Fieldwork: A Novel

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9780374299163: Fieldwork: A Novel

A daring, spellbinding tale of anthropologists, missionaries, demon possession, sexual taboos, murder, and an obsessed young reporter named Mischa Berlinski

When his girlfriend takes a job as a schoolteacher in northern Thailand, Mischa Berlinski goes along for the ride, working as little as possible for one of Thailand’s English-language newspapers. One evening a fellow expatriate tips him off to a story. A charismatic American anthropologist, Martiya van der Leun, has been found dead a suicide in the Thai prison where she was serving a fifty-year sentence for murder.

Motivated first by simple curiosity, then by deeper and more mysterious feelings, Mischa searches relentlessly to discover the details of Martiya’s crime. His search leads him to the origins of modern anthropology and into the family history of Martiya’s victim, a brilliant young missionary whose grandparents left Oklahoma to preach the Word in the 1920s and never went back. Finally, Mischa’s obssession takes him into the world of the Thai hill tribes, whose way of life becomes a battleground for two competing, and utterly American, ways of looking at the world.

Vivid, passionate, funny, deeply researched, and page-turningly plotted, Fieldwork is a novel about fascination and taboo scientific, religious, and sexual. It announces an assured and captivating new voice in American fiction. Mischa Berlinski was born in New York in 1973. He studied classics at the University of California at Berkeley and at Columbia University. He has worked as a journalist in Thailand. He lives in Rome. A National Book Award FinalistThe New York Magazine Best Debut of the YearA Los Angeles Times Favorite Book of the YearA San Francisco Chronicle Notable Book of the YearA Chicago Tribune Favorite Book of the YearA Seattle Times Favorite Book of the YearA Christian Science Monitor Best Book of the YearA Library Journal  Best Book of the YearA Kirkus Review Top 10 Book of the Year When his girlfriend takes a job as a schoolteacher in northern Thailand, Mischa Berlinski goes along for the ride, working as little as possible for one of Thailand’s English-language newspapers. One evening a fellow expatriate tips him off to a story. A charismatic American anthropologist, Martiya van der Leun, has been found dead a suicide in the Thai prison where she was serving a fifty-year sentence for murder.

Motivated first by simple curiosity, then by deeper and more mysterious feelings, Mischa searches relentlessly to discover the details of Martiya’s crime. His search leads him to the origins of modern anthropology and into the family history of Martiya’s victim, a brilliant young missionary whose grandparents left Oklahoma to preach the Word in the 1920s and never went back. Finally, Mischa’s obssession takes him into the world of the Thai hill tribes, whose way of life becomes a battleground for two competing, and utterly American, ways of looking at the world.

Vivid, passionate, funny, deeply researched, and page-turningly plotted, Fieldwork is a novel about fascination and taboo scientific, religious, and sexual. It announces an assured and captivating new voice in American fiction. "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 "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 his ability 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." Kirkus Reviews "A fictional version of the author serves as the narrator of Berlinski's . . . thriller set in Thailand. Mischa Berlinski, a reporter who's moved to northern Thailand to be with his schoolteacher girlfriend, Rachel, hears from his friend Josh about the suicide of Martiya van der Leun, an American anthropologist, in a Thai jail, where she was serving 50 years for murder. As Mischa begins to investigate Martiya's life and supposed crimes, he becomes increasingly obsessed with the woman . . . Berlinski, who has been a journalist in Thailand, vividly portrays the exotic setting and brings depth and nuance to his depictions of the Thais . . . a lean, interesting tale about, among many other things, the differences between modern and tribal cultures." Publishers Weekly

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About the Author:

Mischa Berlinski was born in New York in 1973. He studied classics at the University of California at Berkeley and at Columbia University. He has worked as a journalist in Thailand. He lives in Rome.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter One GOOD GOD, NO”WHEN HE WAS A YEAR out of Brown, my friend Josh O’Connor won a Thai beach vacation in a lottery in a bar. He spent two weeks on Ko Samui, decided that Thailand was home, and never left. That was at least ten years ago, and since then, Josh has done just about every sort of odd job a foreigner in Thailand can do: He taught English for a while, and was part owner of a nightclub in Phuket. He was a stringer for one of the wire agencies, and he took a few photos now and again for Agence France-Presse. Josh played the trumpet in the marching band in high school, and he parlayed the experience into a few years as the frontman for a Thai ska band called the King’s Men. He founded a dating agency. He worked for a time for an environmental group attempting to stop construction of a large dam across the Mekong, and when the effort failed, he wrote publicity materials for a cement exporter. He hinted that many years ago, in a moment of real financial desperation, he smuggled a pound of hashish in his belly back to the States. I’m not sure that I entirely believe the story, but it was consistent with everything I know about Josh. Yet to see him, one would have no idea of his adventurous spirit: he was neither tall nor short but decidedly round; he was chubby-cheeked, curly-haired, and round-nosed, with bulging eyes and an oversized head. He had thick lips and a gap between his two front teeth which whistled very slightly when he spoke and made his speech nervous and breathy. His body was pear-shaped, with an enormous, protruding posterior: when he walked, he waddled like a duck; and when he laughed, as he did often, his whole body shook. I’m attractive,” Josh once told me, to a lady who likes herself a big man.” As it happened, there were a lot of little Thai ladies who did like themselves a big man, and Josh was never lonely. He was one of the happiest men I’ve ever met. It was Josh’s conceit that he could order a meal better than any other farang in the kingdom.I first met Josh when I was on vacation just out of college and backpacking through Malaysia and Indonesia, long before Rachel and I moved to Thailand. Josh and I were staying at the same hotel in Penang. He was on a visa run, down from Bangkok. Within about five minutes of spotting me in the hotel bar, Josh had sat himself down next to me and, in admirably direct fashion, informed me of his plans to start a pornographic production company in Vietnam. He had the funding, he said, contacts in the government, and an unbelievable star. These plans, like so many Josh O’Connor plans, eventually came to nothing, but his account was sufficiently compelling that whenever I’m in Bangkok, I always give him a call.Now I was down from Chiang Mai, writing an article for a Singaporean arts magazine about an up-and-coming Thai sculptor, and Josh and I agreed to meet just after sundown in front of the Ratchawat market. I spent a long, sultry afternoon teasing a few good quotations out of my sculptor; then, just as the streetlights across Bangkok were flickering on, a motorcycle taxi deposited me in front of the 7-Eleven opposite the market, where Josh was already waiting for me, a goofy smile on his chubby face.Plastic tables packed the narrow sidewalk. The sting of frying chili peppers made my eyes water, and from the market, now closing for the day, the sweet smells of jasmine, lilies, incense, and lemongrass mingled with the smells of rotting fish, molding durian, sweat, car exhaust, and garbage. On the corner, two competing noodle men served up bowls of guoy tieo in a ginger-and-coriander sauce; a little farther down the road, the curry lady had set up shop with huge vats of green curry and red, a jungle curry, a panang curry, and a spicy fish soup. A pretty girl cut up fresh mangoes and served them over sticky rice in a coconut sauce. There was somebody who grilled skewers of chicken over a small open flame and which he served with a peanut sauce.But we were there for the fish family. All of the other vendors were ordinary, Josh said, nothing special, run-of-the-mill, the kind of stuff you’d find outside the market of any two-bit town from Isaan to the Malay border. But the fish lady and family, boy howdy, they were something else. The prime minister’s nephew told me about this place,” Josh said, gesturing at the fish stall. Rows of silvery fish sprawled on a bed of ice, black-eyed, rainbow-gilled, and healthy-looking, as if they had just swum up minutes ago and were only resting; and below them massed ranks of clams, mussels, oysters, and ominous black anemones. It’s better than the Oriental Hotel.”We sat down, and Josh ordered for us. Twice our waiter walked away from the table, and twice Josh called him back to order still more food. Josh was at ease in his domain, leaning back in his chair like a pasha. It was August, the trailing end of the rainy season, when everything oozes. Josh pulled a piece of toilet paper from the roll on the table and gently blotted his face and hands, then opened his satchel and pulled out a half-empty bottle of Johnny Walker Black.Josh was a natural raconteur, but he wasn’t much for the old give-and-take of normal conversation: he asked after my day and listened to my reply with a distracted air, nodding occasionally, until he could be patient no longer. That’s just great,” he interrupted. He took another slurp from his drink. You know, I’m glad you’re in town. I need someone who really knows the up-country.”This was Josh’s subtle way of forming a segue from conversation to monologue: in all his years in Thailand, Josh had come to know the north far better than I did. There was hardly a corner of the kingdom that Josh didn’t know, where he wouldn’t be greeted by the abbot of the Buddhist temple or by the madam of the best bordello with a huge smile.I waited to hear what Josh had to say. He paused for a second, as if gathering his strength. He leaned his heavy forearms on the plastic table. He pouted his heavy lips and flared his nostrils. He strained his round neck from side to side. Then he launched his story. There is no other way to describe it: a Josh O’Connor story is like a giant cruise ship leaving port, and when you make a dinner date with Josh O’Connor, you know in advance that you are going to set sail. It’s part of the deal. It’s a design feature, not a bug.
Do you remember Wim DeKlerk?” Josh began.He didn’t wait for me to reply. In any case, I did remember Wim: he was a functionary at the Dutch embassy, and a drinking buddy of Josh’s. The last time I was in Bangkok, I took Josh and Wim home from Royal City Avenue in a taxi, both of them singing Steely Dan songs at the top of their lungs. They were celebrating a stock tip that Josh had passed on to Wim from the prime minister’s nephew. Apparently, Wim had made a killing. Well, about a year ago, I got a call from Wim. Some lady in Holland had called him, asking if he knew anybody who would go and visit her niece up at Chiang Mai Central Prison. This woman the niece, not the lady in Holland, the niece is named Martiya, her aunt is Elena, both of them are van der Leun, are you following all this? her uncle had just died, and the niece, Martiya, has inherited some money. Wim tells me the aunt wants somebody to go up there and take care of the details, you know, look this Martiya in the eye, explain what happened, make sure she understands everything. The aunt is about a zillion years old, doesn’t want to travel, the niece won’t reply to her letters, so she wants somebody to take care of this in person. Wim asks if I want to do it.”The story didn’t surprise me: I remembered Wim telling me about his job at the embassy. Every day, he had told me, a worried parent called him from Amsterdam looking for a detective to help track down a child lost in the island rave culture; or a textile importer from Utrecht would call, asking him to recommend a crackerjack accountant to go over a potential business partner’s books. Offering advice to Dutch people on how to get things done in Thailand was his specialty. Once, he told me, he had even helped a circus in Maastricht get an export permit for an elephant. Of course I said yes,” Josh said.That’s why I always call Josh when I’m in Bangkok. Things like this really happen to him. So I give this woman in Holland a buzz before I go up to Chiang Mai,” Josh continued. She doesn’t know anything. Last time she saw her niece, the niece was a little girl. Hadn’t spoken to her in years. She hadn’t gotten a letter from her in over ten years, not since she went to prison. In any case, she was from a distant branch of the van der Leun family. The niece grew up in California, had been there since she was little and was now an American. Before she went to jail, she lived in a village out near the Burmese border. You know that area? Southeast of Mae Hong Son?” Not really,” I said. Nobody lives out there but the tigers. What was she doing out there? The aunt in Holland, she doesn’t know. I figure she’s one of those kids, got caught up in drug smuggling. How long was she up there?’ I ask. Turns out the niece’s been in Thailand since forever. Maybe since the seventies. And she’s no kid, the woman’s over fifty years old. Strange, I think. When’s your niece getting out of prison?’ I ask. Long pause on the phone. Fifty years,’ the aunt says. So what’s your niece doing in prison?’ Long pause on the phone. Like she doesn’t want to tell me. She is a murderer,’ the woman finally says, in a...

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