The Tree of the Toraja

Philippe’s Claudel’s last book, 2012’s Parfums, was a series of short autobiographical essays, each memory evoked by a particular scent. Though his latest, The Tree of the Toraja (similarly translated by Euan Cameron), is categorised as fiction, it too takes the form of memoir, but whereas Parfums was a catalogue of life, The Tree of the Toraja is a meditation on death. It begins with the burial customs of the Toraja of Indonesia, particularly the way in which they treat the bodies of children:

“A cavity is carved out of the trunk of the tree. The little corpse wrapped in a shroud is placed inside. The opening of the sylvan tomb is filled in with a weave of branches and clothes. Gradually, over the course of years, the wood of the tree grows over it, retaining the child’s body within its own large body, beneath its newly healed bark. Then, very slowly, in harmony with the patient rhythm of the tree’s growth, begins the journey that will see it rise upwards towards the heavens.”

He contrasts this foregrounding of mortality with what he sees as our avoidance of death, a desire to look away, commenting, in reference to the reconstructed faces of a group of elderly American tourists, on “all the useless artifices we apply to our bodies to elude time and our fears.” The issue becomes more personal when he returns home to discover that one of his closest friends, his producer, Eugene, has cancer:

“In our society, the word ‘cancer’ resonates as though it were an ante-room of death.”

Eugene does, indeed, die six months later. His illness is the lens through which Claudel reflects not only on death but on his life. Their long relationship – Eugene was the producer of his first film – means that we learn something of his career as a film-maker, as far back as his early interest in film, sparked by Sergio Leone:

“I remember the eyes of the hero, immense on the screen of the Georges cinema. Two enormous eyes that completely filled the canvas… For the first time, I realised that’s someone had decided to focus on a small aspect of the actor’s expression, and to confront the audience with his gigantic eyes. Just as later on, in the same way, in this same film, he chose to make the hero’s body smaller, to reduce it to the size of an ant, both he and his horse, and to lose them in the landscape, a tiny moving fragment of life in the red stone desert.”

This tells us something of Claudel’s own approach, a combination of quiet moments in close-up and distant reflection. We see this particularly in his relationship with Elena, a relationship which begins with observation:

“A permanently jammed blind revealed her bedroom… She had never appeared to be concerned by my presence, nor by that of other inhabitants in the building who, like me, were able to watch her every move.”

They eventually meet in such an unlikely way one assumes it must be true, as she is the doctor he is put in contact with by Eugene’s daughter to ask about the development of serious illnesses. It is she who focuses his thoughts on our relationship with the body itself:

“For years you have lived with it, in it, in perfect osmosis… Then time slowly began to erode your partner… Eventually we forget the qualities of the other person and only see what is irritating us…”

As their relationship progresses, Claudel will continue, at times, to withdraw himself from her, as though looking from a distance, even as they are together:

“When, after making love, Elena laid her face in the hollow of my shoulder and closed her eyes, I could not rid myself of the thought she was sleeping on death, that I was a recumbent effigy but she did not know this yet…”

It is Elena who will provide the novel with hope, though it has to be said that Claudel’s love life, which includes regularly sleeping with his ex-wife in a hotel room, appears – to this UK reader at least – almost cartoonishly French. It does, however, contrast an openness towards sex with a reluctance to discuss death.

The Tree of the Toraja is more memoir than philosophical tract, and all the better for it. Claudel is an engaging narrator, and many readers will identify with both his fears and experiences. His story is lightened by a number of poignant moments, my favourite being when he and Eugene leave the hospital for a nearby café and encounter Milan Kundera, who Eugene describes as “the writer who has mattered more to me than anyone else.” This chance encounter is typical of the coincidences and collisions which kindle Claudel’s thinking and make the book such a pleasure.

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2 Responses to “The Tree of the Toraja”

  1. JacquiWine Says:

    Even though I’ve only read Parfums by Claudel, his style of writing really appeals to me. It feels very thoughtful and reflective, an approach that seems a fitting match for the subject matter at hand here. I love the idea of that chance encounter with Milan Kundera you mention towards the end your review – what a lovely memory to treasure.

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