The Office of Gardens and Ponds by Didier Decoin

Translated by Euan Cameron

Reviewed by Harriet

In this magical novel, we are in Japan, many many years ago. The small, unremarkable village of Shimae lies on the banks of the river Kusagawa, which for many years has provided an income for the village. For wonderfully large and beautiful carp can be caught in the river and nurtured in special ponds, before being carried to the Imperial City to be submerged in the ponds belonging to the Buddhist temple, which will enable the village to live virtually tax free. But, as the story begins, we learn that the fisherman Katsuro, who has sole charge of the fish, has drowned. Surviving him is his young wife Miyuki. She is grieving terribly for her husband, and after performing the recommended rituals and cleaning their house, she is at a loss what to do with her life. Soon afterwards however, the village is visited by a delegation from the Emperor’s Office of Gardens and Ponds, demanding a delivery of more carp as soon as possible. Who can take them? It will have to be Miyuki.

And so she sets off on an epic journey. Katsuro used to take twenty carp, carried in two special pots filled with water and hanging on either end of a pole across his shoulders. Miyuki knows she won’t have the strength for twenty fish and elects to carry eight, four in each pot. Even so the journey is a struggle – she has to pass through a dark forest, scramble over rocks, and find places to stop for the night on the way. Her overnight stays are far from incident free – in the first one she is drugged and has several of her precious fish stolen and eaten, and in the second she is coerced into a form of prostitution. But she manages to survive intact and, having acquired some admittedly inferior carp to replace the stolen ones, she finally makes it to the Imperial City and encounters Watanabe Nagusa. Director of the Office of Gardens and Ponds. This turns out to be their second meeting, though the details of the first one are to remain a secret between them.

Miyuki’s journey at an end, you might think this was the end of her adventures, too. But not so. Watanabe has a plan in which she is to be involved. There is to be a perfume competition, in which the participants must create a combination of incense fragrances to evoke an image provided by the teenage Emperor Nijo Tenno – a young woman appears from the mist, crosses a wooden bridge, and disappears into the mist the other side. Miyuki, as Watanabe knows, has her own specific smell, and he wants to incorporate it into his own blend of perfumes. So Miyuki must stay for some extra days before starting her journey home.

To tell you the bare facts of the story in this way in no way encompasses the great delight to be experienced in reading this novel. The era in which it takes place – corresponding in Western terms to the 12th century – is evoked with wonderful vividness. It’s a time of strongly held beliefs and rituals, fears and superstitions, though within that framework human beings still retain their quirks and foibles. Most striking in the novel is the intensity of sensory experience which it conveys.  There’s the powerfully sensual lovemaking of Katsuro and Miyuki, something she misses terribly and which recurs often in her memory. Katsuro’s sensuality extends to his contact with the carp, too, which would come to him when he put his hands in the pond:

All Katsuro had to do was close his fingers, pressing them lightly against the gills, to relax the fish, which has stiffened into a sort of terrified erection on contact with the man. Its fins continued to flutter, but suddenly soft and submissive, its flesh surrendered to the hand that was touching it.

Then there’s the beauty of the landscape and countryside, with its blossoms, fruits, trees, rocks and rivers, the wild forest and rushing rivers encountered by Miyuki as she undertakes her journey, the snow that covers the Imperial City during her visit. Above all, though, it’s the sense of smell that dominates in this culture, at least in the higher echelons of society,  and this drives the last part of the story. The concept of the perfume competition, in itself a demonstration of the emptiness of life in the Imperial City, where games and contests are all the inhabitants have to pass their time, exemplifies this. Here is Watanabe’s assistant describing the odours he has blended to fulfil the Emperor’s image:

‘Here it is, sensei‘ the assistant said as he held up two silk sachets. ‘It’s still moist, but it will have time to dry between now and the opening contests. It will produce two scents in succession, The first – warm, fruity and sweetened, but with a dry, almost powdery base – will evoke the light cloud from which the lady suddenly materialised: rather than a mist,it will make you think of earth evaporating beneath the sun, a heavy earth with large, heady flowers – I imagine them being red….the second one will be as moist and fresh as the first will have been sunny. I ground up the scrapings, dust and resins, galbanum mainly, the most evocative of crushed ivy leaves and some undergrowth after it had rained.’

First published in French and excellently translated by Euan Cameron, this novel apparently took Didier Decoin fourteen years to research and write. That’s a long time but certainly not wasted, as the geographical, cultural and historic detail seem to be impeccable. The novel shines for its evocation of a lost but wholly convincing world, and for its wonderfully realised inhabitants, including of course adorable innocent determined Miyuki whose story this is. I can’t recommend it highly enough – please read it.

Harriet is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.

Didier Decoin, The Office of Gardens and Ponds, trans, Euan Cameron (Maclehose, 2019). 978-0857057600, 320pp., hardback.

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