By: Mischa Berlinski
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
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
This is a story told with great humor and great
humanity. Four trowels for Fieldwork.
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