In the Tao Te Ching, Lau Tzu extols the virtue of water and its willingness to dwell in low places that people disdain. Philip, the narrator of Tan Twen Eng’s novel, is born with this same virtue. His fluidity is his success, though it is also the cause of deep suffering in the lives of his family and community. As the fortuneteller warned him, "rain also brings the flood."
This is Eng’s ambitious first novel, addressing duty, control and the complicated nature of fate on the painful backdrop of World War II. Philip is the child of a British and Chinese marriage. His mixed parentage prevents him full permission into either the British or the Chinese communities of his Malayan home, Penang. In a moment of full isolation Philip discovers the friendship of his neighbor, Hayato Endo, a Japanese diplomat and skilled aikidōka. Their fondness for each other is instant and profound. Endo instructs Philip in Aikido and Zazen, and Philip tours Endo around Malaya, offering a native son’s knowledge of the island. When the tensions of war and betrayal test their relationship, Philip discovers the true depth of the commitment he has made to his teacher.
Living between the divided worlds of his British and Chinese families and his notorious involvement with the Japanese, Philip is perpetually suspended someplace in between, like rain falling between the earth and sky. Under Endo’s instruction Philip learns slowly to maneuver his skill and his restraint. Eng likewise maneuvers, ebbing between skillfully crafted and sometimes exhaustively sentimental prose. By taping into his extensive first-hand knowledge of aikido and Malaysia, Eng offers a rich and experiential story. His storytelling is refreshing because he accepts the appropriate complexity of his characters’ sensations and the emotional ambiguity of war. Trust and commitment are tested and there no easy solutions for deciphering the loyalty and intentions of another person.
In war, anything can be transformed from its original intentions. During a recent talk on Violence, philosopher Slavoj Žižek discussed the less popular work D.T. Suzuki completed on Zen and killing, in which he asserted that in a state of no-mind, and no-self, even killing can be an act of enlightenment. Translating a philosophically distinct practice for a contradictory purpose is likewise illustrated in Eng’s treatment of Aikido. He constructs a division between Endo-san and his fellow aikidōka, Tanaka-san, to trace the line that Aikido skirted during World War II. Like their teacher (and real-life Aikido founder) Master Morihei Ueshiba, Tanaka retreats to the mountains, refusing to contribute to a campaign that is contradictory to the philosophy of his practice. Endo, on the other hand, is assimilated into the Japanese power structure and is forced to juggle conflicting duties. He places Philip in the same predicament. Because Endo’s training is faithful to Aikido’s origins, Philip understands the value of his skills for diffusing and redirecting the aggression he is confronted with. Of course, it isn’t until he allows himself to reflect back on those gruesome years that he is able to understand whether his ability to flow with the punches he received was truly a gift.
Reviewed by Kristianne Huntsberger