Wednesday, December 28, 2016

On "The People in the Trees" by Hanya Yanagihara ***

This is a disturbing book. Yanagihara makes the idea of raping a culture for one's own ends physical--makes the metaphor potentially real. Alas, where some books manage to be disturbing but to somehow keep one fascinated via language or character development, I was left rather cold by the main character throughout.

Norton Perina writes his life story at the urging of a colleague, who serves as the editor of his biography. Perina has been jailed for a sex crime against his adopted children--children that he has gathered from a Pacific Island nation that he has helped to destroy through his quest for knowledge. As readers, one is left somewhat in the dark with regard to whether Perina is actually guilty of the crime for which he's been jailed until the very end; part of me wishes that Yanagihara had left us in the dark.

One's distaste for Perina begins not just with the first-page revelation of what he's been accused of but for the tone of superiority that he maintains throughout the book. This is extended further as he goes about his scientific tasks.

Perina is invited to accompany some anthropologists to a South Pacific island as a medical doctor and aid. On the island, he and his colleagues discover a group of people who appear to be about sixty but who turn out to be much older, yet whose cognitive functions are less than to be desired. These people live in a native culture that has eschewed Western ways in, what we might say, both good and bad ways. The longevity of the people, however, is what most fascinates the researchers, most especially Perina, however, and his desire to find the reason leads him not only to the answer but to fame as he publishes papers on the subject. That fame, however, comes at a cost to the island and the islanders themselves, as it is then dredged by Western companies for the secret drug that they hope to create from what Perina has found. It is this destruction that is so hard to read about (and that inspires a great deal of pity), especially when described by someone as egocentric as Perina. One wishes he had been jailed long before the accusations fly that ruin his life, whether they be true or not.

As an indictment of Western colonialism, this work is as damning as any novel could hope to be.

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