Like Tan's earlier novel, The Gift of Rain, this one takes place primarily during the years of the war, with occasional shifts forward to the post-war Emergency period, when the British, returned to power, battled the guerrillas whom they termed "Communist terrorists" or CTs. The first book was set in Penang, and this one in the Cameron Highlands, but both feature a Chinese protagonist who forms a deep, complex relationship with a Japanese teacher. 'Atmospheric' is an overused description of novels, but an understatement when applied to Tan's fiction: the misty horizons, the scent of freshly picked tea leaves, the crackling of rice paper lanterns set alight. And, of course, the bellows of the Japanese internment camp commandant and the hungry depredations of the marauding Communists.
The narrator, Judge Teoh Yun Ling, upon retiring from her bench, returns to the Cameron Highlands, where she lived for several years following the war, learning the art of Japanese gardening. Her teacher was Aritomo, who had once been the Emperor's gardener but who had retreated to his house on a ridge in Malaya to develop his own garden. Yun Ling had grudgingly asked him to design a memorial garden for her sister who adored Japanese gardens and perished in the slave labour camp where both girls were imprisoned during the war. Aritomo refused to design the garden but offered Yun Ling an apprenticeship, through which she would learn to create her own garden.
A garden is composed of a variety of clocks, Aritomo had once told me. Some of them run faster than the others, and some of them move slower than we can ever perceive. I only understood this fully long after I had been his apprentice. Every single plant and tree at Yugiri grew, flowered and died at its own rate. Yet there was also a feeling of timelessness around it. The trees from a colder world -- the oaks, the maples and the cedars -- had adjusted to the constant rains and mists, to the seasonless passing of time in the mountains. The turning of their colours was muted. Only the maple growing by the house remembered the changing seasons in the expanding circles of its memory; its leaves had turned completely red, flaking away from the branches to drift across the garden: I would often find the leaves plastered to the wet rocks on the banks of Usugumo Pond, like starfish stranded by the tide.I found myself re-reading this paragraph again and again, and with more admiration each time. It's a fine example of Tan's descriptive powers, but it also touches on a couple of themes that run throughout the book. The Cameron Highlands is famous for its tea plantations, and the novel's leading tea planter is Magnus Pretorius, a Boer from South Africa. Although Magnus and his son, Frederik, are on friendly terms with their neighbour, Aritomo, they challenge his gardening philosophy. They say his gardens are artificial, contrived, overly planned. They favour 'indigenous gardens'. Aritomo, and later Yun Ling reply that the Japanese gardens do mirror nature, but in a way that makes visitors feel integrally connected to it.
Memory: Yun Ling has been diagnosed with a progressive neurological disorder that will gradually render her aphasic. As time passes, she will no longer recognise words that she hears or sees, so she scrambles to record her life, especially the time with Aritomo, while she still can. The garden was to be a memoriam to her sister, and yet she simultaneously tries to forget the horrors of their incarceration.
I don't think I could have appreciated the feeling of timelessness that Tan describes when I still lived in a place with four distinct seasons. My decade in Malaysia is a decade-long temporal blur -- did something happen one December, or was it July, and if I didn't write it down, how could I possibly remember? There are no seasonal clues, one day being very much like any other, so near the equator. I think we all run on a variety of clocks which run at different speeds. Perhaps some are in sync with the natural seasons (where they exist), and others creep at geological rates. Aritomo's garden is one means of transcending time, of putting us in contact with times we can only remember at a cellular or genetic or instinctual level.
For those who cherish Malaysian history, The Garden of Evening Mists is historical fiction at its best. Tan's fictional characters cross paths with British High Commissioners Gurney and Templer, with Communist leader Chin Peng and some of his cohorts, with Japanese officers and murdered planters and elusive orang asli who are trying to survive the different wars being waged around them. They ramble from the Cameron Highlands to the grand old Moorish courthouse in Kuala Lumpur, into limestone caves to collect swiftlets' nests and into the thick jungle where the Japanese have hidden a secret internment camp.
I feel more deeply connected to the Malaya of this period than I do to either the country of my birth or, indeed, to the Malaysia of the present. The friend who gave me this book is an Englishman who lived in Malaysia for over twenty years. I told him that reading it on the eve of my own departure may have been a bad bit of timing, because I'm woefully susceptible to bouts of nostalgia now. We both thought about this for a few moments and then shook our heads, realising that we are both nostalgic for the Malaya that is no longer. I can't say I'll miss KL's fertile crop of high-rise condos and shopping malls.
But this country -- its customs and history, and most certainly its people -- has touched me more deeply than I can explain. Countless Malaysians have asked why I'm here, seeming a bit surprised when I either shrug or tell them that I love the place. "It must be the food," they say. Aritomo answered the same question with far more eloquence.
Invariably, someone would enquire as to why he had given it all up to come to Malaya. A puzzled look would spread across Aritomo's face, as though he had never been asked that particular question before. I would catch the flit of pain in his eyes and, for a few moments, we would hear nothing except the birds calling out in the trees. Then he would give a short laugh and say, 'Perhaps someday, before I cross the floating bridge of dreams, I will discover the reason. I will tell you then'.