Thrilling tale on the edge of the moral abyss

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

IN his won­der­fully odd 1999 doc­u­men­tary My Best Fiend, Ger­man di­rec­tor Werner Her­zog paints a damn­ing por­trait of his muse Klaus Kin­ski. Yet as his voiceover metic­u­lously de­tails the ego­tis­ti­cal ac­tor’s out­ra­geous be­hav­iour and his own re­ac­tions — his threat to shoot Kin­ski on the set of Aguirre, Wrath of God, for ex­am­ple, or his failed at­tempt to fire­bomb his house — it’s Her­zog who ap­pears in­creas­ingly the more de­ranged.

A sim­i­lar nar­ra­tive warp­ing dis­tin­guishes The People in the Trees, the as­ton­ish­ing de­but novel of Amer­i­can writer Hanya Yanagihara. As the novel opens, No­bel Prize-win­ning sci­en­tist Nor­ton Pe­rina has been found guilty of the sex­ual abuse of one of his 34 adopted chil­dren. While the once-great man lan­guishes in jail, Ron­ald Ku­bodera, his de­voted lab as­sis­tant of 30 years, en­cour­ages him to write the mem­oirs that form the body of this book.

But the more his hero re­counts his story, and the more Ku­bodera de­fends him in his pref­ace and dis­tinctly pe­cu­liar foot­notes, the more chill­ing his por­trait be­comes.

In 1950, Pe­rina re­counts, he trav­elled as a young im­mu­nol­o­gist with the ex­pe­di­tion, led by charis­matic an­thro­pol­o­gist Paul Tal­lent, to find a lost tribe within the Mi­crone­sian coun­try of U’ivu and its leg­endary opa’ivu’eke, or “dream­ers”. In the for­bid­den is­land’s thick forests, they tracked down these fab­u­lously old ex­iles cast out by their short-lived tribe who, while star­tlingly fit, have for­got­ten to be hu­man.

Pe­rina’s fame would come from iso­lat­ing Se­lene syn­drome, a con­di­tion in­duced by the rit­ual eat­ing of the flesh of a rare tur­tle, which un­nat­u­rally pre­served the body’s life­span — even doubling or tripling it — while the brain de­mented.

Though fan­tas­ti­cal, the premise also has an odd ring of truth. That’s be­cause Pe­rina is loosely based on dis­graced Amer­i­can im­mu­nol­o­gist Daniel Car­leton Gad­jusek (1923-2008), who (con­tro­ver­sially) iden­ti­fied kuru among the New Guinean Fore tribe as a prion dis­ease con­tracted from rit­ual prac­tice of eat­ing dead rel­a­tives’ brains. He was later tried for abus­ing one of his 56 adopted chil­dren.

There is no sense, how­ever, of be­ing shack­led to his­tory about Yanagihara’s story, which reads in­stead as the cre­ation of a rich nov­el­is­tic imag­i­na­tion. Its gen­tle “dream­ers” are as philo­soph­i­cally haunt­ing as Borges’s Im­mor­tals, but more touch­ing, es­pe­cially first-cap­tured “Eve”, a mat­ted crea­ture snort­ing and sniff­ing the ground for food, her at­ten­tion span so limited the an­thro­pol­o­gists put a rope around her neck.

Yet al­though their ev­ery ap­pear­ance is so gal­vanis­ing, Yanagihara chooses to be­gin her story with a long ac­count of Pe­rina’s de­vel­op­ment as a sci­en­tist: his iso­lated ru­ral child­hood with his twin, Owen, an­other self-ab­sorbed monster; his mav­er­ick in­tel­li­gence, un­suited to med­i­cal school, but per­fect for re­search.

That this first third of the novel is just as grip­ping is tes­ta­ment to Yanagihara’s talent, and it clev­erly sug­gests a cer­tain kind of sci­en­tific cul­ture as dis­tinct and rit­u­alised as the U’ivans’. Yanagihara is fab­u­lous on the limited hu­man en­vi­ron­ment of labs and their an­i­mal vic­tims in racked cages. “I rather en­joyed killing the mice,” Pe­rina re­counts. “It was a sat­is­fy­ing task, a small but real ac­com­plish­ment to mark a day that, like so many other days, seemed de­void of struc­ture, or progress, or mean­ing.”

Yanagihara’s ac­count of the ex­pe­di­tion, led by mys­te­ri­ously glam­orous Tal­lent, is vis­cer­ally sen­sual, en­gross­ing, and of­ten dis­turbingly funny. The is­lan­ders’ cul­ture is metic­u­lously imag­ined, and Pe­rina’s fas­ci­na­tion with the rit­ual sex­ual ini­ti­a­tion of young boys is wor­ry­ingly in­tense. We know the U’ivans’ idyll is over once he man­ages to kill a rare tur­tle and smug­gle its corpse to Amer­ica, along with some of the dream­ers. With im­mor­tal­ity on the ta­ble, nei­ther Pe­rina nor big pharma will rest.

We only en­ter Pe­rina’s do­mes­tic set-up in the novel’s fi­nal turn, as he col­lects the ne­glected chil­dren of the ex­ploited is­land. The ques­tion of his sex­ual his­tory re­mains opaque, though the more he ex­tols his par­ent­ing tech­niques, the more sin­is­ter they seem. In its own way, Yanagihara’s novel is as spec­tac­u­lar an act of ven­tril­o­quism as Eleanor Cat­ton’s The Lu­mi­nar­ies, bril­liantly sus­tain­ing Pe­rina’s self-fash­ion­ing on the edge of a moral abyss so that the reader squirms be­tween sym­pa­thy and doubt.

How­ever, The People in the Trees does, per­haps in­evitably, tread a fine line be­tween cri­tiquing colo­nial no­tions of the “prim­i­tive” and re­in­forc­ing them. Con­se­quently, it’s been com­pared to Con­rad and King­solver’s writ­ing (and to Nabokov’s Pale Fire, be­cause of its use of foot­notes and its ripely so­cio­pathic voice). But it re­minded me most of On Heat in Jim Crace’s Con­ti­nent, a scathingly vivid story of colo­nial and sci­en­tific sex­ual ex­ploita­tion, cold fire burn­ing be­neath its morally pre­cise, ut­terly un­con­sol­ing, prose.

Af­ter sus­tain­ing its ter­ri­ble am­bi­gu­ity over the long stretch, it’s a shame the novel ul­ti­mately solves the ques­tions at its heart. Nev­er­the­less, it is con­sis­tently thrilling, the ef­fect of read­ing it al­most phys­i­cal, as if your brain has been in­fected with mad colours that can’t be sweated out.

Delia Fal­coner is an au­thor and critic.

May 10-11, 2014

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