Sunday, October 1, 2017

Fieldwork, by Mischa Berlinski

The few times the narrator of this novel is named, his name is Mischa. And, indeed, as one learns from the author in the end notes, the book began life as a non-fiction history of the conversion of the Lisu people in northern Thailand to Christianity.  In a vision or dream, not unlike some that occur in the novel, the author decided instead to write a work of fiction, a sort of mystery story.  But the mystery of why Martiya van der Leun, an anthropologist studying the Dyalo tribe in Thailand, murders David Walker, the charismatic son of a missionary family that has been converting people in southeast Asia for literally generations, is not the main plotline of the book.  It is an exploration of faith, customs, and the infinite variety and sameness of the human race.  Mischa has gone to Thailand with his girlfriend – they’re both recent graduates at loose ends and with low job prospects when she gets a position teaching English in a private elementary school.  When he works at all, he engages in journalism for hire, writing reviews of art, music, and whatever’s on offer.  A college friend, Josh, also in the area, relates some of Martiya's story to Mischa.  She has been in prison for murder for over ten years without support.  Her aunt asks Josh to contact Martiya in prison to let her know her uncle has died and left her money.  This inheritance turns out to allow her to resume her scholarly writing in prison.  A year later, Josh receives two manuscripts from Martiya to send to important anthropology journals.  Not long afterward, she commits suicide.  Caught up in the story, Mischa goes on a quest to try to understand how she came to live so long with the Daylo villagers and what really happened, both to David Walker and to her.  Along the way, he encounters memorable characters such as Farts-a-lot, Sings Soft, and the entire Walker missionary clan.  And Rice, with a capital R.  The author says his influences include Nigel Bagley, whose wonderful Not a hazardous sport and Ceremony were two books I read when they came out in the mid-eighties.  I thoroughly enjoyed them and recommend both them and this book to you.  320 pp.

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