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. 

Against Anxiety: Beat Your Reading Slump with Three Fun Tomes

In all probability, the “reading slump” was invented by a non-reader. “I can’t read Proust, baby;  I’m in a reading slump.”  Someone must have tweeted it, and then everybody had the syndrome.  Pity the poor person with retro-major depression.

Here’s what we know:  honey,  you’re not in a reading slump.  You are (a) lazy, (b) anxious and depressed, or (c) having a full-fledged nervous breakdown.  The reading slump is not in the DSM!

At the hospital I don’t read Proust.  I sit beside my husband’s bed, trying to persuade him to sit on it. He is on the floor picking up the phone charger he dropped.   And he wants to go to the Starbucks down the hall, though his robe is untied–he can’t use one of his arms–and he has no money.  I rush out and stand in a long, long line to get us coffee and tea.  When I get back, he’s pacing.

It is hard to get much reading done, period, because people are in and out of the hospital room.  Blood pressure, menus, the whole bit.  Between trying to get him to take it easy and my own selfish existential crisis (I never knew his existence was fragile!),  I metaphorically chewed my fingernails,

He’s almost cured–a few more weeks, they think–and now everything is back to normal.  But I’ve done a lot of escape readings, and here are three fun books to help you beat anxiety, though I shall never call it a reading slump!

1. Daphne du Maurier’s The Parasites. Yes, du Maurier’s Rebecca is a classic, but The Parasites is almost equally brilliant.  This fascinating story of three siblings, Maria, an actress, Niall, a songwriter, and mousy Celia, who has a  talent for drawing,  begins on a Sunday in the country when Maria’s husband explodes with rage and calls them parasites. As du Maurier tells the story of the tight-knit talented brother and half-sisters, who are the children of an actress and singer, we have our own opportunity to judge.  Du Maurier narrates the novel in the first-person plural–and we never know quite who  the “we” is!

2.  Elizabeth Goudge’s The White Witch.  Goudge’s writing is sometimes breathtaking, other times sentimental, and I love her vivid Dickensian characters.  I recently reread The White Witch, a historical novel set in England in the 17th century, during the English civil war between Charles I and the Puritans.  Most of the novel is set in a village temporarily left to its own peaceful ways since the not-very-bright Puritan convert Squire, Robert Haselwood, has gone to war.  In the opening chapters, we meet his cousin  Froniga, who is half-gypsy and a white witch with healing powers and benign spells;   the Haselwood twins, Will, a very ordinary little boy, and his unusually percepitve sister, Jenny; Francis Leland, a traveling artist who paints the twins and is secretly one of the king’s men; Yoben, Froniga’s long-time boyfriend and a gypsy with  a mysterious past; and the eccentric, very wise village priest, so kind he tries to help the black witch in the village, an evil soul who digs up graves and casts obscene spells.  How will they all come together?  This is not her absolute best, but I enjoyed it very much and some people love it.

3. Mary McCarthy’s Birds of America.  This 1971 satire, set in New England, Paris, and Rome in the 1960s, skewers American innocence and hypocrisy, and I think it’s McCarthy’s best work.   You don’t have to know about the 1960s to be amused by her mockery of frozen foods, a pious Thanksgiving abroad (which the hero calls “a harvest fest”), the faux-historicism of New England villages, and tourism in Europe (the protagonist thinks tourists should be licensed to go to art museums).