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.