A tale of paradise lost
Power and its abuses are at the heart of Hanya Yanagihara’s beautifully written debut.
ANY analysis of human behaviour is, among other things, an assertion of power over those whose behaviour is being analysed. Perhaps for that reason, the field of anthropology has seen its fair share of scandal, from the case of Napoleon Chagnon – who was accused of spreading disease among the Amazonian tribe he was studying – to Daniel Carleton Gajdusek, the inspiration behind Hanya Yanagihara’s debut novel The People In The Trees.
Power and its abuses are at the heart of this richly imagined novel, both in form and subject matter.
The framing device brings up questions of authorial control, of editing and excision: the novel purports to offer the memoirs of a Nobel prizewinning convicted paedophile, Dr Norton Perina, as edited and annotated by his acolyte Ronald Kubodera.
In 1950, Perina – very loosely based on Nobel prizewinner Gajdusek – joins an anthropological expedition bound for the imaginary Micronesian island nation U’ivu.
There, he discovers a lost tribe of “dreamers” – exceptionally long-lived and acutely senile individuals.
Later, he discovers that the secret to the dreamers’ longevity is the flesh of a turtle called the opa’ivu’eke, which is ingested upon an U’ivuan’s 60th birthday. Perina smuggles an opa’ivu’eke sample back to America, publishes his findings, and achieves instant renown.
That’s only the first part of the story, of course. The remainder of Perina’s memoirs detail the cost of physical but not mental immortality, the destruction of the Edenic island that gave him his fame, and his long fall from grace.
In structure and subject, The People In The Trees pays tribute to Vladimir Nabokov’s two masterpieces:Pale Fire and Lolita. But where Nabokov’s megalomaniacal Charles Kinbote constantly threatens to overwhelm John Shade’s manuscript, Kudobera is a more reverent custodian of Perina’s work.
Perina’s voice – wry, superior, unthinkingly cruel – is one of the key triumphs of the book.
Another triumph is the astonishingly thorough invention of Yanagihara’s Micronesian country.
The specificity of the world she creates – flora and fauna all described in the necessarily precise language of a scientist – allows for the fantastical revelation of the opa’ivu’eke’s extraordinary properties. And while sexual abuse is a key strand of her story, it is the rape of this physical place – culturally, ecologically, linguistically – that gives Perina’s conscience pause.
The novel contains a critique of Western imperialism, even as it acknowledges the familiarity of that narrative.
Most effectively, Kubodera’s footnotes show the institutions of knowledge as tools of imperial power.
The peer-reviewed articles, book publications and laboratory studies populating the footnotes are as much responsible for shaping the destiny of U’ivu as the pharmaceutical companies that eventually descend on the islands in search of profit.
Yanagihara makes multiple literary references in her work, but the underpinning one is the Garden of Eden, the story of paradise, temptation and innocence lost.
On one level, Yanagihara is telling a story about the corruption of knowledge and, more specifically, language.
Perina relates the acquisition of English by the island’s natives: “How you?’ asked Uva, smiling proudly, and this – his newly acquired English, and his pride in it – made my skin prickle ... the enormity of the island’s changes loomed large and clear in my mind.”
In prison Perina has recourse to nothing except language, in all its invention and complicity.
If his narrative doesn’t reach Humbert Humbert’s heights of fancy and self-loathing, or Kinbote’s baroque mania, Perina’s story remains both striking and highly satisfying. Yanagihara’s ambitious debut is one to be lauded. – Guardian News & Media