Saturday, August 21, 2010

Fieldwork by Mischa Berlinski (b. NY 1973) Picadore 2012

In the second tier of fiction being gobbled up by book clubs this summer, just below Steig Larsson' s Millenium Trilogy, is a new novel, Field Work by Mischa Berlinski (Amazon used price 1 cent -$20).

If you are one of those hide-bound vets who disdain looking at pages ahead of time, forget my well-meaning advice.

However to more curious and flexible readers, please consider peeking at two sections; pages 202-216 and 264-278, early on.


Predictably, these pages are about FOOD. More particularly rice. Beyond rice is personality, spiritual life, and survival. In essence, rice= life and these passages give us the entrance to that long corridor to the human heart, which may be viewed as a cultural organ.
The story unrolls in South East Asia, presumably near Chiang Mai in northern Thailand and in the densely wooded mountains nearby, in a tribal village populated by the Dyalo.

The tribe's name is fictitious but, the author explains, they live a life that is a mixture of traditions and behavior drawn from several other mountain tribes as well. And my own teaching experience and my books on Southeast Asia confirm this.

The principal characters involved are, of course, the Dyalo, an exotic and anthro-trained woman from Berkeley, CA, a missionary family of Captain Ahab stature
("You see, your animist or your Buddhist - they don't believe that they have a relationship with God. They don't know how to find Him. So their fundamental point of view in life, you see, is powerless). Numerous minor but memorable figures, academics and expatriates, embroider the narrative.

The novel reveals and entwines the narrative with
problems in cultural anthropology and linguistics (or history or any of the social sciences) as people struggle to the find the truth- truth as recorded and truth as we see or believe it.

Don't peek ahead too much. Read the novel in its entirety. It must be read and felt because it is the balance of rituals (e.g. the dyal, p. 265) and world views, poured, chapter after chapter, into their joined mutual receptors, that reveal the characters and YOU.

One note: In the past, teaching undergraduate courses in cultural anthropology allowed me some latitude to select unusual experiences for my students. I have often used fiction to excellent effect because some novels portray or evoke an affective presence that links textbook with real life: George R. Stewart's Earth Abides, Achebe's No Longer At Ease, Winterkill by Craig Lesley (1984), Michael Doris' Yellow Raft in Blue Water, Natachee Scott Momaday's House Made of Dawn and, years ago, When the Legends Die by Hal Borland.

And films have helped, too, like the Japanese food-centered comedy, Juzo
Itami's Tampopo (1985), and that serious summation of all culture change, Ridley Scott's Blade Runner (1982; Philip K. Dick, 1068).

Each one of these works have won wide recognition, are considered classics, and have accumulated multiple international prizes.

All have been written in the pursuit of understanding the human species and our cultures and then, of course, culture change, which is its only constant.

To give measure to my admiration, Berlinski was born the year in which I started graduate school and began to learn the terms and concepts that are packed into his first novel. So, he masters the essence, THE essence of anthropology and fiction all at once.

Bloody amazing!

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