This novel won the 2012 Man Asian Literary Prize.
As Oscar Wilde once said, there’s nothing sane about the worship of beauty. For me, the saying certainly rings true for this ethereally beautiful novel. My passion may be irrational and even skewed, given that I am an ethnic Chinese with a penchant for oriental art, including Japanese gardens, but that doesn’t make it any less of a passion.
In this poetic drama, two seemingly unrelated elements – brutal sufferings in war and the Japanese ancient art of gardening and tattooing – are masterfully juxtaposed and coalesced into a seamless narrative with themes of hatred, loss, redemption, friendship, love and war-born stigmas. Set in the misty and unfathomable depths of the Cameron Highlands during and after World War II, the novel explores the philosophical blending of polar extremes in life, like in the Taoist symbol of Yin and Yang, while galloping along twists and turns of the storyline. This blending is vividly present throughout the novel. Deep hatred is eventually turned into undying love; tranquil calmness exists alongside the terror of war cruelty; the mind oscillates between memory and oblivion; physical pain becomes an addictive pleasure; real garden scenery is designed to create an illusion for the viewer.
Having visited many temple and private gardens while on a visit to Kyoto in the mid-80s (I was lucky to have been invited to visit the Nomura Villa there, which was breath-taking), I’ve always been bewitched with how the Japanese garden design can evoke a soulful mood in viewers. Now that I’ve read this novel, I understand a little more about the concept behind the design.
The plotline glides along in velvety prose, often stoking picturesque imagination in the reader. This is a passage that I particularly like:-
“Think of the seasons as pieces of the finest, most translucent silk of different colors. Individually, they are beautiful, but lay one on top of another, even if just along their edges, and something special is created. That narrow strip of time when the start of one season overlaps the end of another is like that.”
In the back matter under “Author’s Commentary”, the author likens the art of Japanese gardening to that of creative writing. He thinks that both arts require artifice and lies, and that for a novel, or a garden, to succeed, the lie has to convince, to beguile. I must say that the novel has deluded and charmed me.