Jan 6, 2008

Book Review: Fieldwork by Mischa Berlinski


Fieldwork: A Novel by Mischa Berlinski, published January 22, 2008; Picador

Missionaries and anthropologists are in juxtaposition in Fieldwork, a new novel by Mischa Berlinski. The action takes place in Chiang Mai and northern Thailand among the hill tribes. An American journalist tries to solve the mystery of an American female anthropologist jailed for murder. The book delves into religions, superstition, and another way of seeing reality.

The novel follows four generations of an American missionary family, the Walkers, who have lived, preached, and raised children in remote areas of southern China and north Thailand along the Burmese border.

The book also looks at Martiya, the daughter of a Dutch anthropologist who follows in her father's footsteps and goes to study the Dyalo, a fictional group of people, who closely resemble hilltribe groups in Southeast Asia.

Social science and religion seem to clash in the hills of Dyalo, where Martiya tries to understand tribal customs, beliefs, and religion but where the missionaries try to change the Dyalo and convert them. The spirits of the Dyalo are seen as real and dangerous and jealous of the Christian missionaries. Martiya, on the other hand, looks at the spirit world of the Dyalo through an anthropologist's supposedly objective, non-confrontational, non-challenging perspective.

The mystery of why Martiya put two bullets into the back of David Walker, fourth generation missionary in northern Thailand, is explained at the end of the book. Her subsequent suicide in a Thai jail comes after she has completed two manuscripts on life in the women's prison which she sends to be printed in a journal of ethnography in the U.S.

Whether Martiya committed the crime for the sake of her science or because of purely personal reasons is an interesting question

Anthropologists put up with some of the difficulties of fieldwork -boredom, disgust, frustration - because of an overwhelming and overriding curiousity about the people they study. The author of the novel, Mischa Berlinski, gives some of his insight into the life of the father of fieldwork, Malinowski, who worked with the Trobriand Islanders who live off the coast of New Guinea. It was his curiousity about one aspect of the islanders' customs that kept him going, Berlinski claims. The puzzling rituals and value placed on armbands and necklaces was more important to Malinowski than the sadness seen in his face in a picture taken with the Trobrianders.

Author Berlinksi worked as a journalist for a time in Thailand and has cleverly created a tribe, the Dyalo, complete with customs and beliefs, to make his work seem realistic.

The book poses questions about the impact of missionaries overseas and the question of changing a culture versus merely observing it.

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