The Garden of Evening Mists The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

how does one come to some kind of peace with having been a prisoner for no crime, enslaved by an occupying army?

this book has so many virtues: great storytelling, great characterizations (i defy you to ever forget Aritomo or Magnus after reading this book), some truly lovely sentences. it also has a slice of history with which i was utterly unfamiliar (japan’s occupation of malaysia), and gives new perspectives on historical bits with which i am familiar (kamikaze pilots, japanese gardening & the art of tattooing, ukiyo-e, and archery). if you are curious about these things, you will find this book a very enlightening read.

it’s also in some ways a hard read, because no occupation by japan was ever a pretty thing. but the author does a very good job of putting horrible acts within a human and recognizable context; there are no cardboard cutout villains here, and everyone is more complex than they first appear to be.

and did i mention the pretty sentences? there really is some lovely writing here. the book was shortlisted for the Man Booker this year, and i would not at all be surprised to the see the author win one next time around.

but… one thing bothered me.

if you’re at all a japan fangirl, you know very well the high points: gardening, ukiyo-e, archery, tattooing. the Floating World. kamikaze. this book hits them all, except for samurai and ninjas and robots. if you’ve done some reading on japan’s multitudinous bad behaviors during WWII, you know about comfort women (which is a horrible mislabeling–they were victims of institutionalized, serial rape, and to label them with the term they were given by their rapists seems unspeakably cruel), Nanjing, Shanghai, prison camps. in a sense, the book doesn’t really offer much different from this usual fare, although to be fair it does a far, far better job of it than most fiction i’ve seen on the subject.

there is one part of the history that is new to me, but it would be a spoiler to mention it here, and i’m not actually sure it is history and not fiction. so i’m going to look it up.

on the whole, though, it is a beautiful and moving book.

the book brings up a huge question for me: just how did the japanese get to be so unspeakably vicious in WWII? did a country full of perfectionists just also, quite naturally, perfect cruelty?

yes, i get it that contemporary japanese are not their predecessors. i get it that all peoples, everywhere, including mine, have been cruel in wartime. i understand that the victors write the history. i know that not all japanese were horrid, even back then; i know that there were japanese war resisters, dissenters, and probably tons and tons of people who just in conscience did not give their 110%. and i get it that in the bigger picture, British, French, and Americans also had and have a lot to answer for.

but… still… there is something special about the japanese military’s behaviour back in the day. what puzzles me is how, as individuals, they could do the things they did. was the cultural web of hierarchy and obligation so strong that it could pervert an individual’s conscience utterly? were they so well-trained in japan’s superiority that people indigenous to the nations they invaded became something less than human?

i’m not at all suggesting that the refinement evident in japanese culture should somehow require them to invade nations and then just invite the conquered to a tea-and-moon-viewing party. invaders are invaders, time out of mind, and they do invader things.

i just want to know, from individual to individual, how they squared Nanjing and Shanghai and all the other atrocities with their very individual consciences. and despite having been a japan fangirl for most of my life, i just never am able to grasp this fundamental fact: that the most highly cultured people of the last century should also, in WWII, have been the most brutal.

it’s a mystery to me. i wish i could understand it, because then i am pretty sure i would grasp one of the most basic facts of human nature.