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Book 45: Malaysia (English) – Garden of Evening Mists (Tan Twan Eng)

Movement high above us, higher than the heron, caught our attention. We both raised our faces to the sky at the same time. Aritomo pointed with the handle of his walking stick, looking like a prophet in an ancient land. In the furthest reaches of the eastern sky, where it had already turned to night, streaks of light were fanning out. I did not know what they were at first, but when I realised what I was looking at, a sigh misted from between my lips.
It was a storm of meteors, arrows of light shot by arches from the far side of the universe, igniting and burning up as they pierced the atmospheric shield. Hundreds of them burned out halfway, flaring their brightness just before they died.
Standing there with our heads tilted back to the sky, our faces lit by ancient starlight and the dying fires of those fragments of a planet broken up long ago, I forgot where I was, what I had gone through, what I had lost.


A rather tetchy retired High Court magistrate, lone survivor of a Japanese concentration camp during the Second World War, eccentrically decides to build, in memory of her sister who did not survive, a Japanese garden in the Cameron Highlands. She has a fascinating love-hate relationship with Japan, Japanese and Japanese culture, and although she is reluctant to admit to this love it is obvious in the way she lets it occupy her life. Even to the extent of volunteering for a sort of torture at the hands of a Japanese. To learn how to build her memorial she has to apprentice herself to a local Japanese settler, once Emperor Hirohito’s gardener. (One of the few obvious boo-boos is that a Japanese would call a deceased emperor by their reign name, not their given name, after their decease). I love books that connect some of the ‘smaller’ cultures of the world, as it were underneath the main current of world history. My favourite work in this genre is Amitabh Ghosh’s In an Antique Land, but this touching novel, with its surprising connections between Malaysia, Japan and South Africa is definitely up there. It is about flawed people living in a flawed world, trying their hardest to come to terms with the difficulty of existence.


ENG, Tan Twan (1972 – ), The Garden of Evening Mists, Newcastle upon Tyne, Canongate, 2012, ISBN 978-1-78211-017-0


Book 10: Japan (English) – The Tale of Genji = Genji monogatari (MURASAKI Shikibu)


In a certain reign there was a lady not of the first rank whom the emperor loved more than any of the others. The grand ladies with high ambitions thought her a presumptuous upstart, and lesser ladies were still more resentful. Everything she did offended someone. Probably aware of what was happening, she fell seriously ill and came to spend more time at home than at court. The emperor’s pity and affection quite passed bounds. No longer caring what his ladies and courtiers might say, he behaved as if intent upon stirring gossip.


This Heian Era classic from about 1000 CE is famous as probably the first great novel in the world and one of the earliest classics by a female writer. It is massive and took a long time to wade through! You can even see her development as the writing gets better and the characters more multi-dimensional as the plot progresses. It does have something of an unfinished, uneven feel though. Genji himself was gone so suddenly that it seems as if a chapter is missing, which is apparently the case. It gives lots of interesting insights into the exotic world of the Japanese court. Genji is a royal prince and a playboy – and to these modern eyes his womanising seems a bit tiresome! His relations in these polygamous times are quite complicated.
The Japanese appreciation of nature and importance of social relations stand in relief.
Incidentally, Murasaki Shikibu’s given name is unknown. Personal names were seemingly unimportant during this period, likewise in her book. Murasaki (’Purple’) is actually this book’s heroine (are there any other authors who had their name taken from one of their own creations?), while Shikibu was a courtly title held by her father.


Murasaki Shikibu (c.  973 – c. 1014), The Tale of Genji, translated from Japanese by Edward G. Seidensticker, NY/London, Everyman’s Library, 1992, ISBN 978-1-85715-108-4