Memories of turbulent times, difficult loyalties: Tan Twan Eng’s Malaysia in war novels (Column: Bookends XXXVII)

By Vikas Datta (08:46)

Among historical events that have left an enduring influence, the Second World War is certainly one that lives up to its name. Its European, African and American components are adequately depicted, but the Asian experience, while not entirely absent, is quite under-represented. And this is despite the early 20th century being quite a tumultuous era for the region – older conflicts (the China-Japan War) segueing into the World War, which in its wake, sparked a spate of decolonisation and freedom struggles, some of them violent. But there are promising voices appearing, such as Malaysian lawyer-turned-author Tan Twan Eng with his first two intricately-crafted, evocative novels of the war and its effects in his ethnically-diverse homeland.

The war is the main component, but Tan’s canvas stretches much wider in both his debut “The Gift of Rain” (2007) and “The Garden of Evening Mists” (2012) to encompass the themes of loyalty and betrayal, sacrifice, survival and guilt, the persistence of memory, conflicting demands of collaboration and resistance, complications of a mixed-race heritage, and varied paths to redemption. All these are overlaid by a refined Eastern sensibility, a credible supernatural motif and the aesthetics of a Japanese garden and its laying out.

Set in the northwestern coastal state of Penang in peninsular Malayasia before, during and after the war, “The Gift of Rain” is narrated in flashback by Anglo-Chinese business magnate Philip Hutton, who is the sole survivor of a prominent English family running a trading firm in colonial era-Malaysia. The memories are triggered when he has an unexpected visitor, connected to someone from his past.

Before the war, Hutton, who has a cordial but difficult relationship with his paternal and maternal sides (especially his maternal grandfather), befriends the Japanese consul, Hayato Endo. While Endo becomes his preceptor in the new martial art of aikido and its philosophy, Hutton serves as the diplomat’s guide to the area, but realises, as the Japanese invade, that Endo was sent to reconnoitre the area – and Hutton unknowingly aided him.

Under the occupation, both find themselves grappling to reconcile their friendship and loyalty to each other and to their countries (and in Hutton’s case, his family). Traversing a perilous path, Philip agrees to assist the Japanese and Endo in a bid – unsuccessful – to keep his family safe, but at the same time, passes intelligence to the guerrilla fighters including of the famous Force 136, which include his best friend Kon, the son of a local Chinese triad boss. But there are tensions with the Communist partisans, hardline Japanese administrators and many unpleasant decisions and actions for Hutton, who does not emerge unscathed out of the war.

Even afterwards, there is a further unpleasant but inevitable decision in respect to Endo, with whom Hutton turns out to have a centuries-long association (revealed in the supernatural component). It is the postwar visit of a Japanese widow, once a love interest of Endo, that serves as the catalyst for the memories to come out.

Beginning with the evocative line: “On a mountain above the clouds once lived a man who had been the gardener of the Emperor of Japan”, “The Garden of Evening Mists” is narrated by newly retired Malaysian Supreme Court judge Yun Ling Teoh and takes place over three different periods.

Also in flashback, it begins in the 1980s with the judge suddenly resigning and moving to the Cameron Highlands, where she had lived after the war. There she seeks to make sense of her life and experiences before the aphasia she has been diagnosed with cripples her speech and memory.

The World War is a backdrop for the first story arc, when Yun and her elder sister Yun Hong, of a prominent Straits Chinese family, are taken to an internment camp when the Japanese invade. The only survivor, Yun develops a fervent hate for the Japanese and energetically participates in the war crimes trials. She also visits the highlands where lives taciturn Nakamura Aritomo, the aforesaid gardener, who is crafting “Yugiri” or the garden of the evening mists, and asks him to build a garden in her sister’s memory. He refuses, but instead takes her on as an apprentice and teaches her the art even as the Communist insurgency erupts in Malaysia and serves as the backdrop of the second arc.

Bringing both arcs together is the present when Japanese historian (and failed Kamikaze pilot) Yoshikawa Tatsuji visits Yun and seeks information about Aritomo and his garden – the only surviving one. The flashback leads both Yun to re-examine her memories and morally ambiguous actions of both her and Aritomo in wartime and later and her “survivor guilt”.

Despite a languid pace – especially as far as the pre-war era is depicted and aesthetical details are mentioned, both of Tan’s works are epic in scope as they incorporate and deal with a range of human emotions, motivations and dilemmas to offer an intense, invaluable and engrossing experience of the World War and its lingering effects in Southeast Asia.

(26.10.2014 – Vikas Datta is a senior assistant editor at IANS. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at


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