Picador: New York
Fieldwork is a brilliant piece of literature by first-time novelist Mischa Berlinski. He spins a tale that is at once sensitive and insightful, hilarious and painfully sad, and evocative in its sense of place. The author places himself in the central role of narrator, and as he tells the stories of the obsessions of his main characters, he bares his own soul and sheds light on his own obsessions.
Mischa the narrator (like Mischa, the author) lives in Chiang Mai, Thailand, in the present day. An old post-college chum, Josh O’Connor, now an ex-pat living on the margin in Bangkok, tells him a story that seems straight out of the pages of a latter-day Joseph Conrad novel. He has been in contact with a Dutch woman who was seeking a Bangkok-based individual willing to visit her niece, Martiya van der Leun, who was serving a fifty year sentence for murder in the Chiang Mai Central Prison. Josh carries out the assignment and after a stormy introduction during which Martiya accuses him of being a missionary, she warms to him and he is able to tell of her aunt’s request that he convey a small inheritance upon her. He bids her farewell and never sees her again, but a year later receives two manuscripts from her with a request that he send them on to two scholarly journals. One is entitled, “Notes Toward a Political Anthropology of Prison Life in Northern Thailand,” and the other, “The Economic Organization of a Thai Women’s Prison.” Josh quickly contacts the prison to ascertain whether these erudite articles have actually been written by Martiya—only to be informed that she has died an apparent suicide.
Mischa, who is scraping by in Chiang Mai as a free-lance writer, while is girlfriend Rachel teaches first grade in a school largely populated by children of ex-pats, is fascinated by Josh’s tale and determines to undertake the research necessary to write a possible feature article on this mysterious Western woman accused of such a heinous crime. He begins his search for Martiya by contacting the Dutch aunt who had initially requested help from Josh. Aunt Elena fills in the early years of Martiya van der Leun—she was born in Indonesia shortly after the end of World War II, the daughter of a brilliant Dutch linguist, Piers van der Leun, and a Malaysian woman, whose father—also a linguist—had been executed by the Japanese. Following the death—either accidental or suicide—of Martiya’s mother, she and he father moved to California where he assumed a teaching position at UC-Berkeley. Following one lead after another, Mischa learns that Martiya blossomed into a very talented student, first as an undergraduate and then as a Ph.D. candidate in anthropology. Following the advice of her advisor, she struck out for northern Thailand to study the Dyalo, a people who, over the millennia, had migrated down from China. They were a remote and isolated people, who subsisted on rice harvests and practiced rituals and religious traditions that stretched back to the dawn of history—perfect for a brilliant anthropologist-in-training like Martiya van der Leun!
She returned to Berkeley after three years of living with the primitive Dyalo with the intention of completing her dissertation. But for some reason unknown to friends and family, she seemingly abandoned her studies and returned to Thailand, disappearing into the jungle forests and rice fields that the Dyalo called home.
Further sleuthing by Mischa reveals the identity of the murder victim— a young missionary to the Dyalo people named David Walker. Several generations of the Walker family, he discovers, still live in Chiang Mai, and are still ministering to the Dyalo. With great humor, but equally great sensitivity and understanding, the author provides the history and background of this multi-generational family that has dedicated itself to bringing the gospel of Christ to the primitive Dyalo. The author treats this admittedly strange and idiosyncratic family with respect and dignity, and the novel becomes in fact an anthropological study of a primitive native people, a missionary sub-culture (both fictional), and the discipline of anthropology itself.
In addition, the author describes in stark yet loving detail the discipline that is anthropology and the practice that is fieldwork. The intellectual excitement of discovery, the romance of travel to isolated corners of the world, the obsessive desire to become as one with the people being studied, the despair and depression that inevitably follows the loneliness, the frustrations of living in an alien culture, and even the very primal fear of the other—all are explored with insight and understanding.
This is a story told with great humor and great humanity. Four trowels for Fieldwork.