One of the most heart rending passages I’ve ever read. An extract from Tan Twan Eng’s The Garden of Evening Mists. I love how the body language of the two characters as they approach each other, and their stilted yet revealing conversation betray the once intimate nature of their now strained relationship. I especially love how Tan makes even the everyday sights of birds, frogs, ponds and leaves cavorting around magical (in real life I would be doing my usual city girl routine skirting mud puddles and wrinkling my nose at the smell of the wet earth - and *shudder* fleeing from inquisitive tropical insects), and these serve as the backdrop for the understated interplay between the two aged and reminiscing characters in the extract. Absolutely gorgeous.
“To my right and at the top of an incline stood Aritomo’s house. Lights shone from the windows, the kitchen chimney scribbling smoke over the treetops. A man appeared at the front door and walked down the slope towards me. He stopped a few paces away, perhaps to create a space for us to study one another. We are like every single plant and stone and view in the garden, I thought, the distance between one another carefully measured.
‘I thought you’d changed your mind,’ he said, closing the space between us.
‘The drive was longer than I remembered.’
‘Places seem further apart, don’t they, the older we get.’
At sixty seven years old, Frederik Pretorius had the dignified air given off by an antique art work, secure in the knowledge of its own rarity and value. We had kept in touch over the years, meeting up for drinks or a meal whenever he came down to Kuala Lumpur, but I had always resisted his invitations to visit Cameron Highlands. In the last two or three years his trips to KL had tapered off. Long ago I had realised that he was the only close friend I would ever have.
‘The way you were watching that bird just now,’ he said, ‘I felt you were looking back to the past.’
I turned to look at the heron again. The bird had moved further out into the pond. Mist escaped from the water’s surface, whispers only the wind could catch. ‘I was thinking of the old days.’
‘For a second or two there I thought you were about to fade away.’ He stopped, then said, ‘I wanted to call out to you.’
‘I’ve retired from the Bench.’ It was the first time I had said it aloud to another person. Something seemed to detach from inside me and crumble away, leaving me less complete than before.
‘I saw it in yesterday’s papers,’ said Frederik.
‘That photograph they took of me was dreadful, utterly dreadful.’
The lights in the garden came on, dizzying the flying insects. A frog croaked. A few other frogs took up the call and then more still until the air and earth vibrated with a thousand gargles.
‘Ah Cheong’s gone home,’ said Frederik. ‘He’ll come tomorrow morning. I brought you some groceries. I imagine you haven’t had time to go to the shops yet.’
‘That’s very thoughtful of you.’
‘There’s something I need to discuss with you. Perhaps tomorrow morning, if you’re up to it?’
‘I’m an early riser.’
‘I haven’t forgotten.’ His eyes hovered over my face. ‘You’re going to be alright on your own?’
‘I’ll be fine. I’ll see you tomorrow.’”
He looked unconvinced, but nodded. Then he turned and walked away, taking the path I had just come along, and disappeared into the shadows beneath the trees.
In the pond, the heron shook out its wings, tested them a few times and flew off. It circled the area once, gliding past me. At the end of its loop the bird opened its wings wide and followed the trail of stars that were just appearing. I stood there, my face turned upwards, watching it dissolve into the twilight.”
- Tan Twan Eng, The Garden of Evening Mists
This too will pass. Four forty-five. Zig, zag. Tick. Tock. Sometimes bitterness makes a grab for Leah. Pulls her down, holds her. What was the point of it all? Three years of useless study. Out of pocket, out of her depth. It was only philosophy in the first place because she was scared of dying and thought it might help and because she could not add or draw or remember lists of facts or speak a language other than her own. In the university prospectus, an italic script over a picture of the Firth of Forth: Philosophy is learning how to die. Philosophy is listening to warbling posh boys, it is being more bored than you have ever been in your life, more bored than you thought it possible to be. It is wishing yourself anywhere else, in a different spot somewhere in the multiverse which is a concept you will never truly understand. In the end, only one idea reliably retained: time as a relative experience, different for the jogger, the lover, the tortured, the leisured. Like right now, when a minute seems to stretch itself into an hour. Otherwise useless. An unpaid, growing debt. Along with a feeling of resentment: what was the purpose of preparing for a life never intended for her?
- NW, Zadie Smith
"National identity is the last bastion of the dispossessed. But the meaning of identity is now based on hatred, on hatred for those who are not the same. Hatred has to be cultivated as a civic passion. The enemy is the friend of the people. You always want someone to hate in order to feel justified in your own misery. Hatred is the true primordial passion. You don’t love someone for your whole life - that impossible hope is the source of adultery, matricide, betrayal of friends… But you can hate someone for your whole life, provided he’s always there to keep your hatred alive. Hatred warms the heart."
- The Prague Cemetery
"I have won so many battles and yet I am a failure. A time comes when something breaks inside, and there is no more energy or will. They say you must live, but life becomes a burden that inevitably ends in suicide."
- The Prague Cemetery
"To imagine that we are a necessary part of the order of the universe is, for well-read people like us, the same as superstition is for uncultured people. You cannot change the world through ideas. People with few ideas are less likely to make mistakes; they follow what everyone else does and are no trouble to anyone; they’re successful, make money, find good jobs, enter politics, receive honors; they become famous writers, academics, journalists. Can people who are so good at looking after their own interests really be stupid? I’m the stupid one, the one who wanted to go tilting at windmills."
- The Prague Cemetery
There is no safe investment. To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket - safe, dark, motionless, airless - it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell.
-C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves