Fieldwork

The narrator of American journalist Mischa Berlinski’s first novel Fieldwork is an American journalist named Mischa Berlinksi. When Berlinksi (the fictional one) is tipped off to a suicide in a Thai prison, he finds himself compelled to investigate a conflict between an anthropologist and a family of Christian missionaries that, decades ago, led to murder.

For three generations, the Walkers had been doing fieldwork of the missionary kind, evangelizing the remote Dyalo people of Thailand, when Martiya, a brilliant and magnetic anthropologist, takes up residence in one Dyalo village in order to do her own kind of fieldwork, that of grasping and recording “the native’s point of view.” The more she immerses herself in their way of life, the more emotionally isolated she becomes, even from her fellow anthropologists doing similar work across the globe. Soon, the only other Westerners with whom she has contact are the hymn-singing Walkers:

Eighty years after [Social Anthropologist] Bronislaw Malinowski told all the anthropologists to get off the veranda of the mission house and go and live with the natives, the only people in all the world who seemed to share Martiya’s obsessive interest and fascination with the Dyalo were a family of missionaries huddled in Chiang Mai, waiting for the world to end.

But though these two parties perhaps ought to have more in common, there can be no alliance between them: each fears the frailties of the other to the point that no commonality of Western heritage can bridge.

As Martiya learned in her anthropology courses, immersion in the field serves two purposes: to contribute to the world’s knowledge of itself, and to transform the observer’s soul. Martiya’s soul is transformed by her immersion in Dyalo culture, just as the souls of the Walkers are transformed by what they learn of themselves in relation to her and the Dyalo. Are these transformations for good or for evil? Let the reader decide. And Martiya’s ethnography, as well as the fictional Berlinksi’s newspaper coverage of the battle for the souls of the Dyalo—both documents reaching the world years after the conflict—also fulfill the other purpose of fieldwork in contributing to the world’s knowledge of itself—in this case, the diversity and depravity of even its most sincere inhabitants.

Berlinksi (the real one) is neither a professional anthropologist nor an evangelical Christian missionary. What he is, is a good journalist: every detail of both worlds has been researched and told so well it just rings with authenticity. Even the form is complete, employing the occasional footnote of the anthropological memoir. The fictional Dyalo, inspired by the real hill tribes of Thailand, are vividly brought to life right down to the cultural atom, including the mystical rice-planting rituals and the Walkers’ Dyalo translation of Psalm 23. No character is a caricature; all are portrayed with the genuine complexities that make the reader alternately understand them and argue with them. In short, the story is dense, intelligent, and far more suspenseful than the words “missions” or “anthropology” imply!

This was another of my Festival of Faith & Writing selections, and I was animated about it even before I met the author there. I want everyone to read it, and for a purely selfish reason: I want to discuss it with all of you! So please do pick it up and then stop back here to comment. And do so before his next book comes out—he’s tracking down the true story of a missing zombie in Haiti, and from what I learned of his research, you won’t want to miss that one either.

21. July 2008 by Mindy
Categories: Festival of Faith & Writing, Reviews | 20 comments

Comments (20)

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  4. I finally got around to reading this, and I can’t believe I waited so long. It was fascinating and beautifully written. I’m curious: did you hear Mischa Berlinski speak at the conference? If so, did he speak about his own religious beliefs? I was especially impressed with his even-handed and authentic portrayal of the missionaries – they didn’t seem stereotypical.

  5. Carrie, so glad you read it!! Isn’t it wonderful? Yes, I did hear him speak; if you browse through my Festival of Faith& Writing category and look for my accounts labeled Days 1, 2, and 3, you’ll get my synopsis of his talk. I can’t recall his exact words in response to that question, but he doesn’t really consider himself religious at all. That’s one reason I decided he is an amazing writer; his concern was to accurately represent the worldviews of both the anthropologists and the missionaries — though he doesn’t necessarily agree with either — and his take was spot on. I find it thrilling that writers can make you think so strongly about a particular issue or position even if it is not one they themselves hold dear — it’s writing for the vision of seeing through someone else’s eyes rather than writing for the sake of proselytizing. A model of how I want to write!

  6. This sounds fascinating, Mindy. We have friends who are field workers in Papau New Guinea w/ Wycliffe… this sounds like a similar world and conflict issues.

    Thanks!

  7. Deb, I think you would find this fascinating on its own, but even more in light of your friends’ situation. And I really wonder what they would think of the book, too! If you read it, do let me know what you thought of it.

  8. Just finished the book. The hardest thing is waiting to find someone to talk to about it! Just as the Walkers were hesitant to speak candidly about some of their feelings, I feel some of my reactions/responses/questions to this book are so personal that they belong in a living room over a glass of wine (with some good stilton). Come visit me!!

  9. So glad you read it, Karyn! Yes, definitely appropriate for an intimate book group discussion. Perhaps we can revive (or crash via technology!) our old one in Philly…

  10. Pingback: Mindy Withrow » Fieldwork redux

  11. OK, Mindy, I’m slow, but I finally finished reading Fieldwork today. I’ll be posting about it on my blog, but the short version is that I agree with everything you said, The missionaries come across as real missionaries, not some horrible caricature of evangelical Christians. And the anthropologist Martiya is believable, too. And it certainly leaves one thinking, doesn’t it? Are all the characters in the novel possessed by their own particular view of the world such that they can’t see each other or love each other? Why does Martiya seem to be so happy in the end in the prison as she works on her ethnography of prison life? And if she is happy in that work, why does she commit suicide? Because she’s finished? Because RIce is finished with her?

    It’s a haunting novel, if you’ll excuse the play on words.

  12. Yes it is! So glad you finished it, Sherry. I do think each character seeing only through his/her own lens is key to the story–I love how the reader gets to see from multiple perspectives via the journalist’s POV, one that is richer for offering more than one lens. It reminds me that real-life dialogue is always more productive when I am willing to try someone else’s lens, if only for a few moments. And I love a novel that asks more questions than it answers! You came up with some good ones. I’ll be watching for your blog review.

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  14. This Sherry finally read it, too. (Thanks for the nice reminder a while back.) I really liked the book, too – even down to the Sociology jabs (I was a Soc major) and Martya’s wild hair. How did he get so much right? I’m impressed. Yes, I will look forward to his next book.

  15. Looks like it’s a hit with the Sherrys! Glad you read and enjoyed it, too, Sherry. And glad to hear from a Soc major on how well he played that angle. I’m definitely on the lookout for his next one, too.

  16. Can’t believe I missed your post on this earlier. This has become one of my favorite novels. So well written. And he seems to get the missionary enterprize with it’s foibles and sincerity.

  17. I knew you would love this one, Diana. It definitely belongs in our “friend maker” category along with My Name is Asher Lev and The Kite Runner!

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  20. I was just in Thailand for vacation so decided to read the book. Enjoyed it. I agree with Sherry, I’m not sure I see the understanding for why Martiya committed suicide.