aikijutsu with a Japanese diplomat and learns about the Way of the Tao from his Pai-Mei Chinese grandfather — was a story of integration and fluidity. Suffused with the grace of rain as by Chinese brush painting, aikido and the fleeting magic of fireflies, Gift affirmed love, friendship and honour at their most fragile.
In Garden, perhaps a harsher book, you might find the courage for equanimity and the freedom of letting go as Judge Teoh Yun Ling, the lone survivor of an internment camp who becomes a war crimes prosecutor in Malaya, reconstructs the past falteringly in the ‘stillness of the mountains’ where she was once held prisoner and, later, where she began her reluctant apprenticeship in gardening in memory of her sister, under Nakamura Aritomo, once a gardener of the Emperor of Japan. If in Gift, “… the one impression that remains now is of rain, falling from a bank of low-floating clouds, smearing the landscape into a Chinese brush painting. Sometimes it rained so often I wondered why the colours around me never faded, were never washed away, leaving the world in moldy hues”; in Garden, even when questions go unanswered, “The hollow of the valley reminds me of the open palms of a monk, cupped to receive the day’s blessing.” Such awareness of the natural world, says Twan who was born in Penang, is “shaped more by the time I’ve been spending in South Africa, where nature is such a strong presence in people’s lives. The lifestyle in Kuala Lumpur is very city-oriented, but I love that too.”