When everyone was reading The People in the Trees a few years ago, I didn’t think it sounded like something I’d be interested in. Then I finally read Yanagihara’s fabulous A Little Life. That made me pick up this book when I saw it again.
The novel begins with documents written by Ronald Kubodera, a coworker and acolyte of Dr. Norton Perina, a renowned scientist who won the Nobel Prize and now has been imprisoned for child molesting. Kubodera convinces Perina to write his memoir, telling his side of the story.
Just out of medical school, Perina is wondering what to do with himself. He has no intention of becoming a medical doctor, and his graduate school lab work he finds boring. He has managed to offend his laboratory boss, so he is surprised when the man recommends him for a position accompanying Paul Tallent, an anthropologist, to a remote Micronesian island.
Perina’s prize-winning work is based on what he observes on that island. Tallent takes him to the U’Ivu U’ivu Islands, an archipelago of three islands. One of them, Ivu’ ivu, is forbidden, but there are rumors of a strange animal-like people on that island. Tallent hopes to discover an unknown tribe.
The first people they discover are in a state of extreme senility, some almost totally dehumanized. When they find the village, these other people are much like other U’Ivu islanders, only there are no older people in the village.
Perina’s discovery is to figure out that the people of Ivu’ ivu can live almost eternally after eating the meat of the opa’ ivu’ eke turtle, found only on Ivu’ ivu. The downside is that something in the meat also causes increased senility. The older islanders remain physically fit but eventually lose speech and all semblance of humanity.
Perina breaks a taboo to capture an opa’ ivu’ eke turtle and smuggle it out of the country for study. He also takes with him some of the elders, whom he calls dreamers.
This novel is about the abuse of power and what it can lead to. Perina is not a sympathetic character, although he states justifications for his own actions. His view is that any scientist would have taken the turtle even though his action results in the death of a guide whom he likes. Removing the dreamers from their familiar surroundings to a lab increases their decreptitude, but Perina seems to feel no remorse or even responsibility. He is more concerned with the inevitable destruction of the lifestyle on the islands once he publishes his paper.
This is a fascinating character study of a man so driven by ambition and his own needs that he doesn’t even notice the results of his actions. Even the structure of the novel speaks to this theme of power, for Kubodera’s footnotes abound, and he cuts out an important passage from the original manuscript, included at the end of the book. Kubodera’s comment is that it shouldn’t matter. He himself is such a hero worshipper that he’s ready to excuse Perina anything. Perina attempts to tell the truth about his life, but he is so self-deluded that he becomes an untrustworthy narrator.
Yanogihara has blown me away with another terrific novel.