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review 2016-01-03 07:52
cultural relativism run amok
The People in the Trees - Hanya Yanagihara

People of the Trees is a memoir based account of a brilliant and Nobel awarded doctor/scientist who discovers an elixir for eternal life

a slight exaggeration, but something that would enable you to live 300-400 years

(spoiler show)

 and who is prosecuted and convicted of child molestation. Either one of those two themes is heady enough for it's own book, but Hanya Yanagihara is clever enough to role it all together into a single sordid tale. Where A Little Life is a tome on the victim, People of the Trees is a study of the victimizer. Both books are compelling and superbly written.

The format of the book is primarily a memoir told from the perspective of our anti-hero Dr. Norton Perina, a biased and highly unreliable narrator. To make things worse, there is another level of meta narration from the book editor (and writer of footnotes) a Dr. Ronald Kubodera who is a professional colleague turned friend of Perina, and all around toady. I found it interesting how Kubodera gushed at the importance of his friendship with Perina (to the point of creepiness) however, Perina never once mentioned Kubodera in his memoir.

After some childhood and family background, Perina focuses on his professional life. Soon after medical school, Perina travels to an island in Micronesia called Ivu'ivu where he encounters some forest dwellers who live generations beyond the expected life span (medical discovery) and some interesting commonplace cultural practices centered around boys coming of age and how they are prepared for marriage (cultural discovery). Perina is the teller of his own story, and as such, he paints himself in a favorable light, and it's up to the dear reader to suss out some of the fucked up practices, attitudes and arrogance relayed throughout. Needless to say, when Perina started adopting children from Ivu'ivu and taking them back to the US, he was convinced he was doing a noble thing. Perina's fuel is his arrogance, it serves him well in his professional endeavors but seriously misguides him in personal pursuits.

It must be said that Poeple of the Trees is based (inspired?) on the very real life of Nobel prize winner Carleton Gajdusek. Gajdusek worked in New Guinea, and linked a very debilitating disease called kuru

think mad cow disease

(spoiler show)

 to funeral cannibalistic practices. Brilliant mind, brilliant work and Nobel prize worthy. Gajdusek, a confirmed bachelor, also adopted some 40+ children, mostly boys, and brought them back to the US. Seriously, Mia Farrow and Angelina Jolie are in the farm leagues compared to this guy. I took the time to watch a BBC documentary about Gajdusek, filmed before he died in 2009, and it was terrifyingly enlightening. While the fictional Perina was mostly reserved in what he revealed about his personal feelings and actions, Gajdusek literally boasted about his relations with boys and felt there was nothing wrong with it. To paraphrase Gajdusek:

I have never once taken a kid to bed. If they come to my bed, I am no one to kick them out. If they hug me and I find them playing with my cock I say 'good on you' and I play with theirs. Of the 300-400 boys who had sex with me, 8, 10, 12 year olds, 100% have jumped into my bed and asked for it. I have never asked for it. Don't you realize, I was jumping into beds (as a kid) hoping they would take me. All boys want a lover. The idea that men go after it, you don't have any point in the world. That's the rule of the game.

There you have it, confessions of a pedophile and the twisted rules that make it ok. Documentary can be viewed athttps://youtu.be/4OxppDxzSww
Equally chilling to Gajdusek's confession are his defenders in the scientific community. They mostly wanted to ignore his conviction and focus on his scientific accomplishments. Et tu Mandelbrot? (weeps)

In general it's good to learn about distant lands and other cultures, to understand that you are not the center of the universe. However, People in the Trees is a cautionary tale of a toxic blend of arrogance, cultural relativism, and imperialism.

Book challenge note - satisfies 39. A book that takes place on an island

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