Top critical review
on 12 May 2017
Interesting - a book set in Thailand dealing with missionaries and anthropologists. That’s how it seemed. But…
I didn’t read the author’s notes until the end, when I learned he made up the tribal people he described in such detail. The highlands which run through northern Thailand, Burma, China, Tibet and onwards are home to numerous tribes. Would it have been so difficult to bring one of them to life?
The missionaries were unbelievable. We are still people with human virtues, failings, desires whether we try to proselytise our beliefs widely or not. Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible has the feel of reality to it whereas our wonderful Walkers and their angel-attuned ears do not.
A lot was made of Martiya’s ‘curiosity’ which began to burn and drive her to the point of insanity. As an anthropologist she began her fieldwork stunningly bored by the Dyalo people she studied, but persisted until finally set alight. Her slow fall into burning curiosity was compared with Malinowski’s earlier experience.
Although what Berlinski wrote about her possible anthropological studies was well done, it was done in such a way as to leave me fully aware of a novelist writing a novel, rather than allowing me to live Martiya’s experiences. He - for Berlinski is in his own novel as the investigator - sought information about Martiya through interviews and letters as Martiya herself is dead by the time he begins the investigation. And we are meant to believe that via this route we can know the weather conditions, the conversations she held with the tribal people, her own thoughts and feelings. It would have been far more believable if the author had left allowed Martiya to remain alive in her prison cell and to gradually tell her own story - coaxed from her by Berlinski bit by bit as he expanded his knowledge of her via those interviews and letters. Most of the dramatic story and its dramatic conclusion was told by Martiya’s guide/translator who visited her in prison some years before Berlinski turned up. So what we’re hearing is third hand and yet so unbelievably detailed.
But the biggest BUT is the lack of a political context in this book. Martiya was in northern Thailand highlands during and after the Vietnam war. We hear nothing of the refugees which must have been fleeing from Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. That part of the world is known as a refuge in painful times. We hear nothing of what the missionaries thought of their fellow Christians committing genocide nextdoor. We hear nothing of how the CIA and military organisations might have sought to use Americans who were familiar with local people and languages, and we hear nothing of how all this affected the tribal people.
This could have been a really interesting book, if only…