Mary McCarthy’s “Cannibals and Missionaries”

The brilliant writer Mary McCarthy is perhaps too intellectual and acerbic for today’s American culture, though I would love to have read her take on it.   She is best-known for The Group, her best-selling 1963 novel about a group of women whose lives take different directions after graduating from Vassar in the 1930s. But my own favorite is Birds of America, her scathing satire of American innocence and hypocrisy with the funniest Thanksgiving scene ever.  

Her varied oeuvre, a mix of fiction, essays, and memoirs, fascinates me. This week I read McCarthy’s last novel, Cannibals and Missionaries, a  political novel about terrorism, published in 1979.  Forty years later, it is a powerful historical novel about liberals and terrorists, art and property, economics and class, mediation and violence.  It was billed as a thriller by the publisher, but it is really a psychological novel.  

In Cannibals and Missionaries, terrorists have targeted a small committee of liberals traveling  to Iran to investigate the reputed tortures in prisons in the Shah’s regime.  The members of the committee are mostly innocents who have no idea their mission could take them into danger:  they are Aileen Simmons, the frighteningly loquacious president of an elite women’s college; Senator Jim Carey, who once ran for president but joked so much he was not considered “committed”; Frank, a sentimental minister; Gus, an ancient, fragile, retired Bishop; Victor, a professor (and, we learn later, CIA agent) who brings his cat along for the ride; Sophie Weil, a New Journalist; Cameron, a Scottish professor and Middle Eastern scholar; and Henk Van Vliet de Jonge, a Dutch member of Parliament.  By the way, the two politicians, Jim and Henk, are both poets.

McCarthy masterfully develops their characters while analyzing politics and the psychology of liberals and terrorists. Two  Arabs and a Dutch couple hijack the plane.  When they appear with their guns, only the Senator and Henk understand what must be done to keep the peace.  The  irritating Aileen keeps chatting compulsively and wondering where her meal is. (Some Orthodox Jews are served first with a Kosher meal.) And she is so pissed off that she loudly wonders why their group has been targeted rather than the tour group of millionaire art colletctors in first-class, who also headed for Iran.  And so the terrorists also take the collectors hostage.

The terrorists take the hostages to a Dutch farmhouse. Nothing much happens at first.   McCarthy chronicles the intensity of their boredom: there is nothing to read, and no one can play games all the time.  The Senator introduces them to a match game called “Cannibals and Missionaries” which Navy flyers played in   World War II.  Not surprisingly, when a terrorist plays it he favors the cannibals. 

The flippancy of Charles, a witty, flamboyant elderly gay man who was headed for Iran with the art collectors, even befriends the terrorists.   His reactions to the terrorists’ demands—Holland must drop out of NATO and cancel relations with Israel and they must release criminals from trisons—are hilariious but also thought-provoking.

“It only needs a weensy change of perspective, doesn’t it? A little bird tells me we’re not the enthusiasts for ‘law and order’ we were a few days ago.  It was that interesting third demand that brought it home to me.  Why, my dear, if the whole criminal population of Holland were turned loose…I’d have no objection as long as it meant that I’d be able to journey to Naqsh-i -Rustan with my ears and toes and fingers safely about me….Till today, I’ll confess, I’d tended to look on our penal institutions as a necessay evil.  And, as for the second demand, can we honestly say that it would be a tragedy if Holland were to leave NATO and suspend relations with Israel?  My own answer, I admit, woudl be prejudiced.  As a pacifist, I hold no brief to NATO, and though I’m not unsympathetic to Israel, I feel she could use a little lesson.”

The art collectors are told they will be released if they arrange for their families to deliver some of their most valuable works of art to the terrorists.  A Vermeer painting becomes a symbol both of first world privilege and civiliation, when Helen announces she would rather die than endanger it.

A fascinating, important book for today. 

2 thoughts on “Mary McCarthy’s “Cannibals and Missionaries”

  1. Your review reminds me that I need to go back and read more Mary McCarthy. I would like to revisit The Group after all these years. I also remember The Groves of Academe which was very funny.

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