Thursday, September 24, 2009

Reflections: The Samurai's Garden

With the onset of the Second World War, Stephen, a young Chinese man afflicted with Tuberculosis is quarantined to an ancestral beach house in the quaint and small village of Tarumi, in Japan; this was at a time when the Japanese Imperialist Army was gradually taking over China. With his mixed emotions on setting into the land of the "enemy", Stephen faces loneliness in the simple village where he seems to be the only young man not to have been drafted off to fight the war. With a concerted effort, he starts forming bonds of friendship - first with his caretaker and loyal servant of the beach house, Matsu. The book recounts Stephen's emotional journey and growth, as the friendships he forms at Tarumi turn out to be more stronger than most bonds he has ever known.

Tsukiyama has crafted an evocative tale that can be peeled into different layers - a man coping with loneliness in a foreign land, the price people pay because of society's shallow prejudices, the courage required to rebuild one's life, the value of friendships, the meaning of love, betrayal and much more. Through Stephen's stay in Tarumi, Tsukiyama recreates the essence of what a small-town Japanese culture holds. Her writing distinctly brings out the flavors of the dishes cooked, the wafting aromas of the cedar and burning incense, the blissfully elegant gardens and their flowers, the pungent smell of salty fish, the vivid beauty of the simplistic homes with their neatly lined tatoma-mats and shoji windows, the peace that fills the temples, the quiet dignity of the people, their furious dedication to honor their families... and much more. Matsu, the care-taker, represents a Japanese Samurai - large framed, yet gentle, Matsu has a depth of goodness and wisdom in him, and an endless pool of inner strength. Although aloof, and a man of very few words, Matsu's life revolves around channelling his goodness to those in need of it and in spending his energy in creating life and beauty around him through his exquisite gardens. Sensing Stephen's loneliness, Matsu takes him to the withdrawn mountain-village of Yamaguchi, where resides Sachi, the woman who anchors Matsu to Tarumi.

Yamaguchi is a leper colony - the colony comprises of people who were unfortunate enough to contract the disease, and were courageous enough to live their lives, despite being ostracized by their families and society. Sachi, a once beautiful woman, rebuilds her life in Yamaguchi with Matsu's help, after her family and fiance couldn't bear to be dishonored by her and wished that she rather ended her life. Sachi's personal struggle and courage to bury her past, her quest to find inner strength and peace to live alone in the mountains, away from the society that shunned her, are very inspiring and poignant. Matsu's devotion to Sachi exemplifies the meaning of true love. Sachi's tale and Tsukiyama's dignified prose in exploring such a topic, were my most favorite aspects of the book. Tsukiyama discusses the undue focus on external appearance and beauty in our society, and how such vanity is not just shallow, but also cruel. True beauty lives within - it radiates through human virtues such as compassion, empathy, courage and determination.

In addition to Sachi and Matsu, Stephen meets many more interesting personalities in Tarumi and Yamaguchi. He also starts to both repair and reestablish his bond with his father. With the war escalating and Japan striding closer to Hong-Kong, Stephen struggles to face the inevitability of leaving Japan soon. Oddly, his best friends were now Japanese. The book thus captures how the war affected even simple people in a remote beach town in Japan, who were ready to look beyond differences in race and nationality to forge indelible bonds.

The only aspect that lacked realistic depth to this novel was how Stephen's illness was handled. While Tsukiyama does a wonderful job with detailed attention to how debilitating leprosy can be, she somehow barely paid any attention to the fact that Stephen was afflicted with a severe illness himself - Tuberculosis. Barring spurious mentions of Stephen's cough and constriction in the lungs, for the most part his character was shaped as if he just had a slight cough and was otherwise quite healthy, active and normal. The fact that Tuberculosis is contagious and air-borne was hardly considered as the tale progressed. I was disappointed at this glaring neglect.

Aside the lack of research and detail on Tuberculosis, Tsukiyama's writing has a tranquilizing clarity. Every time she described the gardens, I was completely absorbed in serenity. My love for gardens, especially Japanese gardens with their fragrant blossoms, Cedar and Koi pond, has been drastically heightened. The different layers of themes handled in this book, make it refreshingly unique.


priti said...

"the vivid beauty of the simplistic homes with their neatly lined tatoma-mats and shoji windows, the peace that fills the temples, the quiet dignity of the people, their furious dedication to honor their families... and much more"

Makes you want to go there and experience all of that :).

oorjas said...

nicely described..

while i was reading this i felt you should attempt to write a story of your own.. you seem to have that kind of way with words..

i too thought as the post progreaased that there was no further mention of the TB....

Neeraja said...

Priti - The book really does transport you to such a place - a vicarious travel :)

Oorja - Thank you, will attempt one sometime :)