Watching the Dyalo snipe and bicker had disabused Martiya of the naive notion that tribal peoples would live in peaceful harmony with one another, just as watching the villagers hack down virgin forest and set it on fire for their fields had disabused Martiya of the notion that the Dyalo would live in placid harmony with nature. But as an anthropologist, she couldn’t indulge in such diverting pleasures as blood quarrels. She needed to be a neutral Switzerland, an unencumbered Sweden.

There is an amusing moment in this novel when the father of a family of Christian missionaries, attempting the save the souls of a little-known (and entirely fictional) tribe called the Dyalo from ‘enslavement’, by their pagan deities and spirits, discovers that America is in thrall to a film called Star Wars. This seeming embrace of neo-paganism, in particular the significant phrase ‘May the Force be with you’, strikes him as a revolt against two thousand years of Christian tradition. He comes to this conclusion after reading an evangelical magazine titled ‘Christian Family Alert!’.

I suspect Mr Belinski and I were reading the same magazines sometime back in the eighties, for my grandmother had a subscription to a very similar publication which in turn memorably featured a hysterical broadside against the mystic mumbo-jumbo George Lucas served up in his space-opera/swashbuckler. I became alarmed at the thought that my enthusiasm for the adventures of Luke Skywalker and his friends was in fact a betrayal of my faith. In tears I confessed everything to my grandmother. She snorted in contempt and told me that I read too much.

On reflection, she was quite right, but sadly I never grew out of reading.

Berlinski’s astonishing debut began as an earnest anthropological study based upon his own experiences in Thailand as a journalist. Then slowly mutated into a fictional account of a different Mischa Berlinski, a journalist, in Thailand, who stumbles upon the remarkable life of a woman jailed for murder, who wrote an in-depth anthropological study while she was behind bars.

The story is in effect a murder mystery, albeit a post-modern one, with Berlinski-narrator seeking to explain the circumstances of Martiya van der Leun’s imprisonment. As his fascination with the mystery grows, his relationship with his own partner and any plans for a return to America to find a real career, raise a family, etcetera, begin to drift away.

A large section of the novel is concerned with the proselytising American family he meets in Chiang Mai and their history. The Walkers (a significant family name in American history) have for three generations preached the word of the gospel in Asia, only arriving in Thailand after being forcibly removed from China following the Communist Revolution. David Luke Walker (Berlinski perhaps setting up the Star Wars joke early on in the novel…) was the latest scion, a young man who was gifted with incredible charisma and charm, born to Dyalo culture. After all he had been born in the jungle. The narrator slowly worms his way into the trust of the clan to discover how Martiya van der Leun first met them – and then killed their favourite son under the influence of demons.

This novel manages to parallel the two Western intrusions into native culture quite ably. On the one hand the missionaries have arrived to rescue the Dyalo tribe from themselves; van der Leun comes to study them in their native habitat, hoping to interfere with their day-to-day lives as little as possible. The Walkers continually refer to America as ‘home’, despite only  David’s mother having spent more than eight months at a time there. They also euphemistically insist on referring to a person’s death as having been called ‘Home’. The apocalypse is on the horizon and it is their duty to save as many souls before the Rapture.

There is a wonderful moment when a teenage David, in a flash of rebellion, sneaks into a cinema to watch a screening of Blacula. Similar to Paul Schrader’s experience of encountering film for the first time as an adult, following a sheltered, religious upbringing, the young man is hooked by the silver screen and abandons his faith for a brief time, before his return to the jungle villages, where his fate waits along with Martiya. The scene is beautifully captured by Berlinski. Much of the novel carries a knowing insight into the minds of these characters.

A former manager recommended this book – I am very grateful. A wonderful debut.

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