Gardens have long had a mixed track record in human history. Tan Twan Eng’s novel confirms the rule that gardens are capable of revealing the deepest secrets of human nature. Nakamura Aritomo, a self-exiled gardener of Emperor Hirohito, creates a classical Japanese garden called Yuguri in the Cameron Highlands of Malaya shortly before World War II and later realizes that his garden is at the center of interlocking tragedies. Somewhat in the manner of a Verdi opera, the characters’ private choices have repercussions on affairs of state and are in turn impacted by them so that no tragedy can remain either entirely private or entirely public.
The story begins in 1951 when the Emergency— as the post war Communist led insurgency was called—had been underway for three years. Yun Ling Teoh, a prisoner of the Japanese during the occupation, prosecuted war crimes for Malaya’s colonial government before she sought out Aritomo and asked him to create a garden in memory of her older sister who died in the camp from which she herself escaped. He refused to build the garden but agreed to teach her how to design one.
The garden built by Aritomo and Yun Ling brings together in a kind of literary trompe l’oeil both the public and private paths which draw seemingly unrelated characters within its sphere. Magnus Pretorius, a veteran of the Boer War and successful tea planter from South Africa, graced his neighboring Majuba estate with curious statues and European-style formal gardens that could not have been more unlike the formal classicism of Yuguri. With his nephew Frederik, his British guests of rank and his friends among the police force, Magnus gives living substance to the history of colonial life in Malaya during the first half of the century. A darker aspect of history emerges from an unexpected perspective when the Japanese scholar Tatsugi, who is doing research at Yuguri, describes his training to become a kamikaze and the sacrifice of the pilot who replaced him on the mission from a base in Malaya which would have ended his life.
As with the painterly technique of trompe l’oeil, many of the novel’s effects are based on illusions that are similar in their use of backgrounds to the technique of shakkei or borrowed scenery used by Japanese gardeners to create an impression of the sublime. Sakuteiki, the manual which Aritomo gives to Yun Ling when she becomes his apprentice, explains how the concept of shakkei incorporates background landscapes in an effort to capture living nature beyond the garden’s boundaries. The gardener must seek out adjacent and distant landscapes as well as the upward landscapes of the sky and the downward landscapes of the earth, all four of which are necessary in order to complete a garden. In looking closely at Yuguri’s “Wisps of Clouds” pond, Yun Ling realizes that it has been placed so as to reflect around its edges the clouds in the sky above it: “this liquid mirror is another form of shakkei borrowing from emptiness to create more emptiness.”
The story of Yun Ling and Aritomo is told in parallel with their restoration of the garden so that the novel is eloquent on the subjects of perspective, composition, improvisation, formal structure, and inspiration. Creating the illusion of shakkei was reputed to be the strongest skill of Aritomo, whose conception of the indivisible action of the artist was threefold: “to look, to draw to feel.”
It was after his mysterious disappearance from her life that Yun Ling Teoh was able to fully appreciate Aritomo’s mastery of the art of shakkei. Returning alone to Yuguri thirty-six years later as a retired judge, she examined closely one of Aritomo’s ukiyo-e prints of a drawing for the garden, which contained a triptych she had once thought to be misshapen, and was able appreciate in its intricate assymetrical complexity how Aritomo had been able to bring adjacent and distant background landscapes into the garden. He had constructed three parallel lotus...