Missionaries by Phil Kay
Published: 2020 Penguin Random House | Allen & Unwin | Canongate Genre: Historical fiction. War stories. Setting: Colombia South America,
- THE STORY:
- There are four main characters in this story which takes place in Colombia, South America. Lisette is an American journalist, who has gone to Colombia to report on the war on drugs. Mason is an American Special Forces medic in Colombia to liaise with the military. The other two characters are Colombians, Abel a former member of the paramilitary, and Juan, a high-ranking military officer. The first two thirds of this book tells the story of each of these characters, delving into their past experiences. The last part brings the characters together for the climax.
- “The great democratic public relies on the intrepid veracity of the free press to cut past the political rhetoric with hard-hitting fact so they can make informed decisions.”
- “There are two ways to think about severe wounds. One is the very smallness of the human body, pathetic even compared to other animals, and so easy to break beyond repair, so easy even with the most basic of tools, a rock is hard enough, and then to think of it in the midst of the sorts of things that happen in war, not just explosions sending earth and brick blossoming but weapons that work by strange inversions of pressure, collapse buildings from the inside, or concentrate force in small spaces that liquefy metal and send it shooting out through the air. The penetration of the human body is so easy it almost seems beside the point – such tools should be used for greater creatures than us. We are weak, we are fragile, and so, perhaps we are nothing. There is wonder in the world – the unbearable blackness in the sky in Afghanistan, its piercing stars, the vibrations of the guns, soundless light on the horizon, flashes like echoes, a moon rising over sharp blades of mountain while tracers carve lines into the night. But man himself is nothing. But the other way of thinking is the opposite. That the world itself is what is small. Mountains, stars, horizon, so much accumulation of rocks, dust, and an expanse of empty air. Meaningless without someone there to see it.”
- The Guardian: “In an Afterword, Klay alludes to the difficulty in stretching from stories to novels. But this sweeping, searing, wrenching and wise addition to the great literature of America’s postwar imperialism ends absolutely as mission accomplished.”
- Kirkus: “An unflinching and engrossing exploration of violence’s agonizing persistence… The challenge before any serious war novelist is to bring order to chaos without succumbing to a tidy narrative. It’s to Klay’s credit that he creates ambiguity not through atmospheric language or irony … but through careful psychological portraits that reveal how readily relationships grow complicated and how even good intentions come undone in the face of humanity’s urge to violence. That means plotlines get convoluted in the late stages, but the dispiriting conclusion is crystal clear: It’s not just that war is hell, but that war brings hellishness to everything.”
- LA Times: “Well worth the wait, “Missionaries” is(among its many virtues) a prime example of what can ideally follow a first great war book. Intricate and ambitious, it’s a rich network of converging stories in which the plot itself becomes the destiny of its characters. And the ceaseless engine driving it forward is American foreign policy, oriented as it always is toward the previous war. U.S. soldiers learned techniques in the Balkans that they deployed in Iraq, a system of targeted raids and assassinations on steroids that was easy to export to Colombia (and Yemen and on and on in the forever war).”
- MY THOUGHTS:
- The structure of this book is interesting, and although it involves some work for the reader, I think it succeeds in providing depth in the development of each main character. (The first two thirds of the book treats each character’s story separately, but not as a whole. Their stories are told in alternate chapters, in different time settings.) Lots of secondary characters and explanations of the political situation was, for me, distracting and unnecessary. Recommended for anyone who likes war stories with detailed graphic violence.
- AUTHOR: Phil Klay