by Mischa Berlinski

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780312427467
Publisher: Picador
Publication date: 01/22/2008
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 368
Sales rank: 369,664
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Mischa Berlinski was born in New York in 1973. He studied classics at the University of California at Berkeley and Columbia College and has worked as a journalist in Thailand. Fieldwork is his first novel.

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A Novel
By Berlinski, Mischa

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 2007 Berlinski, Mischa
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780374299163

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 thicklips 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 thick Dutch accent. What do you say to that? I said, ‘Who’d she kill?’ Long pause on the phone. She doesn’t know. That’s all this Elena van der Leun can tell me. She wants me to go and tell her niece that her uncle is dead.”Josh paused as the waiter arrived at our table with a steaming cauldron of tam yam guum. The young waiter lit a paraffin candle under the tureen, and Josh served me and then himself. The soup was, as Josh had promised, delicious, delicately flavored with lime, cilantro, ginger, and lemongrass; the shrimp, which that very morning had been frolicking in the Gulf of Thailand, were huge and tender, with an explosive touch of sea salt. Josh ate the very hot soup with vigorous splashing movements of his spoon, and only when he had finished his first bowl and was reaching to refill it did he pick up the story again.Several weeks after his talk with Elena van der Leun, Josh found himself in the waiting room of Chiang Mai Central Prison. Josh told me that he had been in Chiang Mai for three or four days, enjoying the luxury of his expense account, before he finally steeled himself to the task at hand: Josh was a generous man, but he did not like to be presented too directly with the misery of others, a squeamishness which made him regret having accepted Wim’s offer. He had dreaded the visit, and day after day had done no more than note the location of the prison on the map, then distract himself from his unpleasant chore with a stiff drink, then another, after which the days dissolved into a blur. The morning of his prison visit, realizing that he could put off his errand no longer, he had awakened early and dressed himself neatly. He wore linen slacks and a white shirt, which when he left the hotel was crisply pressed but by the time he arrived at the prison was damp with sweat. A low sky like wet cement hid the hills which ring Chiang Mai.“Oh man, I did not want to be there,” Josh said. “I got out of that tuk-tuk, told the driver to wait for me, and it was like they were going to lock me up inside, that’s what I felt like. Like I was never going to get out of there. Bang! The first gate closes behind me. Bang! The second gate closes behind me. Bang! That’s the third gate.”Josh thumped hard on the table with every bang, and the other diners turned their heads.“You ever been in a Thai jail?” Josh asked.“No.”“The one here in Bangkok, it’s a real shithole,” Josh said knowingly. “Not a nice place. But this one in Chiang Mai, it wasn’t bad. It wasn’t what I expected.”Indeed, he said, the room in which the guards installed Josh could have been the waiting room for any provincial government ministry. Only the bars on the windows and the guard behind the heavy wooden desk betrayed the purpose of the place; that and a pervasive smell of urine and vomit. A large portrait of the king in full military regalia hung next to a clock whose loud ticks echoed through the room with impossible slowness. There were a half-dozen round metal tables, and at each table four plastic stools. Josh settled his tremendous bulk onto a stool much too small for a man of his size.“I was the only farang in the room,” Josh said. “There were just a couple of other people. A few hill-tribers, I don’t know, maybe they were Hmong, or Dyalo, I can never remember all the costumes. They had that scared look people down from the hills always have. I remember one of them asked me if I had a cigarette, so I gave him one. There was some guy with tattoos up and down his arms, Buddhist sutras—you know, the way the gangsters have. Scary-looking dude. And some women, Thai women, chatting with each other, but looking around like they didn’t want to be there. I guess nobody wants to be there.”Josh sat in the waiting room, which if not as horrible as he had imagined was certainly not cheerful, and reflected on the woman he was to meet. How was he to inform this stranger that her uncle was dead? Was this her last link to the world of the living? Josh wondered: What had brought Martiya van der Leun to this pass? A quick Internet search had revealed nothing about Martiya, and again, Josh thought it strange that anyone could have disappeared so thoroughly; even Josh, hidden as he was in Bangkok, turned up on the Internet if you Googled him, associated with articles he had written, photos he had taken, and the results of a couple of races he had run with the Hash House Harriers in much leaner days.In the dossier of papers which Elena van der Leun had sent Josh, there was a photograph of Martiya as a young woman. While he sat in the waiting room, Josh pulled the picture out of the dossier and looked it over. The photograph, the only one that Elena could provide, was almost a quarter century old. It showed a slender, small-breasted young woman holding a long knife and leaning over a birthday cake. She was of indeterminate ethnic origin: her cheekbones were high and Asian, but her long black hair was curly and fell over her shoulders and neck. She was not looking straight at the camera, but it was nevertheless possible to see that she had keen, mischievous eyes, light blue and enormously round. Her lips were full and red, and her skin china-pale. It was not a beautiful face, Josh said, but expressive, intelligent, and curious.“Do you still have the photo?” I interrupted.“I sent it back to the family,” he said. He refilled my drink, and his own.With thoughts of the woman he was to meet, Josh occupied a half hour until the prisoners were allowed to enter. Then the iron doors of the antechamber swung open, and one by one the women who had been waiting on the other side wandered into the room, where they paired themselves with their guests. In other Thai prisons, Josh knew, the prisoners would have been made to enter the room on their knees as a sign of humility, but not here. The first woman to walk into the room was no older than a girl, a delicate-featured girl who might have been pretty but for the bruises. Wearing light-blue cotton prison pajamas, she spotted the man with the tattoos and raised her hands to him in the traditional Thai bow and nodded slightly. Because he did not rise from his stool, as she approached his table she was forced to bend over to keep her head below his, as good manners demanded. Without a smile or a hint of tenderness, she sat beside him and the two began to talk. Then two women came out hand in hand. They regarded the waiting room with wary eyes. Josh heard a burst of speech in some alien language from the tribeswomen behind him, and the two prisoners replied in the same strange tongue. The visitors and the hosts embraced unabashedly and settled themselves on the plastic stools, sitting cross-legged. They spoke to one another in low, urgent voices.“She was the last one to come into the room,” Josh said. “I knew her from the photo—but she looked bad. I think she must have been in her middle fifties—she was my mom’s age. But this was an old woman.”Many years in the northern Thai sun had destroyed that delicate skin which Josh had admired in the picture. The dark hair had turned gray, and the once-sensual lips were cracked and thin. Yet the woman who approached Josh still had the faraway air of a handsome woman. She was not dressed in prison pajamas, like the others, but in a hand-woven tunic in the tribal style. She had white string tied tightly around each of her wrists; this was her only ornamentation. Martiya carried herself straight-backed and head-high. Josh had not expected such a small woman.Seeing Josh, and realizing quickly that he was the anonymous stranger who had summoned her from her cell, Martiya came over and sat down, not waiting for an invitation. Had he doubted the woman’s identity, her eyes would have resolved all doubts: How many women in a prison in northern Thailand could have had such striking blue eyes? She glowered at Josh, and Josh for once was at a loss for words under her intense stare.“Ms. van der Leun . . .” he finally said.The woman interrupted him straightaway. She spoke very slowly. “Christ, can’t you people just leave me alone?”Josh had prepared for this interview carefully, but this was not a reaction he had anticipated. He said, “Ms. van der Leun, I think you might have made a mistake.”Again, Martiya interrupted him. “I’m not the one who might have made the mistake here, buddy. You people are driving me nuts.” She looked at Josh with open contempt. She took in his large body, his damp shirt, his uncombed hair. “My God, you are disgusting,” she said.Josh looked at me. “I had figured she might have gone a little, you know, cuckoo, from her time in prison, or maybe she’d beg and plead with me to take her home. I’d already decided how to handle that. I was going to be gentle but firm, and give her the name of a friend of mine who’s a lawyer. But the way this woman was staring at me, I was pretty glad there was a table between us.”To Martiya, he said, “I’m sorry, but just who do you think I am?”“They sent you, didn’t they?”“They?”“You’re not a missionary?”Josh was not without a certain sense of irony, and suddenly the tension of the visit, the heat of the day, and now this furious but intensely proud little woman all seemed to him absurd. He began to laugh. He couldn’t help himself, he told me.“Oh no,” Josh said. “You got it all wrong, sister. I’m here to give you money.”He said this with such enthusiasm that Martiya smiled back, despite herself. She ran a hand through her gray hair. The fight left her. In a mildly embarrassed voice, she explained to Josh the source of her confusion. One of the evangelical societies working in the north of Thailand had conceived the project of converting the prisoners to Christianity. Who needed the Lord’s blessing more? Twice a year, every year for the last ten years, she had been summoned to the visiting room, only to find the same bearded, middle-aged man—“the same bozo,” she said—informing her that the Lord had forgiven her for her crimes and sins, if only she would accept Him. She had asked the missionaries to leave her alone, she said, but they were relentless. “I thought you were one of them.”Josh shook his head. “No,” he said.He had decided beforehand to be direct. He told her that her aunt, Elena van der Leun, had hired him, and that her uncle had died. Martiya had inherited some money, Josh said, and he was there to arrange the details of the bequest.Martiya was silent for a minute. She looked around the room. “I haven’t seen Uncle Otto since I was nine years old,” she said. “He knew how to ride a horse. He was a wonderful horseman. He promised he’d buy me a horse when I was twelve. I guess he just did.”Martiya sat quietly for a long while. She picked idly at the string tied around her right wrist. Then she spoke. The vast bulk of the money—not much by occidental standards, a small fortune in a Thai prison—was to be given to a charity which aided the hill tribes, the rest deposited in her prison bank account. Then, with all the authority of a corporate executive late for a tee time, rather than a prisoner condemned to life, Martiya rose from her seat and extended her hand. The appointment was over.Josh had one last thought. “Would you like me to call your lawyer?” he asked. “Money can change a lot of things here. Maybe he can . . .”Martiya smiled at Josh. “I can’t leave now. I’m only beginning to understand how it really works around here. And where would I go?”She thanked Josh for his time and walked back through the metal door into the dark prison hallway.Excerpted from Fieldwork by Mischa Berlinski. Copyright © 2007 by Mischa Berlinski. Published in February 2007 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.


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What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

"A really, really good story is exactly what Fieldwork is…. [A]n intoxicating journey filled with missing souls and vengeful spirits." —-Terry Hong, The Washington Post

Reading Group Guide

About this Guide

The following author biography and list of questions about Fieldwork are intended as resources to aid individual readers and book groups who would like to learn more about the author and this book. We hope that this guide will provide you a starting place for discussion, and suggest a variety of perspectives from which you might approach Fieldwork.

Discussion Questions

1. How does it affect your reading of the novel that the narrator's name is the same as the author's? Do you imagine them to be the same person?

2. "A child needs the happy family," Elena tells Mischa (pg. 23) in an attempt to describe why Martiya's life turned out as it did. "It is the base." Do you see a connection between Martiya's parents' marriage, the atmosphere in which she was raised, and her desire to immerse herself in the life of the Dyalo, or any of her other decisions as an adult?

3. How does it change the story to hear so much of Martiya's story from other characters? Do those who tell Mischa about Martiya—Tim Blair, for example, or Josh O' Connor—seem reliable to you? Why do you think the author chose to include them in the story, rather than just telling Martiya's story entirely from Mischa's perspective?

4. What was your opinion of the Walkers and their work among the Dyalo? Do you think they were helping the Dyalo, or interfering with their native culture? Did the book change your opinion of Christian missionary work, or your opinion of anthropology?

5. What do you think happens in David's mind at the moment he decides to return to his religious practice (pg. 170)? Do you think there is a connection between David's devotion to the Grateful Dead and his passion for Christianity and the mission?

6. What's your impression of Mischa, the narrator? Why do you think he becomes so obsessed with Martiya's story? How does his pursuit of the story change Mischa's own life and way of thinking over the course of the book?

7. Do you see any similarities between Mischa's relationship with Rachel, their life together in Thailand, and Martiya's relationship to the Dyalo and their village?

8. Why do you think the author includes the interlude about the anthropologist Malinowski? What does that story suggest to you about the difficulties and rewards of anthropology?

9. Do you see Martiya's conversion to a belief in Rice, her investment in the mystical elements of Dyalo life, as a conversion, a rational decision, or a departure from sanity? Do you think she went crazy, or just went native?

10. How do you interpret the book's epigraph? How do you think a belief in spirits like those the Dyalo fear differs from a belief in an all-powerful god?

11. Does the book suggest that there are any similarities between anthropology and missionary work? Do you think one or the other is more intrusive, or more beneficial? Which would you rather do, if you had to choose?

12. To what extent do you think David and Martiya were products of their upbringing? If each had been born into the other's family, do you think they would've followed more or less the same paths?

Customer Reviews

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Fieldwork 3.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 57 reviews.
Luke_Mauricio More than 1 year ago
This tale started so quietly, but Mischa Berlinski's meticulous research and intricately woven stories within stories; produced an impressive cast of characters --- and spirits that made this novel a compelling read. Berlinski's "fieldwork" is fictional and yet is so believable. At the heart of all this, is the struggle of an indigeneous tribe in the hinterlands of Thailand; to keep its way of life --- and their unlikely champion to preserve this way of life.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Beautifully done! A first novel? Hard to believe. Lush setting, interesting story, wonderful writing, good twist of an ending. Intelligent choice for a great summer read.
bmhowell More than 1 year ago
As an anthropologist who has studied Christians and missionaries in Southeast Asia (the theme of this book), I found this novel realistic, engaging, and fascinating. For anyone who has not been exposed to anthropology or missionaries, this would be a fascinating look at both those worlds. For anyone who has been exposed to these worlds, this novel is a wonderful exploration of both. I would recommend it to anyone.
Guest More than 1 year ago
The novel, Fieldwork, takes you into the world of missionaryies abroad and also into the science of anthropology, whose fieldwork requires complete immersion into the culture being studied. That missionaries try to change the culture abroad by introducing a new religion makes their goals antithetical to the scientists who observe and record cultural norms and beliefs and do not interfere with them. Martiya, the anthropology student, clashes with the Martin family of missionaries in northern Thailand, where they both work with one of the native hilltribes. She is accused of murdering David, a fourth generation missionary, and is jailed for life in Thailand. There is a mystery to be solved surrounding Martiya and her reason for killing the missionary, the story of which is told by a young American reporter who tracks down family members and friends of both parties to find the true story. Enjoyable as both a mystery of sorts and a study of Americans in the field, religious and scientific.
Palmprint More than 1 year ago
What I love about this book is that I had to read every word. There was no skimming paragraphs or even sentences. The details in the life of the native people were so complete. The missionaries were people. People with faults and gifts. Which made them all...real. It really seemed that these people and places existed. And the discussion at bookclub was lively and intellegent. Wonderful!!
Guest More than 1 year ago
I was so thoroughly engrossed in this story I forgot my family while reading this. My husband and son also became hooked on the story in my condensed narration of it on a daily basis. Nothing is predictable here as are so many American novels today. I truly loved this book. Berlinski is a genius here. Perfect pace. Really a perfect book.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is a very good first novel. The interwoven stories of contemporary expatriates, missionaries and anthropologists in Thailand make for an interesting read. If you are looking for a quickie beacd read, this isn't it. This novel really makes you think.
brenzi on LibraryThing 7 months ago
Very disturbing story of Martiya, an anthropologist who does her fieldwork for her doctoral thesis in a small village in northern Thailand. She becomes so charmed with this way of life that she returns to Thailand to live in her hut with the Dyalos. She ends up killing herself in a Thai prison where she is sent for murdering David Walker, missionary who converted her Dyalo lover and, therefore, changed his religion and her way of life. A reporter hears about her, visits her in prison and uncovers her story through other sources. Excellent gripping story.
angella.beshara on LibraryThing 8 months ago
I enjoyed this book but wasn't completely wowed by it. Berlinski's arguments in comparing a missionary and an anthropolgist's lives in rural Thailand were cogent without being didactic. The sense of place is beautifully constructed and the histories Berlinski weaves are engaging and authentic; details like David being disenfrachised with his father becase he watched Star Wars are nice. This is a strong novel and worth reading but I think the author gives too much emphasis to the "mystery" of why the murder happened when the motives are fairly obvious from the beginning. I was also a little disappointed that a chief motivation was because Martiya felt romantically jilted. All and all I think this novel succeeds as a literary meditation on travel, colonialism, and religion but fails as a mystery.
stonelaura on LibraryThing 8 months ago
I found this book very intriguing ¿ right up until the ending. The story is narrated by a character named Mischa Berlinski, which adds an almost off-putting note of odd realism to the story which involves the imprisonment of the anthropologist Martiya van der Leun for the murder of missionary David Walker, and Martiya¿s eventual suicide. That sounds all very somber but the story is wildly inventive, roaming from Sulawesi to Chang Mai to traipsing around America with a band of Deadheads. The story is contemplative and humorous, mysterious and enlightening. The narrator comes upon the story of Martiya and the van der Leun family by chance, as he¿s wiling away his time in northern Thailand while his wife teaches elementary school there. But as he researches their twisted histories he becomes so immersed in their lives, beliefs, and fates that their story soon consumes him. The settings are exotic and beautifully rendered and the daily life of the missionaries living for several generations among the natives is told with overlaying tones that are jaded, passionate, quirky, and very human. I was only disappointed in the final outcome ¿ Martiya¿s ultimate motivation, which, after all the realism and depth of the story seemed false and shallow to me.
mojomomma on LibraryThing 8 months ago
The clash between traditional culture and western culture results in a murder in the northern jungles of Thailand. This story is written from the POV of a journalist who stumbles upon the story and tries to figure out what happened several years before. Loved this!
dablackwood on LibraryThing 8 months ago
I loved reading this book. I learned a great deal about the work of a field anthropologist - the difficulties, the tedium, the isolation, and the joys. The author is also the narrator in the book. Sometimes I found that confusing. I also wondered how much was biographical but the author says the book is fiction and that, in fact, the tribal people studied, the Dyalo, are also fictional. I had to prove that to myself by looking them up on the internet. They seemed so real.The story came together very well. The death of David Walker, a young missionary, was explained finally and the reasons for Mitaya killing him were also explained. The plot was revealed in little pieces probably a lot like the bits and pieces of anthropological discoveries. It took much perseverance for Mischa to solve the mystery, but when it all came together it was satisfying.I'm impressed with this author. This was quite an amazing first book.
bcquinnsmom on LibraryThing 8 months ago
In an afterword to this novel, the author notes that at first he was going to write a nonfiction book about Christian missionary work among a Thai native tribe, but then changed his mind. I'm so glad he did. Fieldwork is one of those rare novels that comes along in which the quality of writing is simply exquisite. The story is good, well plotted and holds throughout the novel, and the thread of continuity never gets lost among the details. It's also obvious that the author did a great deal of research. His characterizations are vividly real and the story is utterly believable, and his sense of place is well established to the point where you can hear the birds and feel the oppressive heat of the jungle. Every so often, I had to keep reminding myself that this book was fiction.Expat American, young journalist Mischa Berlinski (yes, he uses his own name for the main character here), has come to Thailand with his girlfriend, a schoolteacher. A local character, another expat, comes to Mischa with a story about a woman named Martiya van der Leun, who came to Thailand some years back to study a hill tribe known as the Dyalo for her PhD work in Anthropology. It turns out that Martiya had been sentenced to fifty years in Chiang Mai prison for the murder of a Christian missionary, but Martiya had committed suicide while serving her term. Berlinski wants to know how this woman went from such a promising life and career to rotting in a Thai prison, and sets out to get her story. In the course of his own research, he delves into the lives of the missionaries, the Dyalo, Martiya's family, her friends & lovers, and her co-workers to try to understand what really happened. The book has been criticized by readers for many reasons -- the biggest one being that there's too much detail about the missionaries or about the Dyalo, and that the story gets bogged down, but I have to disagree. Just as Martiya felt she had to know things from the natives' point of view to really understand these people, the reader in this case won't really get the whole story without understanding the various factors that led up to the fateful moment that put Martiya behind the walls of Chiang Mai prison.I loved this book and I would recommend it to anyone who wants an extremely well-written and highly intelligent novel. Books like this one are rare, so you should grab the opportunity.
mkfriend on LibraryThing 8 months ago
While I was taken by the dichotomy of two worlds colliding--evangelical-missionaries & cultural anthropology--I was disappointed that the author did not seem to come to any conclusions. It was a a definite winner in terms of learning about Thailand and the indigenous (albeit made up) tribe that is the focal point of the book.
cbl_tn on LibraryThing 8 months ago
In this novel, freelance writer Mischa Berlinski (yes, the protagonist has the same name as the author) is living in Chiang Mai, Thailand. One day an acquaintance tells him about a woman he had recently met in a Thai prison. Martiya van der Leun, an anthropologist, had been in the women's prison for more than a decade after being convicted of the murder of American missionary David Walker. Martiya recently killed herself in the prison. Mischa's friend suggested that Mischa might be able to sell the story to a newspaper. No one seems to know anything about Martiya or why she committed this crime. Mischa spends the next year investigating the story, seeking people who knew the victim and/or his murderer. The book is largely a character study of Martiya van der Leun, and, to a lesser extent, David Walker and his missionary family.Martiya's character seemed more realistic to me than did David's and his family's. I am very familiar with both academics and missionaries. Martiya's academic career was believable. On the other hand, the missionaries seemed much more like the stereotypical religious zealots portrayed on television than like any of the many missionaries I know. The author carefully revealed layer after layer of Martiya's personality, and the motive for this seemingly unbelievable crime made sense. However, David Walker and the Walker family are almost as much of a mystery at the end of the book as they are at the beginning.
librarymeg on LibraryThing 8 months ago
When I started reading this book, I wasn't quite sure what to make of it. It states that it's a novel on the cover, but both the author and main character are named Mischa. Mischa the character is a journalist living in Thailand, and Mischa the author has worked as a journalist in Thailand. Add to that the first-person perspective, and this book feels very much like a true story. Nevertheless, it is fiction. It's a story about the country and the people of Thailand, about anthropology, about expatriate life in Asia, about missionary work, and about a mysterious murder and the elusive woman who committed it. The writing in this story has an immediacy to it that made me feel like all these people truly existed, and that if I got on a plane tomorrow I could visit Thailand and find Berlinski's imagined society of the Dyalo. I was compelled to keep reading in the hopes that I would discover the truth behind a passionate anthropologist's murder of a well-loved missionary. It made me interested to learn more about, and maybe visit, Thailand, an area of the world that has never appealed to me before. For me, Fieldwork was a unique reading experience. I felt like I was reading a great literary novel, an interesting piece of travel writing, a true crime narrative, and a history, all at the same time. I was taken off guard by how much I enjoyed the book, and would heartily recommend it to anyone who enjoys the categories I listed above.
jkepler on LibraryThing 8 months ago
This novel begins its tale with an anthropologist who is serving a life sentence in Thailand for murdering a missionary, and the rest of the book details the investigations of a curious freelance writer who seeks to discover exactly what happened.

The book provides a fascinating look at how evangelical missionaries and secular anthropologists differ in their understanding of and approach to pagan tribal peoples.

I enjoyed reading this page-turner.
auntmarge64 on LibraryThing 8 months ago
Mischa Berlinski, the eponymous narrator, is an American freelance journalist living abroad. He becomes fascinated by the mystery of an anthropologist living in tribal Thailand who murders a member of a Christian missionary family which has been working in Asia for four generations. Mischa spends a year piecing together the history of the missionaries and the life of the anthropologist, tracing how their stories finally, and fatally, became intertwined. The use of the author's own name for the narrator was initially confusing and awkward. But other than that misstep, this is fine writing and a fascinating tale of the conflicts in expectations between Westerners with their widely divergent goals and approaches and the subjects of their efforts.
bpompon on LibraryThing 8 months ago
Having not read a good mystery for a while, I thought this book might be a good choice. I've always enjoyed reading about other cultures and countries. In the beginning of the book, I kept flipping to the front cover. I could've sworn that I was also reading a memoir.The story line had me intrigued and I quickly read through the first half of the book. I then got a little bogged down with all of the anthropological descriptions. I wanted to read more about the murder.Over all, I thought it was a good story, maybe not a great story, but still worth reading.
msbaba on LibraryThing 8 months ago
Fieldwork, by Mischa Berlinski, is a fascinating literary hybrid¿part mystery novel, part fictionalized memoir, and part well-research (but completely fictionalized) cultural anthropology. The writing is outstanding¿easy and unadorned with lyrical touches that appear out of nowhere to delight and beguile. There is also a surprising amount of subtle humor that pops up unexpectedly throughout. The characters are spot-on perfect¿so utterly authentic that it¿s almost impossible to believe the author when he admits in the end notes that: ¿None of this stuff happened to anyone.¿I found this book absorbing, unique, and fascinating in just about every respect. What interested me most, was not the plot so much as it was the chance to immerse myself in a multitude of exotic new worlds¿worlds that I would never have experienced on my own. In this book, readers are invited inside many diverse worlds, in particular: the culture of evangelical Christian missionaries working with the hill tribes of Northern Thailand, the culture of worldwide present-day expatriates in Thailand, the culture of 1980s UC Berkeley Graduate School of Anthropology students, the culture of the fictional Thailand hill tribe of the Dyalos, and a number of other minor cultural experiences both historical and contemporary along the way. For me, the entire reading experience was like one entertaining intellectual armchair adventure ride! Briefly, the book tells the story of a female UC Berkeley-trained anthropologist, who murdered an evangelical Christian missionary around 1990 in the wilds of Northern Thailand. Before the murder, the anthropologist had been studying and living with a single Dyalo hill tribe for 15 years. The man she murdered spoke Dyalo like a native. He loved the Dyalo as if they were his own family because he was raised alongside them in China near the Thai border. As an infant and small child, his missionary parents raised him in an American-style home built with enormous difficulty in an isolated valley populated primarily by Dyalo tribesmen. The family had to flee to Thailand from their ¿Eden Valley¿ home in the 1950s when China expelled all foreigners. The missionary family moved to Northern Thailand. Eventually the anthropologist and the missionary crossed paths, and the murder took place. The anthropologist was tried and convicted for her crime. She served 15 years of a 50-year sentence in a Thai prison before taking her own life. An American expatriate freelance journalist living in present-day Thailand investigates the whole story and relates his findings to us. In a twist that may make some purists cringe, the author names his fictional narrator after himself. Thus, the novel takes on the quality of a memoir, albeit, a totally fictional one. Obviously, this is a book about clashing cultural values. To the author¿s great credit, he treats both sides with enormous humanity and understanding.Little by little over the course of this detailed novel, we learn about the precise circumstances surrounding the murder. In the end, all the physical pieces come together. But knowing the exact circumstances of the murder, however satisfying they are to know, is not what this book is all about. Once readers finishes this book, they will start pondering all the diverse global political, economic, social, psychological, religious, and ecological issues that the work stirs up. Somewhere in the middle of all those issues, each reader will come to terms with the underlying motivations behind the murder. So the plot is just the enticing thread that leads us toward and into a lot of major contemporary social issues. You have to love reading all three parts of this chimera¿the novel, the memoir, and the pseudo-nonfiction cultural anthropology¿or this book will fail to please you. At first, it wasn¿t easy getting used to reading this hybrid. For me, it was a wholly different type of reading experience, and I actually needed to adjust my normal reading patter
EBT1002 on LibraryThing 8 months ago
Mischa is on the path of a murderer. Martiya, a cultural anthropologist who lived with and tried to understand the Dyalo tribe in northern Burma/Thailand, murdered a missionary named David Walker. [Fieldwork] is the story of Mischa's pursuit of answers: why? and how did their paths cross? how did a promising but tortured anthropologist become a murderer and end up in a Thai prison? Berlinski tells a great story and effectively moves among the stories within the story. His narrator is always present, but he gracefully yields the first-person narrative stage to other, more central characters. This novel is part ethnohistory, part murder mystery, and part exploration of the impact of culture on who each of us is --- and how invisible our own culture is to us! Berlinski explores the visceral and unquestioning attachment humans have to their most fundamental cultural beliefs, those things that are "obvious" and absolute to each of us. He amusingly tells of Martiya's attempts to draw explanations for rituals and mores out of the Dyalo people --- and their circular answers that boil down to "we do it that way because it is our custom." And while exploring and appreciating another culture is articulated as a valuable and worthwhile endeavor, Berlinski suggests that true immersion --- becoming a member of another culture comes with potentially devastating (lethal!) risks. Thought-provoking, entertaining, and compassionate, this is a book worth reading.
SqueakyChu on LibraryThing 8 months ago
If this is Mischa Berlinski's debut novel, I'm going to need to stand in line for his oncoming novels. This one just blew me away!Fieldwork opens with an American journalist, oddly of the same name and religion (Jewish) as the author, who meets friend Josh O'Connor in Thailand, a country in which both are living and working at the time. Josh's request is that Mischa investigate the circumstances leading to the suicidal death of American anthropologist Martiya van der Leun. What was known was that she was a grad student working on a thesis about the Dyalo, a hill-tribe located in a rural area of northern Thailand. It was also known that, prior to her death, she had been incarcerated for ten years on a murder charge. Through meetings and interviews with people who knew Martiya, Mischa slowly oncovers the truth about her situation. What, at first to me as a reader, seemed a divergent track and one that involved learning about several generations of the Walkers, a missionary family also living among the Dyalo, turned out to be very important to understand how missionary work affects isolated groups of people.I was mesmerized by this tale. I'm not sure if it was because it involved cutural anthropology which, to me, is such a fascinating field or whether I was simply wondering how a Jewish man became involved investigating animism versus Christianity. In addition, the story reveals the fervor of an individual who engages in fieldwork or the "living with the tribe" experience of cultural anthropological study.For anyone interested in other cultures, this is an amazing story. It's really up to the reader to decide if the Dyalo were, in fact, an invented people or based upon true hill-tribe inhabitants of northern Thailand. In order to decide, though, you must first read this book!
bookweaver on LibraryThing 11 months ago
I'm not really sure how much of this book is nonfiction and how much of it is fiction; that's how deftly the author blends the two. Apparently this book did start out as an article, and somewhere along the way he decided to fictionalize his work. The story centers on an anthropologist and a family of missionaries who study/minister to the same ethnic group in Thailand. I think it's asking the question, how does on understand a culture without becoming part of the culture? When does that happen? How? It's also a darn good story that I found surprisingly riveting.
BeachWriter on LibraryThing 11 months ago
I bought this book almost on a whim. I had run across a review online that started with the words, "A good story well told." As it turned out, it was one of the best books I've read in a couple of years. Sadly, it's almost unknown. As Stephen King pointed out in an essay that compared the author to Robertson Davies, the publisher has done almost nothing to promote the book, and it hasn't been discovered by the general public. Too bad, because people who don't read it are missing a treat.
cdogzilla on LibraryThing 11 months ago
We're all doing fieldwork, whether we think of it that way or not; we're just so immersed in our culture that we notice it's quirks about as much as we notice the air we breathe. The idea of transplanting to another culture, to make a scientific study of it, and then turn that outsider's eye back around on one's own milieu is fascinating to think about; this novel tickles that fascination and had made we want to learn more about anthropology and the challenges facing anthropologists. Mr. Berlinski's prose is mostly breezy and readable. The characters are engaging. The mystery that drives the plot is just intriguing enough to make one care to stick around to the end to find out why the Martiya character killed the missionary. I enjoyed the subtle (and not-so-subtle, I'm looking at you Farts-A-Lot) humor, which put this novel comfortably in the "summer reading for those who can't abide useless techno-thrillers and formulaic murder mysteries" category.