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Book Review - The Tree of the Toraja

Philippe Claudel’s latest novel, elegantly translated by Euan Cameron, tackles friendship, mortality and renewal. A filmmaker loses his best friend to cancer and undertakes a profound reevaluation of his life. On a trip to Indonesia, the fifty-year-old, unnamed narrator learns of the Toraja custom of interning the bodies of their deceased children in the trunks of trees. The tree continues to grow with the child’s skeleton encased inside. The ritual celebrates, rather than denies, their short lives:
“We bury our dead. We burn them too. Never would we dream of entrusting them to the trees… In our world, nowadays, we play down the presence of death. The people of Toroja make it the focal point of theirs.”
On his return to Paris, he discovers that Eugène, his producer and confidante, is dying. The filmmaker knows little of loss: his father had died at eighty-nine; a few fellow mountain climbers had met accidental deaths; and his former wife, Florence, had given birth to a dead child. He en…