Early in Mischa Berlinski’s gripping and entertaining first novel there is a piece of postmodern skittishness which points to a truth that novelists shy away from: their trade embarrasses them. When you first start making things up, you expect that someone is going to tell you to stop. Perhaps you want them to, so that you can get back to behaving like an adult, and make a living in the real world. You have to invent a character, a main character too—readers expect it, though the notion of setting up this giant “as if” device and lugging it around with you is inherently shaming. You know your main character barely emerges from layers of solipsism, and for the longest time it—it is an “it” before becoming a he or a she—dangles from some part of yourself, an ugly little parasite, an unviable conjoined twin.
Eventually you give it a name, in a squeamish separation ceremony, a combined amputation and baptism. Somehow this rite of passage convinces readers to accept your squirming offcut as a real person, although one who lives in an alternative universe. But you, the writer, remain ashamed of your ploy. You can hide the shame, or bypass it altogether, by doing what Mischa Berlinski does—give the main character your own name, and pretend you or your alter ego are in the business of jotting down a few facts. You fit out your book with the apparatus of nonfiction—footnotes and a reading list. Then your publisher writes “A Novel” on the cover, and the complicity comes full circle; writer and reader sit winking at each other, and the story begins.
The game could be tiresome. In this case it doesn’t matter, for two reasons. One is that Berlinski is a gifted storyteller delivering a simple story; it comes to us through an intricate plot mechanism, but if its framing devices were stripped out, the central mystery would still hold the attention. The second reason is that in this book the narrator is the least important person on the page. Rather than being an ego bobbing beneath the surface of the text, he is the investigating medium, the agent of truth, and like a good anthropologist he is aiming to efface himself into the background. The anthropologist’s difficulty is that even if, by some clever disguise, he could observe behavior unmediated by his presence, he can never observe behavior unmediated by his expectations. But Berlinski has come as close as you can to creating a character with no expectations; it’s clever to make the narrator what he is, a refugee from a failed San Francisco Internet start-up, rather than a young man with theories he wants to intrude into the text. He just likes to sleep a lot, and where he’s sleeping currently is a city in northern Thailand.
He has followed his girlfriend Rachel to Chiang Mai, to her volunteer post as a first-grade teacher. They are a romantic pair, deriving their notions of their destination from the stylish travel writer Norman Lewis, but finding at their journey’s end a smoggy city with a “low sky like wet cement,” and though they want a teak house with a roof that curls up at the eaves they find themselves living in a concrete house in a concrete suburb. Rachel is a purposive young woman with boundaries and horizons; she enjoys their leisurely vacations, but before the end of the year she is planning her exit. As for the narrator, nothing much gets in the way of his naps, but when he is awake he makes a desultory living writing for magazines and papers, filing lifestyle columns about cars and new music, writing profiles of local businessmen, and at one point becoming a critic of bespoke suits—possibly an opportunity unique to the region.
On a trip to Bangkok he enjoys a meal with an acquaintance, Josh O’Connor, and hears from him the story—a fragmentary story, at this stage—of a Western woman who has committed suicide in prison. She is Martiya van der Leun, an anthropologist in her fifties. When she killed herself she was serving a fifty-year sentence for shooting dead David Walker, aged thirty, an American from a family of missionaries. The narrator decides to investigate—it might make a piece for one of his magazines. He finds himself drawn into the story, his role “like the baton in a relay race of faulty memories and distant recollections.”
Once past the awkwardness of his opening gambit, the author makes no effort to sustain his pretense that this is a true story; Fieldwork is quite definitely a novel, exuberant and inventive, affectionate toward its characters but not indulgent of them. It has none of the cultivated flatness of modern reportage, and none of the spareness of line. Josh O’Connor could have been a mere messenger, but Berlinski sets about constructing him with Dickensian relish—his fat waddle, his oversized curly head, the gap between his front teeth that makes him whistle when he speaks. He is a familiar expatriate type, full of big talk and plans that never lead anywhere, a lazy opportunist buoyed along through life by a lack of principle and a willful failure to notice that principles exist:
He worked for a time for an environmental group attempting to stop construction of a large dam across the Mekong, and when the effort failed, he wrote publicity materials for a cement exporter.
This minor character is so vividly delivered that though you wince as he splashes about with his soup spoon and scrapes rice from his plate, you hang on his every word. By the time Josh has delivered the news and launched the quest, you know you’re in the hands of a writer to whom the novel form is, when all’s said, as natural as an old overcoat. He is in no hurry to rush us toward a resolution, and with engaging confidence he takes the reader on a stroll into Martiya’s family background, and then, smoothly reversing direction, into the history of four generations of the family of the murder victim.
In search of Martiya, the narrator spreads his net wide. He hauls in an aged aunt in Holland, an old boyfriend, former academic colleagues in Berkeley, and a woman called Karen, like the dead woman an anthropologist, who has a cache of letters from Martiya describing her fieldwork with an up-country tribe called the Dyalo, letters that not only record her day-to-day life but her emotions and insights and dreams. He discovers that Martiya is, as it were, an anthropologist by birth. Her father Piers was Dutch, a linguist and a colonial administrator in Indonesia. At a conference in Jakarta in 1938, he met a Malaysian linguist, and soon afterward married his daughter Areta, a delicate, cultured student of literature. They had one happy year, then war separated them; he was imprisoned by the Japanese, most of her family were killed, and when they were reunited they could never recapture their early happiness.
Martiya was born in 1947, on the island of Sulawesi, and grew up in a hut on the edge of an ebony forest; her father, supported by a research grant, pottered around among the villagers, compiling lexical tables, while her lonely mother paced the floor. Areta died by drowning. Some say she slipped. Some say she had stones in her pockets. All her legacy is “a hardcover edition of Pride and Prejudice on India paper.” Piers accepts a position as a professor at Berkeley, and the wild part of Martiya’s life, for the moment, is left behind.
Later she will speak of “a wonderful childhood in the jungle village. Every woman was her mother, and every lap was open to her.” It is sometimes suggested that an anthropologist’s urge to discover a pristine and primitive society is a form of nostalgia, a longing to return to the backcountry of her own childhood, to find it and endow it with an innocence it perhaps never had in reality. When in 1974 Martiya heads off in search of material for her doctoral thesis, anthropology is still a self-confident discipline, not yet busy deconstructing itself and doubting its right to exist. Martiya is curious, and curiosity—combined with the craft of fieldwork, which her academic supervisors suggest is as much instinctive as acquired—is deemed to be enough. As she and her friend Karen travel hopefully—Karen to the Philippines, Martiya to northern Thailand—they never forget they are disciples of Bronislaw Malinowski, and their purpose, as the great man defined it, is “to grasp the native’s point of view, his relation to life, to realize his vision of his world.” Berlinski adds, “That’s how innocent they were.”
Martiya finds herself a village called Dan Loi, with “a tribe of her own.” It is near the Burmese border and is inhabited by the Dyalo people. Berlinski has invented the Dyalo, and he has done it with gleeful thoroughness. Dyalo nicknames are pointed and apt, he tells us, and Martiya lives with Farts-a-Lot and his family. She is the “participant-observer” of the ideal research study, learning to cook the Dyalo way, struggling with the language, scrabbling for privacy to write up her notes, and trying all the time to fix on her face “an anthropologist’s encouraging semi-grin.” The chilly night winds whistle through the walls of plaited bamboo, the thatch drips, the smoke of indoor cooking fires burns her eyes, and when she asks the Dyalo why they don’t build chimneys, they reply, “It is not our custom.” “There were mists and fogs and hazes and vapors, and when the rain wasn’t pelting down from above, steam was rising from the rice paddies below.”
Her supervisor in Berkeley had told her, “When in doubt, count something.” But that’s not so easy. When you ask how many people live in a hut there can be no definite answer. The Dyalo count them up by their souls—a woman has seven, and a man nine. But then one soul might be temporarily lost, or a wandering soul might have dropped in. It’s no wonder that when her study period comes to an end, and she goes back to Berkeley to write up her conclusions, she can come to none. Against all advice, she heads back to the field, this time unsupported by a research grant. She will become one of those people who, cast up in a foreign culture, with no clear plans beyond the present, “swing inexorably toward the pendulum-edges of their souls.”
It’s probably not what an anthropologist ought to do, but on her quest to understand the Dyalo she begins to look to the Walker family for enlightenment. The Walkers have been working as missionaries in the East for four generations. They have been chased out of Communist China and expelled from Burma, washed out on the tides of history but clinging to the wreckage, determined, commonsensical, yet innocent of personal ambition and minimalist in their requirements for security and comfort. As indifferent to borders as the Dyalo themselves, they have lived with them, converted some of them, and provided them with an alphabet. The present-day paterfamilias is Thomas Walker, who lives in Chiang Mai with his wife Norma, and various aunts, uncles, sisters, cousins, and grandchildren who drop in from time to time, most of them missionaries in the region. The Walkers are endlessly hospitable, and give parties, though “a party in the Walker way of thinking was simply normal life plus a cake.” Every day is a celebration when you know you are saved, and expect to be caught up in the Rapture any time now.
The Walkers are innocent of long-term anxiety; they know where they’re headed. They are welcoming to Martiya, and full of information about the Dyalo; later they welcome our investigating narrator. In their contacts with the family, the narrator and Martiya are occupied in constructing a story, but the Walkers live within a story they know to be true, and Berlinski captures beautifully the circular frustrations of dealing with fundamentalists who have a verse for every contingency. But he does not patronize them. Their history is gorgeously and fully imagined, the customs of their daily lives thoughtfully constructed. What the narrator feels for them is “the collector’s passion: I wanted to talk at least a little with as many of the Walkers as I could.” A family reunion would involve sixty or seventy people, but of course, the narrator’s primary interest is the murdered man. In this matter, he must go carefully.
David Walker was Norma’s third child, born in 1961, “the most polite kid you ever met.” He’s not perhaps the book’s most successful character; Berlinski dives into his emotions and loses his careful authorial distance, and takes him back to the US on an extended trail after the Grateful Dead, which is entertaining in itself but a narrative loop too far. When his time with the Deadhead tribe is over, he returns to Thailand grown-up, self-possessed, eager to evangelize. We know that at some point his path will cross the jungle trail of his murderer, but we don’t quite know what will make their intersection fatal. We are occupied, ourselves, in trying to understand the Dyalo, animists who have no word for luck, and who are haunted by invisible and malign spirits. It has taken Martiya herself some time to understand the dark side of her chosen people. The Walkers have the advantage, as they have no difficulty believing in demons. Thomas Walker explains,
The Dyalo would tell her they were in bondage—bondage!—to the demons, and she’d write in her little notebook, “The Dyalo have a rich hierarchical system of animistic spirit worship.”
Now, the Walkers are by their own account “practical people. We see a problem and we’re trying to fix it….” Their motto might be “Here to Interfere.” Their aim is to Christianize the Dyalo and remove fear from their lives. They further this aim, sensibly enough, by taking the Dyalo view of the universe seriously. The demons, they know, are not just a mental construct; it is not only the Dyalo they terrorize. They know how Martiya came to murder David:
I think she got into those hills and slowly but surely the demons mastered her. I think the demons who wanted, who were desperate, to keep the Dyalo in bondage murdered David.
Melodramatic as this sounds, it is perfectly consonant with the worldview that Berlinski has constructed for his missionaries, and consonant with the psychological process that Martiya begins to undergo when she determines to understand the Dyalo’s central mystery, their rice-planting ceremony. There are at least three words for rice in their vocabulary, and one of them signifies a spirit: not rice, but Rice. When Rice takes hold of Martiya, rationality flutters into the jungle dusk. The killing of David Walker—the puzzle we’ve been led toward solving—doesn’t seem quite so important after all, as it is only one of a range of bizarre events that do occur, or could occur, when Martiya swings to “the pendulum-edge” of her soul.
For rather hurriedly, and a little late, Berlinski has bundled into the narrative a Dyalo lover for Martiya. With this man, she performs the sacred rites of Rice. David Walker’s offense is to convert him to Christianity. Conversion signals his abandonment of custom, and of Martiya. She is no longer a young woman, no longer beautiful. Rice taken away, she is nothing. She reasons that “without David they would worship Rice again.” So she arranges for the successful young missionary an accident in the jungle. To make sure he is dead, she goes back with her hunting rifle. It’s nothing personal. “He was a nice boy, just dangerous, very dangerous.” Forces that are vast and mythic have taken her over; she has invited them in. Sadly, it was the Walkers themselves, with their keen demon-talk, who introduced her to their existence.
The reader, who may have anticipated some sexual entanglement between Martiya and her victim, has been skillfully wrong-footed. Events have taken a more subtle turn. Martiya’s final struggle will be interior. We are asked to follow, at great speed, her volatile and surprising emotions. At this point the author has sold his novel short, the faulty pacing perhaps the only time in the book when inexperience shows; unlike athletes, writers sometimes need to go slower as the finishing line approaches, and having followed Martiya so far we would have been willing to linger in the strange territory inside her head.
As her supervisors in Berkeley would probably have told her, it is a big mistake to get involved—to think you can melt into the culture. It is a big mistake to go back to the scene of your fieldwork, unprotected by research protocols. It is a big mistake to talk to missionaries—it is they who have taught her to believe in demons, without imparting the certainties that are a shield against them. The Walkers, saddened and diminished by the death of one clan member, remain secure in their worldview. So, it seems, does the tribe. The dead man, himself an evangelist of considerable power, becomes a demon; a string of misfortunes follow the discovery of his corpse, and in conversing with his spirit, the village shaman discovers the identity of his killer. It doesn’t really need a shaman; they all know Martiya has a hunting rifle. So now, how do they deal with her? If she were Dyalo they might just shoot her. But as she is not, they deal with her in the Western way—they tell the police. It is the final desolating detail in her story of estrangement; and all she will leave behind, after her suicide, as the fruit of almost thirty years in the region, are two papers that tell about her life in a Thai prison. She has failed to tell the main story, but has written a footnote to herself.
In his afterword Berlinski writes, as if waking, dazed, from a long and productive nap, “None of this stuff happened to anyone.” His effusive acknowledgments show him still in the grip of the excitement of being allowed to make things up; his sister Claire, he says, has read the book “at least a thousand times over,” and his father “a zillion times.” You must wonder about the Berlinski family; are they a little like the Walkers, and have they taken Fieldwork as their sacred book? No matter, if they help get out another novel after this one. Berlinski’s debut stands comparison with another novel about missionary life, that handsome crowd-pleaser The Poisonwood Bible. Though it does not employ the range of voices, it has a similar narrative generosity, and unlike Barbara Kingsolver’s book it avoids becoming portentous in the later stages. It’s a quirky, often brilliant debut, bounced along by limitless energy, its wry tone not detracting from its thoughtfulness. You wonder what Berlinski will write next, and have faith that it will be something completely different.