Excerpt from Fieldwork by Mischa Berlinski, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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A Novel

by Mischa Berlinski

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  • First Published:
    Feb 2007, 336 pages
    Jan 2008, 336 pages

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“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.

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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