In Mischa Berlinski’s Fieldwork, an American freelance journalist—also named Mischa Berlinski—describes life in Thailand as “easy, calm, and cheap.” But he begins to investigate something decidedly uneasy: a murder committed by Martiya van der Leun, a Berkeley-trained anthropologist who lived among the Dyalo people of northern Thailand. Martiya, sentenced to fifty years, has just committed suicide; the novel charts her demise, filtered through Mischa, with lengthy but intriguing diversions about missionaries in Asia.
We learn about the Dyalo, who don’t have words for love or luck, and believe instead in pesky spirits. As Martiya notes in her thesis, such specters are responsible for all Dyalo misfortune. When a quirky missionary named David Walker appears and promises to replace the gremlins with one benevolent entity, this seems, to the Dyalo, like a pretty good deal. The Walkers have been groomed for this task, having trekked around China, Burma, and Thailand for generations. Mischa/Berlinski pokes fun at them with some witty Star Wars and Grateful Dead allusions. When young David Walker leaves Thailand to become a Deadhead, his mother is “only partially comforted… given the group’s name, at least David seemed to be involved with good Christians.” Berlinski’s overriding question about “missionary zeal” seems serious, however, because Fieldwork draws convincing parallels between eschatological and anthropological urges. What is the difference between a missionary and a colonial anthropologist? And why the need to gain converts, be it in the Thai jungle or the graduate lounge at Berkeley?
“There is something thrilling about an obsessif,” something both admirable and creepy about wholehearted immersion, notes Martiya’s French boyfriend. If the purpose of fieldwork is to “shed the scaly skin of self,” Martiya succeeds among the Dyalo. By obsessing over tribal taboos, she can forget about the lukewarm response to her thesis and her fractured family back in California. Better the devil you don’t really know. Likewise, Mischa clings to Martiya’s story. He wants to stay in Thailand, and Rachel, his American girlfriend, does not. Mischa describes the soothing Thai tendency to “smile when someone smashes up your bike” and the startling, biblical rains. His fascination speaks to conversion of a different kind, from seasonal traveler to willing expatriate—another way, perhaps, to “shed the scaly skin of self.”
Fieldwork is a clever book, chock-full of David Foster Wallace–esque footnotes and moments of direct address. The arc of the story is interrupted by a variety of informants: Martiya’s roommate from Berkeley; Martiya’s advisor/lover (who once arrived at his cultural anthropology class “wearing nothing but a handsome, three-foot-long embroidered penis sheath”); Martiya herself, in letters. There is pleasure in piecing these bits together, but we occasionally lose sight of Mischa, despite his self-referential devices.
The stories of Martiya and the Walkers intersect quite tragically in the end. The Dyalo, sadly, do not exist and “none of this stuff happened to anyone,” as Berlinski the author reveals in “A Note on the Sources.” He recommends the ethnography that gave him the “confidence to make my Dyalos as weird… as I wanted them to be.” Read it, and you’ll be “rewarded with a pleasant sense that the world is much, much larger and much, much stranger than you imagined.” Read Fieldwork, and you’ll likely conclude the same.