Friday, June 06, 2008

At Play in the Fields of the Lord

This is a magnificent novel by Peter Matthiessen that I have just finished. Set in the jungles of South America, the story is about adversaries- the Protestant missionaries, and the merceneries who have been hired to exterminate the indigenous jungle people.
The novel excels particularly in two aspects- character study, and the intimate details of the vast, lush, mysterious jungle, (so much so that the jungle is a character in itself.) Take Hazel, the wife of the missionary Martin Quarrier. The portrayal of her slow descent into a mental breakdown is nothing short of brilliant. Then the enigmatic and unforgettable half-Cheyenne Indian, Lewis Moon, who embarks on a journey of life and death that is open to interpretation at the end. In fact, each and every character, including the Catholic priest Padre Xantes who pops up irritatingly at the Protestants, will remain etched in a reader's mind for a long, long time.
The descriptions of the jungle and its complex rhythms really have to be read to be believed. In fact, the novel as a whole is a work of such complexity and skill that I was blown away on many levels. Not to mention the mordant humor- without mercy shown to any of the parties- not the missionaries, the merceneries, or the Indians.
The story is dense and many-layered, so reading it requires full and intense concentration. On different levels, it has a different focus- each character's struggle with his or her motivations and desires, the overall subtle symbolism about evangelism/Western influence on ancient peoples, the questions of identity, relationships between men and women, the clash of different church ideologies, and many others.
At times I may have wavered, with the result that I became mildly confused, what with the many tribes of Indians, the names of rivers, and the motivations behind each plot twist. However, that was my fault- I would recommend this book to anyone who loves a challenging and intelligent read.
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