If you haven’t yet come across Philippe Claudel’s books you may know his work from I Loved You So Long starring Kristin Scott Thomas. Ranging from Parfums, a sensuous fragrance memoir, to Monsieur Linh and His Child, one of the saddest pieces of fiction I’ve read, his writing is as elegantly understated as his movies, a style which I find immensely appealing. His latest novel, The Tree of the Toraja, is an exploration of death and grief through the voice of a filmmaker who has lost his producer and best friend.
Our unnamed narrator begins his meditative journey with an account of the lengthy funeral rites of the Toraja, an Indonesian tribe on the island of Sulawesi where he’s been on holiday. When a child dies, the Toraja carefully place its corpse within an incision made in a tree so that the tree’s bark will heal and enclose the body. On his return, our narrator finds a message from his best friend, Eugène, announcing his cancer diagnosis. Six months later Eugène is dead. Our narrator talks to philosophers, doctors and scientists about the ways in which we open ourselves to death. He meets his ex-wife every week in the same hotel room, thinks about a new film while watching the tenants of the apartment block opposite, speculating about the young woman who seems happy to live in the public gaze, all the time remembering Eugène and their many conversations. This brief, beautiful novella ends with an unexpected new start for our narrator and the beginning of his first project without Eugène.
It would be easy to cast Claudel as the unnamed narrator given that both are filmmakers and novelists of a similar age but my brief spate of googling became a distraction from the thoughtfulness of this exploration of death, grief and how we respond to it. Suffice to say that it’s an intensely personal piece of writing. Claudel’s prose is characteristically quiet but arresting, often painterly in its evocation:
We spent our evenings drinking vinho verde in the neighbourhood cafés of the Bairro Alto, nibbling at plump violet olives and eating sardines that had been cooked on grills in small yards where the walls were covered in azulejo tiles
We who live on are enveloped by the whispers of our ghosts
Bodies fade like flowers in vases; their corollas droop one day then slump in an irreversible destruction of their colours and their scents
There are striking metaphors throughout: our relationship with our bodies is compared to a love affair; our lives to books – some neatly handwritten with smooth blank pages, others with loose, torn leaves and a multitude of deletions. But there’s more to this piece of writing than its gorgeous prose. Both a philosophical investigation into that which faces us all and a beautiful meditation which ultimately ends with acceptance and hope, Claudel’s novella is a quiet, thought-provoking triumph.