Loads of Learned Lumber

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Mischa Berlinski, _Fieldwork_

THE BOOK CLUB selection for June -- about which I knew nothing, and I don't think I even voted for it, but it turned out to be excellent.

The narrator -- one Mischa Berlinski -- living for a year in Thailand with his girlfriend, a first grade teacher, and making a desultory sort of living as a free-lance writer, learns of an American anthropologist, female and in her 50s, who committed suicide while serving a life sentence for murder in a Thai prison.

Who was she, who was her victim, what was the story? Like Citizen Kane or any ordinary murder mystery, the novel is the reconstruction of anterior events. Berlinski-the-author invents a rich panoply of family, friends, associates, and other witnesses for Berlinski-the-narrator to track down and interview as he assembles piece-by-piece the story of how Martiya van der Leun, an anthropologist single-mindedly devoted to understanding and recording the life-ways of the Dyalo tribe in northern Thailand, came to murder David Walker, ex-Deadhead and third-generation Christian missionary dedicated to the evangelizing of those very same Dyalo.

As the only Americans in the world with any deep interest in the Dyalo, Martiya and the Walkers have an extraordinary lot in common but also deeply conflicting agendas, the Walkers hoping to "rescue" the Dyalo from the very culture Martiya has so painstakingly analyzed. A clash will surely come -- and it does.

The plot thus has a certain foreordained quality to it, but it is nonetheless ingeniously worked out, and along the way Berlinski-the-author turns out to be no mean novelist-anthropologist himself, evoking with compelling clarity the worlds of Grateful Dead camp followers, of three generations of Christian missionaries, of anthropology grad students, and of course the (fictional) Dyalo.

Berlinski is a nimble stylist, his imagination fertile, and he's someone whose next novel I will be sure to pick up.

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