THE world started to take notice of Tan Twan Eng in 2012 when his novel The Garden of Evening Mists made the shortlist for that holy grail, the Booker Prize. Across the globe, readers found a soothing voice within the book like a babbling stream in a Japanese garden in Kyoto. Westerners, especially, could look at Tan's garden much like we looked at the beautifully powdered faces in Memoirs of a Geisha, even though the story takes place in Malaya, once a British colony on the Malacca Peninsula and now part of Malaysia. (The cautious ones could forget for a while about Edward Said's 1978 book Orientalism, which shows how the East is looked down upon, and they could indulge in the water features, the image of moss-covered pagodas, giant rocks carefully placed and gravel raked meticulously, because it's okay if a man from Malaysia conjures up these images.)
Recently, I had the opportunity to ask Tan questions during the launch of his latest novel, The House of Doors, in Cape Town. The Book Lounge was packed. Tan was dressed in a neat suit. He looked like the Kuala Lumpur lawyer he used to be. The apparent order in the writer's oeuvre, progressing from the garden in the previous book to a house now, is as deeply satisfying as a perfectly knotted tie.
The House of Doors is also set in Malaya, mainly on Penang, an island about four hours north of Kuala Lumpur. The year is 1921, and we meet Lesley Hamlyn and her husband Robert, a lawyer. Staying with the Hamlyns is a famous guest, the British writer W Somerset Maugham (Willie), and his secretary, Gerald. Willie and Gerald are having a secret affair, and while the two are in Penang, Willie learns he has lost most of his wealth after an investment went awry. Gerald is young, flamboyant, and a great conversationalist, so poor Willie knows it's just a matter of time before this lad also packs his bags.
Lesley is a woman of her time and is uneasy about having these two men in her house — after all, Oscar Wilde's trial is fresh in the memory, especially in Penang's legal circles. She wonders how writers make people talk so openly about their love affairs.
As the story unfolds, Lesley and Willie become conversation partners, and Lesley tells Maugham her story: there was an affair, and she was involved in the affairs of the statesman Sun Yat-sen, the father of the Republic of China. Lesley also elaborates on a trial in which a British woman, Ethel Proudlock, was accused of murdering her lover. Real events intertwine with fiction in the book.
Exile in Karoo
The House of Doors is wonderfully rich in intrigue, like a good gossip story. What else could it be, with such a collection of characters: flamboyant settlers, a famous writer, wanderers, wandering women and homosexuals. There's a love story or three (all conducted in secret); there's also the courtroom drama. And all of this in the writer's polished prose.
And the beginning of the book? We find Lesley nowhere else but in the Karoo, where she and Robert have moved since the main events of the novel. Why here? He wanted to punish her, says Tan with a sparkle in his eye, and scolds me because I had too many spoilers in my introduction. I turn cold, apologise profusely, and wonder if it wasn't the story about the gossip that upset the writer.
So, I start in safer waters, with the title: What is a house of doors? Without revealing that it's Lesley and her lover's love nest, Tan explains that this space is also a symbol of the writing process.
Stubbornly, I cling to the idea of the gossip story because — as with the Wilde case — gossip is a serious matter. We gossip because someone breaks the rules; it has something to do with the preservation of customs. Where the smoke of a gossip story appears, there's a fire of taboo.
And we gossip the most in specific spaces. Neighbours share news over their fences, as if you need a space in between you when you approach the taboo, because walls have ears. And isn't a door an excellent image for an in-between space?
The spaces in the book catch your attention. Besides the house of doors, so many conversations and events take place on porches — not inside, nor outside; also on beaches, where the worlds of water and land meet.
Readers who loved The Garden of Evening Mists will be pleased that there are so many connections with the new novel: the geography is the same, the prose is beautiful, and once again a personal story is set against a larger political background — the founding of the Chinese republic.
Maugham is an interesting figure. He was trained as a doctor and worked for the Red Cross during World War 1, also for the British secret service. In his lifetime, literary snobs thought he was too successful to be a good writer, and I wonder if that stigma still clings to him.
What make the novel specifically interesting for us in South Africa are the fascinating parallels: a charismatic father of a new nation, Sun Yat-sen, who might remind one of the time of Mandela. The settlers are also not as straightforward as usual: Lesley was born in Penang, the island is her home, even though her language is interspersed with that of the colonisers: they speak of “Chinamen" and “boys," even when referring to men; the cook in the kitchen gets a diminutive, “cookie," and they use pidgin when ordering around “the people".
Tan says his editor struggled with some of the terms. Here at home we might have concealed some of these, even in a historical novel. At one point, Lesley also dresses in the traditional attire of the island women — could this kind of blackface be the reason her creator sent her to the Karoo? I wonder silently.
“Wouldn't you like to read to us?" I ask towards the end. No, he doesn't think so.
I'm left speechless. Where in the world does a writer refuse to read from his own book at a launch?
In an in-between place.
What, where and how much?
The House of Doors byTan Twan Eng was published by Canongate Books and costs R370 at Exclusive Books.
♦ VWB ♦
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