WHEN THE EMPEROR WAS DIVINE by JULIE OTSUKA and THE GARDEN OF EVENING MISTS by TAN TWAN ENG

emperorThe synchronisity of books. Divine is about the internment of Japanese-America citizens during world war two. I enjoyed the simplicity of the writing. It starts with a woman seeing a sign in a window as she was returning a book to the library. When she got home she started packing. At first the reader does not know what is happening or why. The father, who has always been a dapper man, is taken at night. Not allowed to dress he is forced to leave in his pajamas. They don’t see her husband or their father again until after the war, over three years. At first the family is housed in a converted stable in San Francisco. Later they are taken to a camp in the desert where it is hot, dry and dusty all the time. The boy, only 7 when his family is forced from its home. He passes his days in the camp playing marbles and Chinese checkers — or ”cops and robbers and war. ‘ Kill the Nazis! Kill the Japs!'” Otsuka isn’t shy about showing how the children become caught up in the anti-Japanese hysteria. She’s frank as well about the family members’ efforts to erase all trace of Japanese character or culture as they succumb to the complex shame of being falsely accused.  Before they left the mother prepared her family for departure: burying the family silver, destroying all Japanese memorabilia (kimonos, tea sets, opera records, letters from relatives in Japan), disposing of the family pets. Divine is a good book but there are several Canadian books on the same subject that are much better, for instance Obasan by Joy Kogawa.

garden-of-evening-mistsThen I picked up Evening Mists, which is about a British-Malasian woman Yun Ling Teoh who’s family was incarcerated during WWII by the Japanese. Her sister was immediately selected to be a “comfort woman”; what a horrible euphemism for a condition of repeated forced rape. One of the officers said that she was one of the lucky ones. That the comfort women in larger centres had to service many times more men. The main character worked in the kitchen and would steal left overs from officers plates. When she was caught the officer cut off two fingers from her dominant hand. Many men and women died in the camp and more came to replace them. They were digging mines. The women were carting stones away by hand to dump them. When the war ended, the guards forced all the prisoners into the mines and blew them up. Ling escaped because she had become a translator for the camp officials. After the war she set out to acutalize her sister’s dream of creating a Japanese garden. She went to the Malaysian highlands to request Aritomo, who had been the emperor’s gardener to help her build a garden for her sister. He refuses but told her he will teacher her by having her work for him in his garden. The garden called Evening Mists is where she learned about the art of borrowed scenery, “taking elements and views from outside a garden and making them integral” to the garden itself. Evening Mists was the masterpiece of Aritomo, who eventually helps heal the trauma of her imprisonment. She goes on to study law and becomes the second female judge in Malaysia. Evening Mists is a book I highly recommend.

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2 thoughts on “WHEN THE EMPEROR WAS DIVINE by JULIE OTSUKA and THE GARDEN OF EVENING MISTS by TAN TWAN ENG

  1. The second one of these sounds especially good. And, thanks for reminding me about Obasan. I haven’t read it yet.

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