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Faith and reason in Thailand

Fieldwork A Novel Mischa Berlinski Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 320 pp., $24

February 07, 2007|Tim Rutten | Times Staff Writer

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."

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