Sunday March 17, 2013
‘Novel of subtle power’
MALAYSIAN author Tan Twan Eng’s novel, The Garden Of Evening Mists, beat the work of a Nobel laureate to win the 2012 Man Asian Literary Prize earlier this week. Not bad for just his second book!
Tan himself had not expected the result: “I was quite taken by surprise when my name was called – I had anticipated the prize would go to one of the other authors,” he said in a quick e-mail shot off from Hong Kong where the prize had been announced on Thursday.
“As Prof David Parker (executive director of the Asian Literary Prize, the award’s organising body) said in his speech, it was one of the strongest shortlist in the prize’s history. I thought Orhan Pamuk or Jeet Thayil would win,” Tan, 40, added.
Pamuk won the 2006 Nobel prize for literature for his body of work, which includes Silent House, the book that had been shortlisted for this prize (though it had been published nearly three decades ago, it appeared in English for the first time in 2012 and so was eligible for nomination). And Thayil’s novel, Narcopolis, had also been shortlisted for the 2012 Man Booker Prize. Stiff competition indeed.
At manasianliteraryprize.org, chair of judges Maya Jaggi said, “Our task as a jury was exceptionally difficult, as well as gratifying, because of the outstanding quality and originality of the novels in contention from across Asia, and the strength of our shortlist.”
The Garden, however, was hailed for its “stylistic poise and probing intelligence”.
“Taking its aesthetic cues from the artful deceptions of Japanese landscape gardening,” Jaggi said, “it opens up a startling perspective on converging histories, using the feints and twists of fiction to explore its themes of personal and national honour; love and atonement; memory and forgetting; and the disturbing co-existence of cultural refinement and barbarism.”
Like Tan’s first novel, 2010’s The Gift Of Rain, which is set in 1930s Malaya, The Garden also delves into the past, revisiting the aftermath of the Japanese occupation during World War II. And like his first book that was praised for, among other aspects, evocatively capturing the details of its period, The Garden was also thoroughly researched. As Tan said in an interview at news portal The Huffington Post, “The Garden Of Evening Mists ... it’s exactly what it says it is. There’s a garden and it’s in the mountains (the Cameron Highlands, specifically) so it gets misty. It’s not false advertising.”
The one-time KL lawyer (now full time writer based in South Africa) even got his hands deep into soil despite being a complete city boy who had “zero interest in gardening” because gardens, specifically Japanese gardens and the philosophy behind them, are a key part of the novel.
Jaggi describes what his efforts produced: “The layering of historical periods is intricate, the descriptions of highland Malaysia are richly evocative, and the characterisation is both dark and compelling. Guarding its mysteries until the very end, this is a novel of subtle power and redemptive grace.”
Parker had this to say about the book: “Achieved with the seemingly effortless poise of a remarkable fictional artistry, Tan Twan Eng’s winning novel will be prized by all those who cannot resist the mastery of language.”
Naturally, Tan is hoping that the numbers of “those who cannot resist” the mastery of language will increase now: “The win will hopefully make more readers aware of the book, and once they’re aware of it, hopefully they’ll be interested to read it. The prize has given immense exposure to all of us shortlisted authors.”
And there’s probably even more exposure in the near future for the winner, judging by past results: Last year’s winning title, Please Look After Mom, by South Korean writer Kyung-sook Shin, had, by January this year, sold two million copies worldwide.
The Man Asian Literary Prize began in 2007 and is given to the best novel by an Asian writer, either written in English or translated into English. The winner is awarded US$30,000 (RM93,630) with the winning translator, if there is one, receiving US$5,000 (RM15,605). – Malini Dias