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Fieldwork’s fictions


It is I who will describe them or create them, wrote Malinowski in his Trobriand diary. That unsettling, vainglorious remark – a prescient glimpse of the postmodern minus the irony – has probably occurred in an idle moment to most fieldworkers. The wonderful thing, of course, is that Malinowski, pioneer ethnographer and admirer of Conrad, did create them. So, in different ways and to less effect, did later visitors such as Annette Weiner, H.A. Powell and the rest. But Malinowski planted the flag. The mythical titles (never matched), the stiff Victorian photographs, the unruly mass of detail together compose what we think of as Trobriand Society. Never mind that somewhere, off the shelf, the real thing persists – satisfying Basic Needs, functionally hanging together (or not), contradicting print. Whatever Kiriwina, in all its disorderly exuberance, amounts to now, Malinowski’s creation has its own durable reality. His Trobrianders, with their reckonings of profit and prestige, their armshells and Afro hairdos are there for all time. So, pre-eminently, is the author himself.

Others have taken poetic licence – an economy with the facts – a good deal further. Rodney Needham’s Exemplars tells the story of the scholarly con-man Psalmanaazaar who wrote a bogus ethnography of Formosa without ever having set foot on that large island in the South China Sea. Needham asks how far it is possible to dream up a society from scratch; whether certain universal features or archetypes must emerge in the process, making fact of fiction; and whether invention, in any case, is ever more than reinvention. The Teachings of Don Juan plunders Zen in the Art of Archery, which in turns borrows from Lichtenberg’s aphorisms and the Zen masters. Behind Castaneda lies Herrigel, and behind Herrigel Suzuki, like the Kwakiutl mask within a mask within a mask that Needham’s argument uses as a brilliant foil.

The lie, to be effective, must contain a grain of truth. But what is the truth? Some years ago at a job interview, in response to the question What next? I foolishly mentioned a plan to write an unconventional ethnography that would use the narrative techniques of fiction. The interviewer, a senior figure in British anthropology, came back at me gravely with the question, ‘Can the artist, as Picasso said, deceive to tell a truth?’ I must have got the answer wrong. But which truth, I later wondered, was he talking about? Truth to the facts or truth to the story? Can an ethnography, like Picasso’s objets trouvés, serve an altogether different purpose, a different truth? Can the ethnographic bicycle saddle become the fictional bull’s head? The answer, it now appears, is yes. For if we have had realism (Argonauts), ethnographic fraud (the Formosans), and ethno-allegory (Gulliver’s Travels; Huxley’s Island, which is very like Java), now, with Mischa Berlinski’s Fieldwork, we have something altogether new: a fiction whose meaning depends on a plausible, realist account of a non-existent tribe.


The narrator’s name is Mischa Berlinski who, like his creator, works or once worked as a journalist in Thailand. A large author photo on the inside flap reminds us that Berlinski or his avatar is, like Malinowski, very much there in the story, down from the verandah, rubbing shoulders with the natives. But no further clues or identifications can be found in the blurb and anthropological readers will constantly be asking themselves, How did he know that? or Did he do that? Or, indeed, Who is that?

The novel unravels a complicated tale of how an anthropological student of mixed background becomes entangled in the longer story of American missionaries among the hill tribes of Thailand. All the narrator is given to know is that the anthropologist murdered one of the missionaries and died in a Thai prison: his job is to find out why. So far, so straightforward. But the reader – at least one with an inkling of anthropology – is nagged by doubts. How true to the conversion of the hill tribes is this account? Are the Dyalo (the author’s made-up tribe) the Lisu, the Akha, or a composite? On whose experience is that of the doomed heroine based? Is her American anthropology professor, a grizzled warrior who bears the scars of spear-fights and lectures wearing only a penis-sheath, a stand-in for a real person? (Older readers will have their candidates.) Do the footnotes refer to real or imaginary people? On a point of information, the narrator inserts a note thanking relatives of his fictional missionaries as well as a certain Gertrude Morse, whose unlikely-sounding autobiography, The Dogs May Bark, but the Caravan Moves On, is acknowledged as a source. A quick internet search reveals The Dogs to be a genuine missionary memoir. (The Dogs of Peace might have been a better title.) Intriguingly, informs us that ‘customers who bought this book also bought’ The Innocent Anthropologist by Nigel Barley, who is thanked by Berlinski for inspiration and who returns the compliment on the cover. Berlinski-Morse-Barley-Berlinski. Small world.

The game of hide and seek with the truth, the blurring of fact and fiction, can be funny or irritating, depending on how it’s done. Paul Theroux’s beguiling My Other Life, which retraces roads not taken in the author’s career, teases the reader by bringing in real people he may have encountered and imagining alternative outcomes. (“This is the story of a life I could have lived had things been different.”) Berlinski plays the game well, so well that the anthropological reader is bound to be sidetracked from the plot. Details that the innocent reader will swallow without thought, the not-so-innocent anthropologist is bound to question. Each new fictional revelation is a temptation to leave the enclosed world of the novel for the jungles of internet research.

The frame story of the homonymous author-narrator in quest of another story is a well-established narrative device, deployed to great success in recent books like Javier Cercas’s Soldiers of Salamis. It works particularly well with revisionist ‘true stories’ like Cercas’s Spanish Civil War and creates a kind of enhanced realism, a merry-go-round of illusions, a factual (pardon the pun) circus. By calling our bluff, forcing us into the position of the naïve reader who cannot take fiction as fiction but must hanker after fact, it leads us to doubt the solidity of the real. Perhaps such literary puzzles shouldn’t be taken too seriously: what these books promise, first of all – unlike, presumably, the ethnographies and histories they shadow – is entertainment. And as if to warn off code-breakers and pedants, fiction of this kind often comes with the subtitle or health warning A novel, lest we mistake it for the real thing. Such is the case with Fieldwork.

But I couldn’t read this book without my anthropological hat on. You can’t unlearn what you know, unwind your years in the field, recover your lost innocence. As I turned the pages, at first dutifully, then with quickening pace, I couldn’t imagine whether the average reader would be gripped or bored by Berlinski’s excursus on Malinowski (his heroine’s hero), or would skim the ethnographic detail, the imponderabilia of life among the Dyalo. All I can report is that I was mildly interested in the narrator’s personal story, a little more diverted by the missionary travails, and then suddenly – and against professional expectation – absorbed by the fieldwork at the heart of Fieldwork.


The frame story is as familiar to anthropology as it is to the novel. Nearly every traditional ethnography is cast in this form. (Nowadays we no longer know where the frame ends: like Tristram Shandy, it’s all frame.) By placing herself in the scene – struggling with language, falling sick among the natives – the ethnographer, like the novelist, establishes narrative viewpoint and comes clean about what can be known. Think of Evans-Pritchard bickering in the tent with his Nuer, Geertz scarpering from Balinese police, or Firth’s iconic beach encounter with the Tikopia chief. The immortal lines with which Malinowski opens Argonauts of the Western Pacific: ‘Imagine yourself suddenly set down, surrounded by all your gear, alone on a tropical beach, close to a native village…’ obey a standard literary convention – as true to the form if not the spirit of his beloved Heart of Darkness. (In style, as Geertz has pointed out, Firth’s scene-setting in We the Tikopia is even more Conradian, its language straight out of Lord Jim or Freya of the Seven Isles.)[1] Typically, the narrator – Malinowski, Conrad’s Marlow, Berlinski’s Berlinski – then stands out of the way, intruding only to dislodge narrative obstacles and nudge the story along. Too much of the narrator and – Shandy aside – we lose interest.

Framework established, Fieldwork is really about two stories, two thought-worlds, and how they fatally converge – though not, as you might imagine, in an East v. West or Primitive v. Modern allegory. The antagonists are a clan of American Protestant missionaries working in highland Burma/Thailand and a PhD student named Martiya who carries out fieldwork in the same region. The narrator’s quest is to uncover their separate stories and show how they came to collide.

Martiya’s backstory – her upbringing in Indonesia as daughter of a colonial linguist and a Malay aristocrat, her student days in California – is skillfully told through a series of interviews with aunts, friends and former lovers. In Berkeley, she takes up anthropology, which is presented nostalgically – this was the early Seventies – as a branch of counter-culture, its professors glamorous emissaries from other worlds. She goes to Thailand to investigate the Dyalo, wanting to put them on the map, to create them. But when she returns to post-hippy Berkeley, the old romantic vision of anthropology has faded. The new thing is fieldwork on factories or corporations or diamond mines. Romantic, desert-island fieldwork is as dead as, well, the Grateful Dead. Martiya does the academic stuff and finds it is not enough. Her formulaic knowledge is untrue to experience, too abstract and divorced from life to be personally satisfying, lacking impact in the thrusting professional world. She returns to the field and goes native, entering into ritual partnership with a Dyalo visiting husband. As among the Lisu, a Dyalo married couple may not collaborate in rice planting; unlike the Lisu, they solve the problem by exchanging partners with people from neighbouring villages. “Making Rice”, it happily turns out, means making love in the rice fields with your ritual partner, bringing the Spirit of Rice to the expectant earth. The mechanism of this institution (the dyal), its integration in the agricultural calendar and the ritual division of labour, is entrancingly depicted and convincing in its functional complexity, its kula-like centrality. (Berlinski, rightly I think, believes that every fledgling anthropologist hopes for a kula.) If it doesn’t exist, it could have, like those fragile marriage alliance structures that Levi-Strauss posits to make up the range of permutations, the span of human possibility.

The dyal is a brilliant invention. Only an anthropologist, you would think, could have invented it. In the acknowledgements Berlinski cites Paul Durrenberger’s book on Lisu religion which he modestly claims to have reread many times without understanding. I can’t find much of the Dyalo in Durrenberger’s excellent little book. Perhaps they are hiding somewhere in Sexual Inequality among the Lisu (also cited) by Otome Hutheesing, a remarkable woman who spent six years living among the Lisu and who was possibly a model for Martiya. Or are clues to be found in The Dogs May Bark?  I shall leave that hunt for others.

There are improbabilities (the communal tribal cooking hut, the sophisticated Dyalo cuisine) and a few inaccuracies (Malaya, not Malaysia, was the pre-Independence name; Jakarta, similarly, was Batavia; the author of The Golden Bough was not Sir James Frazier; academics don’t get paid for scholarly articles; swiddens look nothing like irrigated rice fields). But Berlinski’s imagination is nothing if not well-researched.


If Berlinski has scored an ethnographic first with his rice-marriage, he has also invented what, to my knowledge, is the first convincing fictional portrait of an ethnographer in the field (discounting fictionalized memoirs, like Bowen’s Return to Laughter or Katy Gardner’s Songs at the River’s Edge). Instead of the stock figure of fun (like the earnest female anthropologist in a Theroux story who marries a New Guinea tribesman), he has given us, imaginatively, a genuine taste of the fieldwork predicament: the fascination and boredom, the chafing moral adjustments, the addictive curiosity, the incremental risking of self. Any returning PhD student will recognize from Martiya’s fieldwork letters the sensory overload, the obsessive will-to-record (“When in doubt, count something”), the half-read pile of Great Literature, the proliferating lies about home, the mutual exploitation of host and guest, and the hopeless struggle for privacy. (Borrowings here from Jean Briggs [wrongly acknowledged as Kathy Briggs], who is parodied in the salutary tale told to Martiya’s fellow graduate students of Eskimo Kathy, frozen out of her host’s igloo.) What he doesn’t quite give us – but the same could be said of most ethnographies – is a sense of the Dyalo as ‘real’ persons with self-awareness and distinctive biographies; nor do we get a sense of how Dyalo relate to each other in human terms. Perhaps this cannot be imagined: like Jean Briggs, in or out of her igloo, you have to have been there to do it. So the basic question – what is it like to be Dyalo or Nuer – which begins most ethnographic quests and is routinely frustrated by methodology, remains unanswered in fiction as it is, mostly, in fact. Berlinski has great sport with Malinowski’s credo – ‘To grasp the native point of view, his relation to life, to realize his vision of his world’ – and extracts from this entertaining riff the book’s biggest laugh; but the credo is deflated not deconstructed in Martiya’s gradual realization that, in the conventional terms of the academic ethnography, it cannot be done.

It’s a long time before we get to the field and the fatal encounter between missionary and anthropologist. Some eighty pages are devoted to the evangelical world-view, the sprightly, smiling Midwestern optimists (or should that be pessimists? Are you among the damned or the saved?), their unaccountable belief in Dyalo spirits as agents of Satan, and so on. I wearied of the missionaries, as one does, and found myself clicking on Morse links which quickly led to a real clan of American evangelists who have lived for generations in the Thai hills spreading the Gospel according to the United Christian Missionary Society. A few more clicks and the Good News turns bad. Allegations of abuse and corruption appear with missionary mug shots on the website of the Akha Heritage Foundation ( which points out that ‘the Akha have the least rights in Thailand of any country [Akha are spread over several countries], and suffer the greatest level of abuse and imprisonment. Their culture is destroyed by US missionaries.’ Faced with this hidden world of drug wars, land confiscations and child abductions only an e-moment away, the story of Martiya’s battle with the forces of good seems a touch quaint.

But wait, I am forgetting that this is fiction…

On the cover of Fieldwork, with its blurry background of jungle, Nigel Barley praises the author for ‘showing us truths that we like to hide from ourselves.’ I found myself wondering whether this is the difference between ethnography-as-fiction and the plainer sort where truths come with footnotes and the only thing hidden is the personal cost in blood, sweat and tears. But no: too much anthropology in recent years has dwelt on the hidden truths (ours not theirs), the ethnography serving as blurry background for the writer’s discomfort. Less The Forest of Symbols than The Wood for the Trees or My Heart of Darkness. Something like that. What this fine novel reminds us is that the best stories, however you get there, are always about others.

On his website, which I resisted reading until the job was done, Berlinski confesses to a strange discovery, based on long acquaintance with both tribes. “In stark contrast to missionaries, who are down-to-earth, good-natured, humble people, anthropologists are really weird.” I couldn’t possibly comment.

  1. [1]Clifford Geertz, Works and Lives, Stanford University Press, 1988:13.

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