Stephen, a Chinese man from Hong Kong, has tuberculosis and so his family has sent him to join his father in Japan to get away from the heat and dampness. From Kobe, he travels to the small, seaside resort town of Tarumi where his grandfather has a cabin. The slow pace of life in the small town is an adjustment from the bustling city, but the mountain air and the sea are healthful. However, while Stephen adjusts to life with the cabin caretaker, Matsu, the world seems to be falling apart outside of his bubble. The year is 1937 and the imperial Japanese army is advancing into southern China.
The Samurai’s Garden fundamentally balances these two contradictory forces. On the one side there is the failing relationship between Stephen’s parents, the horrors of the Japanese campaign in China, and the associated tensions, such as the refugee crisis in Hong Kong, the lack of young men in Tarumi, and the hostility felt by some Japanese against the wealthy Chinese interloper. On the other, there is the tranquility of the garden, the shrine, and how Matsu and his friend Sachi adopt Stephen as though he is their own child.
The entirety of the story unfolds in the course of the more than a year Stephen stays in Tarumi, and the reader only meets his friends, mother and sister through their letters and his memories. Other than brief visits with Stephen’s father, on whom his opinion changes radically, the story mostly focuses on the four Japanese people he meets in Tarumi: the young girl Keiko and four older folks who have a long history together, Matsu the caretaker, Kenzo the owner of the tea house, and Sachi the leper, who they both love. Stephen is the focal point, but his relationship with Matsu and later Sachi is more important than the one with Keiko, which is more closely tied to the broader developments beyond town. There something fleeting about young life, but there is something eternal about Tarumi and the tensions simmering for decades between the older people.
The Samurai’s Garden was deceptively simple at the start, but turned into a deeply contemplative meditation on solitude, companionship, love, and loss. I admit to being a sucker for such stories, and the isolated, seaside, mountain village was a breath of fresh air I longed to visit. At the same time, issues of class, nationality, illness, jealousy, and growing up surround the story, sometimes creeping into the forefront of the narrative, but always silently underpinning its developments. For instance, Matsu is a “strong silent type,” but takes on the role of father, always leading by example and dominating the house he has lived in all these years. Yet, despite being a Japanese man in a Japanese village at the time when the Japanese were conquering China, he is still officially a servant. Stephen doesn’t treat him that way, except in the assumptions he makes.
All in all, I really enjoyed The Samurai’s Garden, but it is an idyllic fantasy. Stephen never wants for anything, with someone else paying for the house and the food, having no deadlines, and never needing to interact with anyone who he doesn’t want to see. He pines to see certain people and suffers physical hardship, but is not forced to grapple with most serious concerns. I legitimately enjoyed the book and it offered deep perspective on issues of loneliness, but I do wonder if part of my fondness grew out of the vision of a beautiful garden where the outside world can only intrude with a rain of white blossoms. There are real problems in the world of The Samurai’s Garden, but the garden is a refuge.
Next up, Louis de Berniéres’ Birds Without Wings, a love story between a Christian woman and a Muslim man in early 20th century Turkey.