Los Angeles Times
By Tim Rutten
Times Staff Writer
February 7, 2007
MISCHA Berlinski's first book, "Fieldwork," is that rare thing — an entertainingly readable novel of ideas.
The 34-year-old author is a Berkeley-trained classicist, whose experience working as a freelance journalist in Thailand provides the framework for his fiction.
Newly out of college, a young American journalist follows his schoolteacher girlfriend to a post in the hill country of northern Thailand. There, another expatriate tells him the story of a brilliant American anthropologist, Martiya van der Leun, who has committed suicide in a Thai prison, where she was serving a 50-year sentence for murder. Her victim was a charismatic young American Protestant missionary whose family — like Martiya — had spent years working among the people of a traditional hill tribe called the Dyalo. In fact, the missionaries and the anthropologist have befriended one another.
The young journalist becomes obsessed with Martiya, as she had become with the subjects of her long study (their customs and beliefs she had made her own). Leaving his girlfriend, the writer pursues the stories of the anthropologist and of her victim back to the Dyalo village among whose people their lives had tragically intersected.
Berlinski's narrative is brilliantly plotted and builds to a shattering but entirely credible conclusion. There's a particular authenticity attached to the settings and to the lives of the Dyalo, though they are a fictional people. That's because the author originally set out to write a nonfiction account of the Lisu ethnic group's conversion to Christianity. When he found no takers for that proposal, he recycled his extensive research into this novel.
That accounts, in part, for the book's most troubling defect, which is a tendency to digress from the narrative into what only can be called "research." It is not necessary, for example, to buttress Martiya's thoughts on one of modern anthropology's founders, Bronislaw Malinowski, with ruminations on his education in 19th century Poland — even if you know about it.
Similarly, the author would have been better advised not to make casual obeisance to fashionable postmodernism by calling his fictional narrator "Mischa Berlinski."
These are minor defects, and what sets Berlinski's book apart from others like it is its utterly contemporary evocation of a compelling old dichotomy: faith and reason. Martiya, the anthropologist, speaks for that latter tradition, the missionary Walker family for the former. Both make their cases in an entirely American idiom, and it is the great strength of Berlinski's novel that he lets them do so on an intellectually level playing field on which two competing ways of understanding the world and its people contend.
Here, the missionaries — one of whom has "passed the better part of his life quietly reading and translating the Bible into Dyalo, verse by verse" — explain their evangelical Christian view of the tribe's spirit world to Martiya in an inimitably American fashion:
" 'Nobody knows what the spirits really are — maybe they're fallen angels, that's certainly a possibility, or maybe some other being created in the spiritual realm. The biblical evidence certainly associates the spirits with Satan. But you know how I've always thought of the Dyalo spirits? They're like a giant powerful bureaucracy, which imposes a million and one rules on the Dyalo. Fines them a pig or a chicken or something worse when they do something wrong. Punishes them, kicks them around, treats them like dirt. You ever try and get a residence here in Thailand? Go from office to office, lose two whole days? It's like that all the time for the Dyalo. If the spirit of the big rock makes your kid sick, ask the spirit of your ancestor to protect you. So you slip him a bribe, a chicken, a pig. Maybe he'll help you, maybe not….'
" 'Exactly!' said Thomas. 'Exactly! And then we come along and we say, 'Folks, we know the man at the top! You want to plow that new field? You don't need to sacrifice a pig or say this ritual — just talk to the Boss! Who loves you! Who wants to help you! We'll teach you how to talk to Wu-pa-sha directly!'
" 'Wu-pa-sha was the creator of rice, rain, life and thunder, at the very summit of the Dyalo spiritual hierarchy.' "
Here's where a less interesting writer would knowingly draw the irony implicit in the shared magical thinking of both the missionaries and the tribesmen. Berlinski, however, is too interested in both viewpoints to caricature either, and the result is a genuinely unsentimental empathy that gives his narrative its real propulsive force.
The author comes by his stance from an interesting angle. His father, David Berlinski, is a well-known analytic philosopher and mathematician who wrote a bestselling history of calculus, among other books. The younger Berlinski, in fact, worked as his father's research assistant on a rather remarkable history of astrology, "The Secrets of the Vaulted Sky."
That book was notable not only for its erudition but also for the author's characterization of astrology as "a failed science" rather than mere fortunetelling — one that helped form the view of the universe from Thomas Aquinas in the High Middle Ages to Isaac Newton at the dawning of modern physics.
In his book, David Berlinski argues rather elegantly — if not entirely convincingly — that parts of contemporary science are themselves hardly free of magical thinking.
More recently, the elder Berlinski has become a severe public critic of Darwinism and one of the scant handful of non-evangelical Christian advocates for the theory of intelligent design. Clearly, there's more than a touch of the heretic's audacity in the son's intellectual DNA. It lends his novel a fearless generosity of spirit that refuses to take a side — save that of his characters' flawed and questing humanity.
"Fieldwork" is a notable piece of first fiction — at once deeply serious about questions of consequence and refreshingly mindful of traditional storytelling conventions.
If his narrative sometimes bumps against a young writer's impulse to tell you everything he knows, it's a forgivable shortcoming, particularly when stacked against this novel's admirable strengths.
By Gabrielle Danchick
February 18, 2007 -- Lovers of backpacker lit - a growing genre that encompasses Alex Garland's "The Beach," Katy Gardner's "Losing Gemma" and Scott Landers' "Coswell's Guide to Tambralinga" - will fervently thumb through "Fieldwork," the rich and scholarly literary debut by Mischa Berlinski.
Often, such novels are based on a Western protagonist forever transformed by a transcendent experience in the Far East, and left with a more enlightened but cynical outlook on the world. "Fieldwork" does involve a life-altering experience abroad, just not in the obvious way. It's more along the lines of Conrad's "Heart of Darkness."
Here, you'll trek inland, beyond dingy guesthouses and creepy brothels into the thick of the Golden Triangle, among northern Thailand hill-tribe villages - the land of bizarre rituals, sexual taboos and demon possessions. And your stay stretches much longer than a summerlong jaunt.
"Fieldwork"'s narrator is a freelance journalist who shares the author's name and tags along when his girlfriend takes a teaching job in the northern Thailand city of Chiang Mai. A year later, Mischa gets a tip from an American expat that Martiya van der Leun, an American anthropologist, has recently committed suicide at Chiang Mai Central Prison, where she had been serving a 50-year murder sentence. Prior to her incarceration, Martiya had lived in a tiny village near the Burmese border for several years.
Thus begins Mischa's obsessive journey to flesh out the lives of Martiya, her victim and how the two ultimately collided. The dead Martiya is our elusive Kurtz, albeit with her own beautiful and dark idiosyncrasies. And similar themes from Conrad's classic are addressed as well, such as colonialism (in the form of Tang-drinking Christian missionaries), interactions between Westerners and indigenes (portrayed as the credible but entirely fictitious Dyalo), inhumanity, spirituality and eco-tastrophe.
The real Berlinski dexterously handles it all, with artistry, research, confident prose and humor. Readers might feel that "Fieldwork" could deliver a stronger punch if there were more of an emotional connection between Mischa and Martiya. After all, why is he so driven to tell her story? And what does Mischa discover in the end other than the answer to the riddle of a crime? Perhaps, if Berlinski had given his hero a fictional name, he might have taken more creative license to plumb even greater depths. He's certainly capable of it.
San Francisco Chronicle
By Kevin Smokler
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..
Kirkus Reviews (Starred Review)
A journalist investigates the suicide of an American anthropologist serving time for murder in a Thai jail. Mischa and Rachel are a young, bored, American couple who decide, upon college graduation, to move to northern Thailand, where Rachel accepts a job teaching first grade in Chiang Mai and Mischa pieces together enough freelance journalism gigs to make a living. But Mischa's focus changes when another wanderlust American tips him off to the riveting story of Martiya van der Leun, a middle-aged anthropologist who overdosed on opium while serving a murder sentence in Chiang Mai's women's prison. Mischa has almost no information about the crime, and leads on Martiya's life seem scarce, but he pursues the story with an anthropological fervor-one that he soon learns would have made Martiya proud. He follows Martiya's life from her childhood in an Indonesian village to her teenage years in California to her career in Thailand, where she began as a field researcher studying the Dyalo people. Slowly he uncovers important puzzle pieces, learning most notably that Martiya's murder victim was David Walker, a fourth-generation American missionary from a family of Dyalo experts, and that what had began for Martiya as an academic project with the Dyalo eventually became for her an obsessive way of life. As Mischa integrates himself into the facets of Martiya's story, he becomes as consumed with it as she had become with the Dyalo, and when Rachel returns to America at the end of the year, Mischa finds that he cannot leave. Berlinski's methodical account of the factors that led a rational intellectual to commit such a heinous crime is air-tight and intensely gripping. But equally notable is hisability to conjure such an elaborate portrait of the fictional Dyalo, and his treatment of both religious missionary and anthropological fieldwork is subtle and insightful. Impeccable research and a juicy, intricate plot pay off in this perfectly executed debut.
The Barnes & Noble Review from Discover Great New Writers
Berlinski's mesmerizing first novel blurs the line between fact and fiction. A young American couple living the expatriate life in Thailand, Mischa and Rachel struggle to keep one step ahead of insolvency. Rachel works as a first-grade teacher; Mischa is a freelance journalist. When they meet up with a bibulous fellow expat who regales Mischa with the tale of a mysterious California anthropologist -- Martiya van der Leun, who recently committed suicide while serving out a prison term for murder -- the plot takes an ominous turn.
Unable to get Martiya's story out of his head, Mischa digs up some of her work, which is brilliant, and becomes obsessed with telling her story. As a field worker with the remote Dyalo tribe, Martiya lived among her subjects, adopting their ways and falling deeply in love with a Dyalo man. As it turns out, the murder victim was also a Dyalo expert, albeit with a very different mission.
Mischa's fascination with Martiya takes him from the halls of academia in Berkeley to the hill tribes of Thailand, vividly recounting the mores, taboos, and religious and sexual rites of both worlds, as well as Martiya's increasingly desperate attempts to reconcile them. A beautiful and credible craftsman, Berlinski is a sublime writer who has woven a complex plot with a diverse cast into an exceptional novel of wit, charm, and real intelligence. (Spring 2007 Selection)
Part of the charm of Berlinski's first novel is that he has accomplished what many educators have struggled to do for years-to turn a seemingly dull academic subject into a riveting read. The cleverly plotted story focuses on Martiya van der Leun, who has committed suicide in a Thai women's prison, where she was serving a 50-year sentence for murdering an American missionary. A young farang (white and foreign) journalist named Mischa Berlinski learns that Martiya was an American anthropologist who for years lived with a tribe called the Dyalos to study its mysterious culture. Mischa finds Martiya's story-and exactly why she committed the crime-so oddly compelling that he dedicates his life to understanding Martiya's fate. He becomes so involved, in fact, that he winds up sacrificing badly needed income and the relationship with his longtime girlfriend. Berlinski the novelist manages to inject just enough arcane information about tribal Thai culture to be informative but not tedious, all the while employing an admirably lighthearted sense of humor. Recommended for most general fiction collections. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 11/15/06.]-Kevin Greczek, Hamilton, NJ Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
"Mischa Berlinski brings a wealth of vivid detail to his narrative, and writes with real authority. FIELDWORK is as fascinating as an ethnographer's private journal, as entertaining as a finely plotted thriller."
— John Wray, author of Canaan's Tongue
"The West has long equated exotic peoples with the dark and the wild. It is the strength of Mischa Berlinski's novel to chart those elements in the heart of the anthropology that seeks to explore them. He turns received ideas on their heads, for he makes us unsure about the things we thought we knew while showing us truths that we like to hide from ourselves."
— Nigel Barley, author of The Innocent Anthropologist