Friday 26 March 2021

The Garden of Evening Mists


I picked this up after a friend was in town. Lovely Antonia, who was one of the first people I met when I first moved to Kigali back in 2007. A fellow VSO working in Huye. She turned up on my gate with our friend, Karen. 

She came back to visit about a year ago and we caught up over lunch. I noticed she was reading The Garden of Evening Mists. I liked the title and I asked if it was any good. She said it was, so I ordered it. I like reading books that friends are reading. It makes me feel closer to them. 

This one was particularly canny because it talked about the gods of memory and forgetting. During our lunch, we had a really confusing conversation, trying to remember whether we'd been at the same party together a few years ago. We both had memories of being at the same place, but weren't completely certain it was at the same time. Eventually, we decided that we had both been at the same party in our memories. We settled on 'shared and invented memories,' which are just as good as real ones.


The book dealt with a period in history that I was wholly unfamiliar with: 

Malaya, 1951. Yun Ling Teoh, the scarred lone survivor of a brutal Japanese wartime camp, seeks solace among the jungle-fringed tea plantations of Cameron Highlands. There she discovers Yugiri, the only Japanese garden in Malaya, and its owner and creator, the enigmatic Aritomo, exiled former gardener of the emperor of Japan. Despite her hatred of the Japanese, Yun Ling seeks to engage Aritomo to create a garden in memory of her sister, who died in the camp. Aritomo refuses but agrees to accept Yun Ling as his apprentice "until the monsoon comes." Then she can design a garden for herself.

As the months pass, Yun Ling finds herself intimately drawn to the gardener and his art, while all around them a communist guerilla war rages. But the Garden of Evening Mists remains a place of mystery. Who is Aritomo and how did he come to leave Japan? And is the real story of how Yun Ling managed to survive the war perhaps the darkest secret of all?

It was a very slow burn, and took rather a while to get going. Longer than I would usually stick with. But I'm glad I did, because the end was really something. It's very beautifully written:

The clock in the tower above the central portico chimed, its languid pulse beating through the walls of the courtroom. I turned my wrist slightly and checked the time: eleven minutes past three; the clock was, as ever, reliably out, its punctuality stolen by lightning years ago.


The temperature continued to drop, the air warmed only in the short stretches where the road dozed in the sun. At the Lata Iskandar waterfall, the spray opened its net of whispers over us, rinsing the air with moisture that had travelled all the way from the mountain peaks, carrying with it the tang of trees and mulch and earth.


Memory is like patches of sunlight in an overcast valley, shifting with the movement of the clouds. Now and then the light will fall on a particular point in time, illuminating it for a moment before the wind seals up the gap, and the world is in shadows again.


Old countries are dying and new ones are being born. It doesn’t matter where one’s ancestors come from. Can you say – with absolute certainty – that one of your forebears did not sail from Siam, from Java, or Aceh, or from the Islands in the Sunda Straits? 

It's a land where breath forms a milky cataract on the windscreen of a cold car, roosters bugle at the sun, and no one wishes to die in a language they cannot understand. The book also keeps repeating The Cloud by Shelley. It's one of the character's favourite poems, as it is mine. I was able to recite along by memory when it got to that part.

It was largely set on a tea estate, which is something I knew a little about, having once spent some time on one. There was an argument at one point in the book, where one of the tea estate managers wanted to tear up the artificial Japanese garden and replace it with native trees. Here in Rwanda, tea estates up near Gishwati Forest plant imported eucalyptus because it grows fast so makes excellent fuel for the dryers, however, they are mandated by the government to plant a certain number of native trees as well. 

The book was an introspective look at art, from the art of gardening, to the art of woodblock printing and the art of horimono tattoos. I feel that I learned a lot, and that it was also a commentary on the art of memory.

Like I say, a slow starter, but worth it.

I think they also made it into a film

Gisovu Tea Garden, Rwanda
Known as one of 'the most beautiful tea gardens in the world'.

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