A conversation with Tan Twan Eng, whose The Garden of Evening Mists was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2012.

Malay 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.”

Memory and its loss

In these immersive narratives woven from different time scales, legends, art, flashbacks and a visceral sense of war and the present, memory and forgetting are in constant play; jagged at times: “… shards of ice fracturing off an arctic shelf” (Garden); at times poetic: “In the shallows, a grey heron cocked its head at me, one leg poised in the air, like the hand of a pianist who had forgotten the notes to his music” (Garden). Twan reflects, “I came across a quote by Milan Kundera a while ago: “Man is separated from the past (even from the past only a few seconds old) by two forces that go instantly to work and cooperate: the force of forgetting (which erases) and the force of memory (which transforms).” The transforming force of memory: People view the past in various ways: with dispassion, with sentimental longing, or with hatred. Nostalgia is just one way of how one chooses to do deal with one’s memory. I would choose to remember everything, good and bad, rather than to forget. In The Garden of Evening Mists there’s a line: “For what is a person without memories? A ghost, trapped between worlds, without an identity, with no future, no past.”

He references “Kazuo Ishiguro, Vladimir Nabokov, Salman Rushdie, Julian Barnes, Martin Booth”, as writers he admires and his all-time favourite books include Midnight’s Children, An Artist of The Floating World, Lolita. I ask Twan about the challenge of writing his stories. “The toughest part about writing is struggling to create the perfect sentence to convey what I want to say. What feels perfect to me changes every day. And this struggle is there in every sentence in my books. The scenes I found difficult to write were not the emotional scenes, but the sections where I had to describe day to day mundane activities, and still make them interesting to read.”

That he does this masterfully, will be attested by anyone who’s read Garden, for the aroma of boerewors grilled by the magnificent Magnus Pretorius, Cape settler in the Cameron Highlands who takes his chances in times of war, is as sharp as the burn and smell of the charred bomber planes in Tatsuji’s story.

Constant rewriting

Twan reflects on how he paced Garden through all its different tensions and moods, “The structure of the story has to have balance and harmony. And this I achieved only with endless rewriting. I was constantly changing the sequence of chapters and scenes until I was satisfied with the balance in the book. I wanted the reader to feel that he or she is walking through a garden, with each bend in the path revealing something new, something different, and yet connected to the overall design and themes of the garden. If the reader were to read the book again after he had finished it, his experience will mirror that of walking through the same garden again, but the scenery and the views, and his awareness of them, will differ from what he saw on his first walk through it.”

Indeed, intimations in Garden are accessed through mist-veiled, rain-scratched or dirt-and-blood-scrabbled flashbacks and hinge on liminal spaces or artful illusions: Japanese garden principle of shakkei or the art of “Borrowed Scenery” wherein “every act of gardening is a form of deception”. Ukiyo-e (Japanese wood-block prints) in which the artist attempts to “capture stillness on paper” and Horimono in which the artist always leaves a patch of skin un-tattooed.

Archery, which is practised as a form of meditation, the archer’s breath and mind’s eye fused in the space between releasing the arrow and bullseye. Even remembrance is such — borrowing from time to recover what is lost, fill in the emptiness or to gloss over what happened.

Pico Iyer once observed of Nara, Japan’s ancient capital he now calls home: “The empty space, as classical Japan is always trying to teach us, is at least as important as everything that surrounds it”; the same could also be said of Gift and Garden, for they are as much a meditation on time and memory and impermanence as they are pacy mysteries with bloody subplots; as much a catalogue of the brutality of Imperialist Japan and mourning the tragedy of the samurai and the kamikaze as they are a centring of the transcendental aesthetics of Classical Japan. If the world appears in “an altered light” once you emerge from Twan’s books, it could be the view from fish-eyed lens of tear-stained eyes… Or, perhaps it’s the intimations you’ve gleaned.