Cannibals and Missionaries
The new novel by Mary McCarthy is an old-fashioned thriller with modern decor and modern overtones. It is a high comedy of mixed motives, inept calculations, and personal weakness; and, by no means incidentally, it is also an informal colloquium on a variety of general topics. No character in the book runs true to form—his own form, or anybody else’s estimate of his form; none of the discussions is pushed to a distinct conclusion. Reviewing a macédoine containing so many ingredients and flavorings involves some necessary injustices; if one is to explain the issues, one has to destroy most of the suspense. Because it leaves unresolved so many of its equations, human and intellectual, this novel will get a great many different readings, of which the author clearly intended to render none definitive.
The action of the book takes place during an airplane hijacking, rather an extended one; a basic issue is the value of major works of art, relative to human life. As always, Miss McCarthy writes crisp, unsentimental prose, with a cruel eye for weakness and inauthenticity. Her title comes from a parlor game, which already suggests a measure of ironic detachment. If anything, the acerbity of her manner would seem likely to incline her toward sympathy with cannibals rather than missionaries; in fact, she seems to prefer the milder of the hijackers and the tougher-minded of their victims. But the catalyst of the situation, which by its mere presence changes the chemistry of the whole social mix, is an important work of art.
Primary targets of the hijacking are a committee of eight true-blue liberals (six Americans, an Englishman, a Dutchman) on their way to Iran to investigate reports of brutality by the Shah’s secret police. One or two members of this patchwork, fuzzy-headed group seem to have a smattering of the Iranian tongue; the rest know nothing of the language, and little more about the country than can be acquired from a quick run through the 1913 Encyclopedia Britannica (Volume XXI, “Persia”). There is an American senator (Eugene McCarthy under a very flimsy disguise); there are a couple of clerical gentlemen, one very elderly indeed; two academics with Near Eastern interests and a president of a girl’s college with none; a Dutch deputy and a young lady journalist reputed to be a specialist in torture and violence-stories. Only the two clergymen have any previous acquaintance with each other; the process of selecting, assembling, and identifying the committee has been disorganized and haphazard in the extreme. Their organizational talents are strained to the limit by the task of checking out of a Paris hotel: what will they do in tense and murderous Teheran?
Only a short while out of Paris, this huddle of well-intentioned innocents is kidnapped by a mixed force of Dutch and Palestinian terrorists, who take command of the plane and force it to return to Schiphol airport, near Amsterdam. During that flight, the terrorists learn that among the first-class passengers is a group of nine rich American art collectors, bound for an archaeological tour of Iran, with a museumcurator for a guide and a couple of his epicene friends from Antibes. For publicity as well as for money, the hijackers see the collectors as a haul much more valuable than the liberals; for reasons not so clear or persuasive, they decide to hold both groups.
But this sudden enlargement of their plan presents some practical difficulties. They demand and after some delay get a helicopter big enough to move to a hideout in rural Holland what has now swollen to a very sizable party. There are eight liberals, twelve collectors, a steward and stewardess from the hijacked Air France liner, plus four hijackers and a couple of Dutch helicopter pilots—twenty-eight people in all, for a short trip to an isolated farmhouse on a remote and relatively unpopulated polder. At the hideout, the party is further enlarged by four new accomplices of the four original hijackers—a prodigal use of revolutionary manpower, especially when one reflects that the original plan was to have only eight hostages, two of them women and one of them feeble with age.
But the hijack plan is silly overall, and not just in its details, although no one seems aware how foolish it is. The terrorists have chosen a hideout in the center of Europe, where it should not have been difficult to follow them and where, in any case, they can easily be discovered. They are readily subject to assault by trained commando troops, or simply to attrition by starvation; and from this hideout they have no conceivable pathway of safe escape. They make grotesque demands on governments over whom they have little leverage; about these demands they have not even agreed among themselves. They take great pains to conceal the helicopter in which they arrived, but almost immediately advertise their presence, to the point of becoming a sightseers’ attraction.
They do so because, having collected the collectors, the terrorists have changed the scope of their mission. They now demand that their captive millionaires, as the price of freedom, order the prizes of their collections to be delivered by helicopter to the hideout. In this way, they strike at the heart of the middle-class value system, not merely by taking very valuable objects from extremely rich people, but by outraging the superstitious codes of awe and respect which an unjust class society has erected around the great masterpieces of painting. On the other hand, this precious ransom cannot be delivered without making known the location of the farmhouse; and the accumulating presence of all these paintings will make getaway less feasible than ever. Getaway does not, however, seem to be on the minds of the terrorists; they send away the helicopter on which they arrived, with its two pilots, and as the precious paintings pile up, dismiss their former owners.
For without much more than token resistance, the collectors have yielded to the hijackers’ demands; the one defiant exception, a lady supposed to be possessed of a Vermeer, is reduced to abject capitulation by being denied toilet privileges. But as it takes some time to get the works of art (along with their certificates of authenticity) from America to Holland, the miscellaneous hostages are left a good deal in one another’s company. Reluctantly at first, they get acquainted, not only with one another but with their captors, some of whom they learn to like, and with all of whom they learn to cooperate, first passively, then actively. The Oxford don, who in the first moments of the hijacking was full of schemes for James Bond derring-do, subsides into placid, occasionally pompous, anonymity; the Dutch deputy translates, advises, gives strategic assistance. Some of the Palestinians, who looked very fierce at first, turn out to be naïve country boys, awed by the splendors of the farmhouse into which everybody is crowded. Couples pair off or contemplate pairing off, or wish rather ineffectually that they could. The more ancient of the clergymen (he is eighty-three) predictably dies of a heart attack. (His body, riddled with bullets by the terrorists and described as the first of the hostages to be executed, is then flown out as evidence of the deadly seriousness of the class-warriors.)
There is nothing to read, and only a few games to play. Time hangs heavy on everyone’s hands, conversations and controversies spring up, and two obvious topics for everyone to talk about are the value of art and the reasons for collecting. These themes, rather than the misdeeds of the Shah’s secret police, form the focus of the latter part of the book. They are not, it must be admitted, subjects on which we expect the characters in this book to say much that’s new or profound; and in fact the captives do little more than canvass familiar opinions. For example: Collectors who have acquired a prize painting frequently don’t look at it much or carefully. Though fine art does have moral implications and spiritual benefits, a collector is rarely ennobled by the possession of beautiful objects. The contamination of art values by money values is surely undesirable; but the museum experience, with its cathedral hush, its mix of “cultural objects,” and formidable security procedures, is also undesirable. Collecting is per se selfish and snobbish; whether one collects stamps or Old Masters, it’s only as the pursuit develops intelligent appreciation that it has any redeeming value. Still, intelligent appreciation often contributes largely to such activities as sifting out fakes and correcting misattributions—not to speak of the protection that collections offer against plain human ignorance and indifference.
The captive collectors are not much interested in pursuing such topics; though differing widely in sensitivity and sophistication, and also in the seriousness with which they take their common hobby, they tend to be fairly shallow. They don’t even have to be threatened. Imagining their own threats, they crumble in the face of firmly stated demands, and grow anxious lest anybody outside—the police or the press—do anything to interfere with their abject compliance. The liberals are free to worry however banally about the connections between aesthetics, morality, and big money. The three most intelligent among them seem to be the American Senator Carey, the Dutch deputy Van Vliet de Jonge, and Sophie Weil the American journalist, and of these only Sophie is granted, through some scraps of a journal, a few belated and tentative meditations. But these are promptly undercut by the college president: “Pure Radcliffe term paper—all the right references, with the obligatory New Left twist.” So the debate on collecting implicitly promised by the novel hardly begins and finally seems dismissed with a shrug.
Another curiously aborted and ambiguous effort at thought is made by a minor figure of the liberal group, who delivers a vehement speech justifying the “liberating” of the works of art from their bourgeois possessors. But his diatribe is quite at odds with his previous behavior and character; and its point is allowed to vanish when it is discovered by two hostages that he is an agent of the CIA, and thus in immediate special danger from the hijackers. A plot is successfully hatched to get him out of harm’s way and we never learn why such an idiosyncratic argument cropped up in so implausible a place when it was so likely to put him in a position of dangerous prominence. Another loose end.
Meanwhile the paintings have been arriving and the fleeced collectors departing, and the focus shifts again, from the hostages to the hijackers themselves. Understandably, some of the more truculent of the group become impatient with the Dutch leaders, as they see the rich imperialists going free, the food supplies diminishing, and no available escape route. There are now only eight captives guarded by eight terrorists, and as only one of those hostages is of the slightest interest to the Dutch government whose policies they want to change, their bargaining position is not strong. Jeroen, architect of the entire plot, becomes the center of attention. A moody, sullen young man, he is a somewhat special case, possessing unusual susceptibility to artistic works and values: he is a failed artist himself. The Vermeer portrait of a girl with a blue cap carrying a guitar holds, we are told, some special fascination for him, though the quality of this fascination remains obscure. Jeroen’s position was desperate (not to say suicidal) to start with, and it is steadily deteriorating, as the deputy de Jonge makes clear to him. But why, we wonder, should a liberal parliamentarian be needed to explain elementary tactics and strategy to a hardened revolutionary?
Jeroen is caught between the objective realities, some undefined influence from the Vermeer, and a latent romantic passion after the style of Delacroix’s Sardanapalus for self-immolation amid the splendors of his booty. The author has him take the easy, picturesque way out. He sends out of the house as many of the hostages and guards as he can—to have some exercise—and presses the detonator of a pre-arranged explosive charge. But this plan works no better than the others; all eight terrorists, two of the hostages, and the Air France stewardess are killed, two of the more intelligent hostages (Sophie Weil and the deputy de Jonge) are badly mutilated, while the two most given to inflated liberal talk (the college president and the junior ecclesiastic) escape unharmed. The paintings are all blown to shreds.
From the book’s early pages, we’ve been dangling over an abyss of threatened violence, and to have it finally done with in this cataclysm is a genuine relief: the carnage is larger than that in the fifth act of Hamlet. For most of the novel, the terrorists despite their menacing demeanor have been agreeably restrained. On the other hand, the liberals have been so self-important, the rich so spineless, and the terrorists so incompetent, it’s hard for the reader to feel that anybody deserves to survive. As it is, the rich suffer no casualties at all, the liberals fairly heavy ones, and the terrorists are wiped out to a man. Does this distribution result from accident, moral judgment, or fictional convention? Once again, the author suggests no answer that I can see.
Most to be regretted is the lost Vermeer. Whether Miss McCarthy meant it this way or not, that is how the reader feels. Most of the people are commonplace, easily replaceable types. The unctuous Reverend Barber tries to persuade them that they have immortal souls and are worth more than any idolatrous smears of paint on a canvas; but they do little or nothing to persuade us readers of the point. Most of them remain paper characters on a paper page: we could see them going to wholesale slaughter, if the plot demanded it, without a twinge of compunction. But a genuine Vermeer! If it were not a museum-quality forgery (even that is left open to question), it would be one of no more than forty Vermeers; it would be a quiet, perfectly fulfilled instant of time, air, and light. By what she says of the painting and of people’s reactions to it, Miss McCarthy persuades us that it is precious beyond any of the comedians standing around and gaping at it. Even tough young Sophie Weil is stirred to some perceptive, colloquial thoughts about it:
She was asking the canvas to “say” something to her—something profound and important that it had never told anyone else. Henk [the Dutch deputy] waited. “It’s a weird thing,” she said finally. “It makes me think of old studio photography. She’s all dressed up to have her picture taken, and the photographer has arranged the lighting, pulling back that curtain from the window so as to let the sun’s rays fall just right on her features. He’s adjusted the folds of her dress and tilted her head, running back and forth to the camera to see how she looks in the lens. He’s not satisfied; she needs something to do with her hands. But he has an idea: that prop guitar he keeps in the studio. He puts it in her lap and shows her how to hold it. Then he ducks under his black hood. ‘Wait for the birdie.’ Click.”
This could be translated into more respectable art-critical language, as de Jonge proceeds to do; but she is right that a Vermeer painting commonly gives one this sense of a posed scene caught out of a stream of flux and arrested, not forever, but just for a moment, provisionally. It’s a nice example of what is much discussed in the book but exemplified only this once, the power of art to attract and focus the sympathetic intelligence of its viewers.
Only once, however. Miss McCarthy’s liberals have at first a sappy tendency to sympathize with Jeroen in his program to “liberate” works of art from their self-indulgent bourgeois collectors; when he destroys them all to provide for himself a gaudy funeral pyre, they try to sympathize with that too. They all have a great itch to participate in some heroic or historically significant event, and we leave the two undamaged survivors squabbling at book’s end over whether they’ve been through a deep learning experience. The question is answered conclusively by the fact of the discussion.
Mary McCarthy has produced a carnival of such petty egotisms and, unlikely as some of it may seem, her clear swift prose and slightly mordant humor carry the reader around it, hoping that the intimations of significance will amount to something more. The reader can take pleasure in her precision of language about people who lack precision in their ideas. What is hardest to believe in the end is that there is much to be learned from this particular set of cannibals and missionaries.