There's an impressive feat of literary acrobatics at the heart of Mischa Berlinski's first novel, "Fieldwork." It begins as a high-toned pulp mystery, then leaps without a sound to an examination of storytelling itself. That it's a still a brisk read, without hedging its goals or welding them to a thick plot, tells us Berlinski has accomplished much and, with luck, has a bright future ahead.
"Fieldwork" takes place in North Thailand, where an American journalist named Mischa Berlinski (ha ha) has set up shop with his girlfriend, Rachel, an elementary-school teacher. The couple has reached a quarter-life impasse, with Rachel envisioning their future after the overseas sabbatical and Mischa avoiding discussion of it. In the meantime, he files desultory clippings for expatriate newspapers and magazines and, in his own words, "works as little as possible."
Into the ennui comes Martiya van de Leun, an anthropologist from Berkeley, who has committed suicide in a Thai prison. Martiya was serving 50 years for the murder of the son of a prominent missionary family. Her death has been relayed to Mischa by a local bon vivant who had delivered a message to Martiya about the death of a relative. Motivated first by boredom, then by reasons he keeps largely to himself, Mischa dives into an investigation of how the life of a gifted and committed academic could have ended this way. Working backward, he begins with her family and friends, then reaches further into her work with the Dyalo people in the jungles on the Thai-Burmese border and the saga of the Walkers, a missionary family who have preached to the Dyalo for four generations.
At this point, "Fieldwork" has the silhouette of a mystery novel with literary fiction leanings, a la Caleb Carr's "The Alienist" or John Berendt's fictionalized true-crime book "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil": a setting exoticized as a supporting character, a narrative on an unspoken schedule and a thinly plotted narrator who simply shows up to relay the story to us, all of which would have been fine but unremarkable.
Instead, Berlinski circles backward, devoting whole sections to the history of the Walker family and their missionary work in Thailand; of Martiya's family, friends and colleagues back in California; and of David Walker, the murder victim, who spent his childhood in east Asia and early 20s following the Grateful Dead. At first it seems like a fruitless digression (the narrator even admits as much), but Berlinski has both a destination in mind and a reason for taking us this way. His larger plan makes "Fieldwork" not so much a whodunit but a study of what happens when we try to construct, then ascribe meaning to, the
story of someone else's life.
Anthropology, by its definition, has storytelling as its goal. So does fiction. But while the fiction writer can make up stories and characters at will (including himself), the anthropologist must stick with what he finds. Anthropological fieldwork may involve years of living alongside the subject, being with but not of the community, all the time getting further away from returning home unchanged. And that is Martiya's undoing: she is a storyteller with a story she cannot leave but will never fully shape. The tragedy of her life, Berlinski suggests, is her failure to understand that stories take on their full meaning only after they end.
Fictional protagonists who share a name with their creators, muddying the distinction between truth and story, have been in vogue for a few years now. Berlinski says "Fieldwork" began as a historical study of missionary work in northern Thailand, but then became a novel. He goes so far as to include the caveat that "none of this stuff happened to anyone," even though to make that justification whittles away at the heft of his enterprise, which is an examination of misspent lives and misplaced narratives and the role both play in the battle over historical memory.
It's in these terms that he lays out this sad and powerful tale. Told almost entirely in backstory, Berlinski's novel succeeds on two levels: moving forward through Mischa's discoveries while filling in the history of the story in front of us. At moments, he interprets his title too literally, and "Fieldwork" reads less like storytelling then transcription. Thankfully, these instances are rare. On the whole, "Fieldwork" is an inspired and courageous book, which begins with the mystery of suicide and, by seemingly novel-length sidetracking, finds the redemption in it: Martiya's death has enabled the story she couldn't free herself of to finally be told.
This review first appeared in The San Francisco Chronicle.
(R) thedailystar.net 2007