The Tree of the Toraja by Philippe Claudel

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The Tree of the Toraja by Philippe Claudel

French fiction

Original title- L’Arbre du pays Toraja

Translator – Euan Cameron

Source – review copy

I have been a fan of Claudel’s writing since I read Monsieur Linh and the child review it here a few years ago. Since then I have also reviewed his book Parfums. So when this dropped through the letterbox his latest book to be translated into English. I always think books and life sometimes run so close together it makes one wonder. As I struggle with my own grief and questions of life. I find that his latest book is about similar subjects being middle-aged and questioning what life was about.

We bury our dead. We burn them too. Never would we dream of entrusting them to the trees. Yet we lack neither forests nor imagination. Our beliefs, however have grown meaningless and inconsequental. We prepetuate rituals taht most of us would find hard to explain. In our world, nowdays we play down the presence of death. The people of Toraja make it a focal point of theirs. So which of us in on the right path

The lines where he questions whether we are right in trying to avoid death rather than celebrate it.

Our Narrator is a filmmaker as the book opens he is visiting The Toraja people of Indonesia their island home of Sulawesi. He arrived there after he heard about the custom they have of sewing inside the bark of the village tree the bodies of children that die within in the first few months of their lives. They are then placed in the tree bonding them with the tree. This is also tied with death on the island where it can take a year to organize a funeral of an adult that has died and to organize everyone coming. This is all in the bag when we see are narrator returning to his home and finding out that his close friend from school days Eugene is dying. This leads our narrator to question his life when his friend dies he starts to question his wider life and what death means. As this is the first death he has seen that isn’t by accident, old age or suicide. He has to take the time to question his own life. This involves meeting a younger woman in his apartment block. Slowly his life moves on as he thinks about a new project involving this younger woman in apartment 107  and finishing his film about the Toraja.

I have always been haunted by the words of Montaigne that “To philosophise is to learn how to die” and that “it is not death that is difficult but dying” I am not a sixteenth-century man, accustomed to epidemics, to wars, to the sudden and frequent loss of friends, paerents and children, and for whom a forty-year-old is already an old man.But his book we read affect us with the intensity of a knife thrust into an organ without the “Survival prognosis” – this is an expression that has always delighted me in that it ascoiates a light hearted subject, such as a horoscope, a racegoer’s prediction, a weather forecast, with a word that causes us to tremble like a leaf – being really life- threatening”?

How death has change the line when he was forty and an old man struck me as I don’t feel old and am in the later forties myself.

This was a very personal journey for me as a reader I really felt a real connection with the narrator. Firstly I was interested in the Toraja customs mention this of course lead me down a rabbit hole of death around the world via google. I took a similar journey after reading the white book by Han Kang. We all see death differently around the world and being I have read many books over the years touched with how we view death especially this last year or two. What Claudel shows us here are the different ways it is viewed. As the narrator questions various people about death from philosophy through his own media of films and writers like Kundera who his friend Eugene recite his book titles as he was near the end. This is a highly personal book you feel the Narrator is in some ways Claudel himself he is of that age when you can lose close friends to illness like Cancer. What he shows is what we all do what I have done since my mother’s death and that is to take stock on what is happening in my own life and what we do to carry on the narrator like me felt does he have the right to carry on. Maybe we should all be like the Toraja and celebrate death turning the end into a celebration then carrying on. This isn’t a light book but a thoughtful book and maybe one for a lot of us middleaged reader that taste death at close quarters for the first time !!


8 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Guy Savage
    Aug 29, 2018 @ 23:52:02

    Thanks for this. I’m a fan of the author too and hadn’t heard of this one in translation.


  2. Lisa Hill
    Aug 29, 2018 @ 23:52:56

    On my first trip to Indonesia in Bali, (using the Indonesian I’d learned for 6 months beforehand) I got chatting with a lady who asked me what touristy things we were planning to do. So I told her, and she was pleased by our interest in cultural attractions. And then she said, out of the blue, that there was a funeral the next day, and that we should come along. I was shocked, firstly because I felt it would be intruding on the grief of the family to have complete strangers attend and gawk at it, and secondly because, well, going to a funeral hardly sounds like a fun tourist activity even if you are interested in a country’s culture, right?
    Well, she talked us into it, and it was amazing. (I subsequently wrote about it in the book I wrote about Indonesia for use in schools). There was a huge crowd, and we walked along in the procession, where everyone was laughing and joking and carrying on as if it were a festival, the idea being that you make a lot of noise to scare away the spirits. (Which is why they want a lot of people there). They had a portable gamelan orchestra too, see
    We were following what’s called a naga, which can be all sorts of shapes but this one was a life-sized black bull made of paper-mache, and the body and the naga were being carried on a kind of tower made of bamboo. We walked all the way down to the beach where the whole thing was set alight. The family apparently comes back later when the ashes have cooled and have a much smaller ceremony on the beach.
    We were told that ceremonies like this are very expensive and that families save up for up to a year for them, and sometimes there are multiple bodies done at once to save expenses.
    A different way of dealing with death indeed. But you know, whatever the merriment, the bereaved still have to learn to live the everyday without someone they loved and it’s as you say, it still means that we take stock of our own lives and the meaning we attach to that.


  3. TravellinPenguin
    Aug 30, 2018 @ 02:05:06

    You describe this book beautifully. It sounds so interesting. It is a topic that has challenged everyone at one time or another. Take care of yourself🤠🐧


  4. JacquiWine
    Aug 30, 2018 @ 06:50:31

    I can sense from your review how much of personal connection you’ve made with this book. As TravellinPenguin says, you describe the novel and your response to it so sensitively. Wishing you all the best, Jacqui.


  5. kaggsysbookishramblings
    Aug 30, 2018 @ 12:42:38

    This does sound like an excellent read Stu and I’m glad it connected with you on a personal level. I think we don’t deal with death very well in the west and maybe we need to rethink that a little more.


  6. 1streading
    Aug 30, 2018 @ 19:49:51

    Like you, I’ve loved Claudel’s previous work. Its feels like you got a lot from reading this – I’m now even more sorry I couldn’t see him at the Edinburgh Book Festival (I was working) but glad I at least have a copy.


  7. mytwostotinki
    Aug 31, 2018 @ 20:15:32

    Great review, Stu. Considering my interest in Indonesia (I have lived there for a few years), and the fact that I read three of Claudel’s books recently with pleasure (in my attempt to refresh my French I read them in the original language), this goes of course straight to my TBR list.


  8. Trackback: That was the month that was August 2018 | Winstonsdad's Blog

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