Academic journal article Antipodes

Gardens and Inscription: Fictions by Tan Twan Eng and Fiona McGregor

Academic journal article Antipodes

Gardens and Inscription: Fictions by Tan Twan Eng and Fiona McGregor

Article excerpt

Art is created in the tension between that contingency, a necessary instability, and the order, the meaning, the pattern, that graces it. As is a garden. Or a well-lived life.

-Drusilla Modjeska, The Orchard

Oh where is the garden of being that is only known in existence As the command to be never there

-W. H. Auden, "For the Time Being"

In fiction, biblical tales of expulsion, journey, and resettlement recur, and in the history of gardens, these patterns are not without significance wherever people migrate because of poverty, war, oppression, or a desire for adventure. In Australia, immigrants initially imported colonial ideas of faith, architecture, and landscape design, but the exigencies of distance and an entirely new environment meant that transplanting Edenic or Arcadian ideals proved difficult. Instead, gardens were wrestled into being from wilderness, and in the politics of naming and creating a nation, Indigenous identifications were elided as the use, cultivation, and "ownership" of land was reinscribed. Freedom coexisted with a sense of banishment and ongoing interrogations of identity. It is only now, in a world belatedly acknowledging global warming and the age-old skills inherent in Indigenous land care and survival, that a different kind of appreciation seems possible. The positive potential of a garden as a resource in the panorama of human action, as a way of putting down roots, was recognized early; colonies needed to eat, and self-sufficiency in domestic spaces was encouraged. Gardens offered cultivated pleasures, havens of solace and retreat, and their liminal location, between private and public arenas, permitted transgression-momentary escapes from the oversight of close-knit societies.

This article considers two fictions, set in contrasting temporal and geographical spaces, that explore loss and celebrate the transformative potential of gardens. The novels are curiously alike, as personal, historical, and cultural inscriptions are interwoven and both illustrate the creative impetus of women's lives. Tan Twan Eng's novel The Garden of Evening Mists (2012), set in postwar Malaysia, reveals a mystery, a distinctive gardening aesthetic, and the experience of a woman scarred by war. A world away in more modern times, Fiona McGregor's Indelible Ink (2010) depicts a garden and a life threatened by illness and the contemporary values of Sydney's urban development. In both, gardens are instrumental in the survival of people and environments and they inspire diverse inscriptions, from memoirs and maps to poetry and tattooing. The "plots" of these novels (the term usefully implies narrative purpose, mapping of a course, a calculation or conspiracy, and a piece of land) move beyond formal Aristotelian structures to chart psychological boundaries and the human investment involved in making a life or a garden in difficult or hostile terrains. Whether esteemed as cultivated places of solace or commemoration, replicated and inscribed in the fine arts of Chinese calligraphy or Japanese aesthetics, or marketed as real-estate commodities, gardens denote commitment as markers of ownership where decisions about inclusion and exclusion are authorized.

In these fictions, worlds, words, and wills (both volition and legacy) collide, and gardens and inscriptions take various forms. Aritomo, the Japanese mastergardener/artist in Tan Twan Eng's The Garden of Evening Mists, teaches his initially reluctant pupil, Yun Ling, a woman who petitions him to create a memorial garden for her dead sister, that despite his craft in simulating a garden's timeless quality, an essential element is change-the idea of static perfection, "a garden where nothing dies or decays, where no-one grows old, and the seasons never change," is an anathema (308). Indeed, the Japanese principle of mono no aware celebrates the heightened intensity of beauty at the moment of loss (163). Aptly, Aritomo claims that "when the First Man and First Woman were banished from their home Time was set loose upon the world" (309). …

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