Fieldwork – Mischa Berlinski

Mischa Berlinski

Atlantic Books; 320 pages

What links an anthropologist, a third-generation missionary, and a bored journalist? How much trouble can you get up to in Northern Thailand? Is Star Wars really the Devil's work? Fieldwork explores the unlikely intersection of ex-patriate lives, and questions whether obsession and cultural immersion are all they're cracked up to be.

It's easy to be misled by Fieldwork. It appears to be a memoir written by an American journalist called Mischa Berlinski about his time living in Thailand, and specifically his research into the suicide of a Dutch anthropologist. The rambling first person narrative, the match of author and narrator's names, the author's familiarity with his setting (he has, in fact, lived in Thailand), even the many and humorous footnotes are designed to back this up. However, as the author is at pains to call out none of this stuff happened to anyone.

Fictional Mischa moves to Thailand when his girlfriend takes a job as a first grade teacher in a Chiang Mai school. While Rachel toils to educate a group of lacklustre children in the prickly heat, Mischa avoids anything resembling effort and befriends colourful ex-pat entrepreneur Josh, who introduces him to the story of Martiya van der Leun.

Josh encountered Martiya when he volunteered to inform her of her uncle's death; he found her in jail for the murder of an American missionary. While Josh limits his involvement to agreeing to mail a manuscript to Ethnography, Mischa is fascinated by the story and begins to dig deeper. Befriending the enRaptured Walker family of missionaries whose son Martiya killed, and then former friends of Martiya herself, he slowly builds a history of the victim, the murderess and the fateful intersection of their lives.

Flighty Mischa is an engaging narrator, peppering the tale with episodes of an almost Gap-year-like existence while providing few glimpses of the man himself. Although he drifts away from Rachel's ambitions to go home to a "real" life with a family and a picket fence, he provides no impression of having a destination of his own; even his obsession with Martiya feels transient.

In contrast, Martiya – experienced largely through the eyes of others – is portrayed as a driven woman who loses her way. An ambitious grad student, she is initially shocked by the dull reality of anthropological fieldwork and disdainful of her preliterate subjects (the Dyalo). However, her commitment to her career becomes an obsession with understanding all aspects of Dyalo culture until her participation seeds her downfall.

Martiya's victim, David Walker, is the scion of an American missionary family with a single-minded vision: saving the heathens for Jesus before the Rapture. Distracted by Star Wars and the Grateful Dead, David loses his way. In finding it as Martiya loses hers, he comes into conflict with her over the fate of the Dyalo and their nine-fold souls.

Author Berlinski tells the story from indirect sources, filtered through Narrator Berlinksi, completing the memoir packaging. None of this stuff happened to anyone is almost a superfluous comment; the tale is Mischa's, as colourful as he chooses to make it. In this regard, the novel becomes an example of an anthropological principle: we can understand ourselves only by first losing ourselves in another culture to gain perspective (sadly, fictional Mischa does not complete this journey).

The success of this filtering is to bring us these characters through Mischa's occasionally opium-addled mind. Laidback, likeable Mischa paints amusing pastiches of his associates and subjects. The fire and brimstone Walkers move beyond religious cliche and become a sprawling family whose bizarre lives and drives almost make sense. Martiya – a murderess – is also short-tempered, often charmless, and utterly self-centred; filtered through the memories of those who knew her, she is redeemed (and undone) by her deep passions.

Martiya's slow slide into full immersion into the culture of her subjects (the Dyalo tribe) is echoed by the Walkers' multi-generational struggle to bring the Himalayan hill-tribes to Jesus – and by Mischa's own need to uncover why Martiya would kill. Mischa here is the weak link, obsessed through boredom, but it is his light touch that keeps the novel bounding along and explains its haphazard structure. A potentially grim topic (murder) with a meaty setting (proselytisation amongst South-East Asian hill tribes) is transformed into an engaging, witty entertainment.