The People in the Trees, Hanya Yanagihara

The very theme of the book sets the boundaries and transcends them. What excites from the beginning is its structure, which has the form of an autobiography-letter. It is extremely interesting not only the truthfulness of Dr. Perina’s personal narrative, but also the quotation of his partner’s footnotes, which explains issues that Perina leaves unclear. The footnotes follow the form of the scientific dissertation, presenting a rich bibliography, where necessary, to prove the facts.

The form of the book itself serves the content. It shows us how plausibility can serve the truth underground through a well-written lie. The scientific references in articles and books, the quotation of biographies of the people who go through the work, but also the scientific description of diseases and experiments (which we know from the beginning that they serve the literary work and they are not true), however, compose a mental reality.

Reality is what the human mind can fit. This is another transgression, beyond what Yanagihara dares to do in her literary work. “People in the Trees” is an exceptional case, because it brings us face to face with our limits; morally, mentally, socially, culturally. What is the price of immortality? Where does ethics end and legitimacy begins, or vice versa, where does legitimacy ends and ethics begin? And where do we want it to end? Each culture may have different answers to these questions.

The key issue is how we endure to see the world. To what extent do we finally want to face him? It is easy to dislike Perina, to turn him out of society, to place him in the space of our own unfamiliar, in order to rest in our own familiar. But the book goes beyond that complacency.

Yanagihara surgically deftly unfolds the personality of Dr. Perina. We have known him since his childhood, before he became a doctor. We hear him tell us about his parents and his twin brother, about his sudden and unexpected medical success, which brought him the Nobel Prize, cutting a path, in a sense. He does not conquer it after a series of experiments and laboratory observations, but by engaging in participatory observation, following an anthropologist, Paul Talent, into the depths of an unreal jungle of magical proportions and discovering a culture that no Westerner has yet discovered.

In the islands of Ibu-ibu the unseen happens. Humans are super-age-old, thanks to the consumption of a turtle, which gives them immortality, but at the price of their mental adequacy. They become immortal babies, in a sense. But it is perhaps this infancy that enables them to endure their immortality.

The Juivians have their own vocabulary and myths. They have their own rituals, which transcend our cultural boundaries. Hanya Yanagihara makes us members of a culture beyond our borders of a tribe forgotten by time. It makes us listeners of Perina’s psychosynthesis, as it unfolds through his narratives, without being able to justify him, but neither can we just put him on the sidelines, in order to go further.

The book is a kaleidoscope, whose mirrors each time reveal something else, depending on where you turn it. They reveal the many dimensions of the extreme in such a way that eventually -overcoming the limits- creates new limits of perception.

Anastasia Karavasileiou

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