Unhappy Landings

Cannibals and Missionaries

by Mary McCarthy
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 250 pp., $10.95

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 …

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