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Mischa Berlinski
Picador, 2008
356 pp., 21.00

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Mark Walhout

Missionaries and Anthropologists

Murder in Thailand.

It's hard not to envy the Berlinskis. They have degrees from places like Princeton, Oxford, and Berkeley; they speak English, French, and German; they've lived everywhere from San Francisco to Paris to Bangkok. Father David, a Senior Fellow of the Discovery Institute's Center for Science and Culture, is a philosopher-mathematician who writes popular science books like A Tour of the Calculus (1996), taking on Darwinists like Richard Dawkins in his spare time. Daughter Claire, an expert in international relations, is the author of Menace in Europe (2006), a journalistic exposé of Islamic radicalism, anti-Semitism, and moral decline in the New Europe. Son Mischa, a classicist by training, is set to follow in his father's and sister's literary footsteps.

As if that's not enough, the Berlinskis are also talented novelists. David is the creator of the Aaron Appelfeld mysteries, a series of politically incorrect novels about a hard-boiled San Francisco investigator (all published by St. Martin's). Claire is the author of two spy novels published by Ballantine: Loose Lips (2003), a clever page-turner about love and betrayal at the CIA, and Lion Eyes (2007), an even cleverer follow-up featuring a protagonist named "Claire Berlinski," author of a book called "Loose Lips." Then there's Mischa, whose first novel, Fieldwork, was published earlier this year by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. All of the Berlinski novels are compulsively readable, but only Fieldwork is a work of "serious" fiction—serious enough to have been nominated for a National Book Award.

Even before its nomination, Fieldwork had won accolades from publications as diverse as The New York Review of Books and Entertainment Weekly, where it received an unlikely plug from Stephen King in his "Pop of King" column. Praising the novel as "a Russian doll of a read, filled with stories within stories," King wondered why it was stuck at No. 24,571 on the Amazon list. The culprit, he opined, was the novel's publisher, FSG, which had opted for a drab title and a green smear on the cover. Publishing houses like FSG, King complained, stubbornly refuse to market their books to "the ordinary reader," succumbing to "elitist twaddle" about the difference between "literature" and "popular fiction." Maybe King's column helped. By Thanksgiving, Fieldwork had climbed all the way to No. 9,452.

What Stephen King liked about Fieldwork was its delicious murder-mystery plot: an American missionary to the Dyalo people of Northern Thailand, David Walker, has been shot and killed by Martiya van der Leun, a Dutch anthropologist doing fieldwork among the Dyalo. From the outset, the mystery confronting the novel's narrator—an American journalist named "Mischa Berlinski"—is not who dunnit, but why she dunnit. The answer to that question is artfully postponed until the end of the novel. The rest of the book is a studied contrast in worldviews—that of the missionary who seeks to convert the Dyalo, and that of the anthropologist who seeks to lose herself in their world. To "Mischa Berlinski," David Walker and Martiya van der Leun are every bit as exotic as the Dyalo themselves; investigating them is his own version of "fieldwork."

As for the real Mischa Berlinski, he, too, did his share of fieldwork in Northern Thailand, where he lived for a time in his twenties. Indeed, Fieldwork began as a work of nonfiction. As Berlinski tells us in a note at the end of the novel, he had originally set out to write a history of the conversion of the Lisu tribe to Christianity. The conversion of the Lisu was the lifework of the Oklahoma missionary J. Russell Morse (1898-1991) and his many descendants—the prototypes of the fictional Walker family, whose history is recounted in part 2 of Fieldwork. In his note, Berlinski thanks several of the living Morses—including David Morse, J. Russell's grandson—although his primary source was a memoir written by J. Russell's first wife, Gertrude (The Dogs May Bark, but the Caravan Moves on, College Press, 1998).

In addition to the Morses, Berlinski met with Dutch anthropologist Otome Klein Hutheesing, author of Emerging Sexual Inequality Among the Lisu of Northern Thailand (E. J. Brill, 1990), who helped him understand the anthropologist's point of view. Like Martiya van der Leun, Hutheesing is native of Indonesia who dropped out of Western society in order to live in a Lisu village in Northern Thailand. Berlinski's fictional Dyalo tribe is loosely based on the Lisu, the subject of Hutheesing's ethnography. For example, Hutheesing notes that the Lisu consider it embarrassing for husband and wife to plant rice together; instead, Lisu husbands plant rice with other men's wives. A fictional variant of this Lisu practice is central to the plot of Fieldwork.

Interestingly, Hutheesing cites David Morse in a footnote, noting that the missionary shares her suspicion that the purity of Lisu pronunciation has been corrupted by their habit of betelnut-chewing. The fact that Hutheesing and Morse know each other suggests that they are, in a general way, the real-life originals of Martiya van der Leun and David Walker. (In an interview posted on the berlinski.com web site, however, Mischa says that his inspiration for the character of David Walker was a pair of young hashish-smugglers he once met in India, the estranged sons of an American missionary to Japan. In the novel, David Walker drops out of his American community college in order to follow the Grateful Dead before returning to Thailand.)

 As I've already suggested, Fieldwork is a study of contrasting worldviews grafted onto a murder-mystery plot. A clue to Berlinski's deeper intentions may be found in the novel's epigraph, a quotation from Sigmund Freud:

The main achievement of religion, as compared with animism, lies in the psychic binding of the fear of demons. Nevertheless, the evil spirit still has a place in the religious system as a relic of a previous age.

The source of this quotation (which is not identified in the novel) is the final lecture of Freud's New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis (1932), in which the founder of psychoanalysis defended the Weltanschauung of science against its "enemies," the most serious of which is religion. In Fieldwork, the Walkers attribute the conversion of the animist Dyalo to the relief they find in Christ, who liberates them from bondage to the importunate spirits that populate their world. Like the Lisu, however, the Walkers believe in the reality of the spirits, whom they take to be demons under the control of Satan.

The irony is that Martiya van der Leun, the Berkeley-trained social scientist, also comes to believe—or so it would seem—in the reality of the Dyalo spirits. One wonders what Dr. Freud would make of Martiya's conversion, if that's what it is, to Dyalo animism. Perhaps anthropology, like religion, has "a relic of a previous age" in its system. In this sense, anthropology resembles Marxism, to which Freud, having disposed of religion, turns at the end of his lecture on Weltanschauungen. Theoretical Marxism purports to be a science, Freud observes, but in practice it has all the hallmarks of a religion. The same may be said of anthropology as practiced by Martiya van der Leun.

In the end, the novel suggests that religion and science may not be as different as Dr. Freud thought they were. In this sense, Fieldwork is a continuation in fictional form of the work of Mischa Berlinski's father David, a man who takes great pleasure in smashing the idols of the scientific tribe, from evolution to the Big Bang. Before writing Fieldwork, Mischa assisted his father with the research for Secrets of the Vaulted Sky (Harcourt, 2003), a history of astrology and its influence on modern science. In an interview posted on the Harcourt website, David Berlinski attributes his interest in astrology to the fact that "magical thinking has not disappeared from modern science: it has simply been disguised." Fieldwork merely extends Dr. Berlinski's insight from astrology to animism.

In his acknowledgements, Mischa Berlinski thanks his sister for introducing him to "the novel-writing game" and his father for giving him a "model of literary excellence." Fieldwork, however, has none of Claire's satiric barbs or David's skeptical hammer-strokes. The author is content to let his impartial narrator do the fieldwork, observing his exotic subjects with a clear but sympathetic eye. The fictional "Mischa Berlinski" genuinely likes the missionaries and anthropologists he comes to know, and the same is obviously true of the real Mischa Berlinski. On berlinski.com, he admits that he was pleasantly surprised to discover that the missionaries he met in Thailand "weren't weird at all. In fact, they were totally normal … down-to-earth, good-natured, warm, welcoming, honest people." Well, duh.

Mischa Berlinski is bound to meet more Christians at the Calvin Festival of Faith and Writing this April. In a recent interview with Festival Assistant Shannon Jammal-Hollemans, he reiterated that the missionaries he interviewed for Fieldwork "were really very nice people," adding that the anthropologists "were a whole lot weirder. The more I talked to them, the more it struck me that they really were after something almost religious." Ms. Jammal-Hollemans then asked Berlinski how his own spiritual life affects his writing. "I don't think my spiritual life has much to do with my writing life," he replied. "I don't think my [spiritual views] are particularly interesting to others, or even necessarily true." Now that's weird.

Mark Walhout teaches English at Seattle Pacific University.

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