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BOOK: MISSIONARIES By Phil Klay 

 “Success was a matter of perspective,” says one of the narrators in Phil Klay’s superb story collection “Redeployment” (2014). “In Iraq it had to be. There was no Omaha Beach, no Vicksburg Campaign, not even an Alamo to signal a clear defeat. The closest we’d come were those toppled Saddam statues.” Reminiscent of the hard-earned and spare-worded wisdom of Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried,” the collection details the ways in which war has changed over the decades. Vietnam pops up as a source of ironic nostalgia, but the book is unwavering, even punishing, in its examination of modern warfare and the ethics of American intervention. 

In “Missionaries,” Klay’s first novel, the same questions are taken a step further. Lisette, an American journalist as jaded as she is well-meaning, spends her time back from Afghanistan wondering where she should go next and eventually comes up with an idea: “any wars right now where we’re not losing.” Why, then, does she end up in Colombia? Doesn’t she know success is a matter of perspective? Klay’s understanding of Colombia, the main theater of war in “Missionaries,” is the chief source of admiration for this reviewer.

There are no simple wars, of course, but the Colombian conflict is as intricate as they come. In 2016, the country went to the polls to approve or reject a peace agreement, painstakingly negotiated over four years by representatives of the government and the Marxist-Leninist FARC guerrillas. It was yet another attempt at ending a 50-year war that had killed, wounded, displaced or traumatized around eight million people. Over the years, the agents of violence (as well as their motivations) had multiplied: Against the backdrop of the guerrillas’ atrocities, right-wing paramilitaries massacred entire villages, soldiers in the army murdered innocent civilians and called them enemy fighters to inflate body counts, and common criminals fought over control of the drug trade — which financed both the guerrillas and the paramilitaries and corrupted everyone, from law enforcement to congressmen. 

After the country sought U.S. aid in 1999, American military and technological assistance entered the landscape, and were still very much there in the months preceding the 2016 referendum. This is the all-too-real garden Klay has chosen for his imaginary toads. “Missionaries” investigates the lives of four characters leading up to that critical year. Two Colombians and two Americans: Abel, a paramilitary foot soldier, victim and perpetrator of violence, trying to get a second chance at life; Juan Pablo, a lieutenant colonel in the Colombian Army to whom war has given a sense of purpose and also a measure of frustration; Mason, an American Special Forces liaison, once a medic in Afghanistan and a witness to multiple kinds of horror; and Lisette, the aforementioned journalist, whose ambiguities and deep-seated contradictions (her strange mixture of cynicism and naïveté, of curiosity and skepticism) make her, to my mind, the most interesting character in the book. 

 All four are damaged beings meeting in a damaged place; building a coherent novel out of such chaos-prone material requires order, structure, architecture. Klay is very disciplined, giving his characters regular turns at the microphone to tell their stories before having their paths cross in the novel’s version of hell: a small town in northern Colombia where all the forces of this particular war, including its politics, have come to clash. A transformation comes halfway through the book, and the novel then feels like a different creature. After the Colombian Army kills a high-ranking drug dealer using U.S. technology and tactics, the town becomes a place “where the second- and third-order consequences of the use of force” come suddenly alive. To watch these machineries at work is one of the pleasures “Missionaries” offers: first the illusion of control, then its slow unraveling, and finally the unintended (and invisible, for most participants) costs of intervention in a society where violence is shape-shifting. 

We leave behind the first-person narratives that read almost like a series of confessions, and we move to the third-person voice that dominates the rest of the novel. It is a risky decision, flirting at times with the diction and style of conventional thrillers. But what the novel loses in intimacy and introspective, it makes up for in speed and breadth. It opens its arms to embrace a wider, richer take on the Colombian conflict, moving with ease from innocent students concerned with human rights to guerrillas who have been raped to gang leaders vying for power.

(Courtesy by New York Times)

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