Category Archives: Matthiessen, Peter

At Play in the Fields of the Lord: Read from May 10 to 23, 2014

I never was able to shake the feeling that there was something missing in this novel. Maybe it was a soul or heart that it lacked? Hard to say because it was, at times, quite beautiful, and the ending was very well done, but I felt empty after I was done with the book.

One of the biggest problems I had with the book was that the characters felt very thin. Even Moon, who was written as a ‘complicated man’ never jumped off of the page and no amount of discussion between Wolf and Andy at the end about his mysteriousness was going to change that. And Moon was probably the biggest issue I had here; he seemed just too damn convenient as a character. His Plains Indian background never felt like more than an excuse to talk about how bad the native peoples of the Americas have been treated and how poorly we ever understood their cultures.

I would have been much more interested had the book been about his back story only.

I did, however, like Wolf, though I have to admit to always imagining him in my mind as played by Tom Waits from the film. Still, he was the only real character in the book and I really felt for him. He really was a very lonely man who acted tough (and could be tough, too) but he loved the people he let in.

Hazel would have been a great character, too but she was a serious missed opportunity. I could almost feel Matthiessen’s hatred and judgment of a certain type of American mid-western Christian woman. She got off to a great start and seemed like she was going to be worth exploring, but she nearly ruined the entire book. The only thing I enjoyed her doing was when she hated her husband for being so good, for being so much like Jesus. That was a great thing for a missionary to say.

As for everyone else: Martin was painfully dull and boring, Leslie was thinner than water, and while Andy had the most potential, she never went anywhere. Even Matthiessen just leaves her sitting at a table staring into nothing at the end. Uyuyu, I’ll admit was rather good, but he wasn’t used enough and Father Xantes was just never tied down to anything I felt was relevant beyond an allegory for the Catholic Church in this part of the world.

The novel is well written and some passages are very beautiful – the opening scene of the airplane is stunning – but it never adds up to much more than a story that is supposed to be sad but just winds up being sort of flat.

And it’s a shame, too because there was a real opportunity to explore some very interesting ideas, but perhaps this is material only Joseph Conrad would have known what to do with. And this novel does feel very often as if Conrad is standing over Matthiessen as he wrote it – the subject matter, the rough men as outlaws, the (sometimes here) very beautiful language, though Matthiessen’s language never reaches the same depth as Conrad; he’s no master wordsmith, but rather just a good putter-togetherer-of-words.

In the end I do not feel as if I learned anything insightful about Christian missionaries, about native Amazon Indians, about South American politics (the parallel story of Guzman reads like a bad Hollywood movie), nor about the larger issues of faith and acceptance. I felt like we never really left that plane in the beginning and we only ever saw glimpses through the jungle canopy.

90% done with At Play in the Fields of the Lord

I love how so much of the misunderstanding lay with a single lazy translation of the word for a god. This double meaning parallels well with the endless, unwinable theological debate between Xantes and Leslie.

More subtle was the vision Moon had from the drink and the vision we only hear about from Aeore. Both lead them on a journey that pretty much turns them into an outcast and their people (Wolf, too) wanting.

81% done with At Play in the Fields of the Lord

To save his ass, Moon does the one good thing he’s ever done – give the Indians medicine.

Of course giving them medicine will keep them alive to have to continue dealing with missionaries. And it was the missionaries getting them sick in the first place.

Christians believe the unsaved can’t know God and therefore can’t be saved, but are they damned if they also don’t know the Devil? Seems one-sided for heaven

67% done with At Play in the Fields of the Lord

Matthieson illustrates a very important dilemma that helps understand the Indian’s frustration with the missionaries. When they demand to know who Billy’s enemy is so they can kill it, they are refused. This is totally baffling to them because only your enemy can kill you, so you must kill them. This is central to how they see the world but it’s foreign to us and frustrating, too.

The church scene was nice.

50% done with At Play in the Fields of the Lord

I keep struggling between feeling like it’s a bit convenient that Lewis is half (American) Indian with that of it being also being a good thematic choice that brings up some very interesting ideas. At the very least, we get half the book devoted to his character so at least we can explore his unique arc.

Martin Quarrier is so totally unfit for being missionaries that he almost perfect for it. His wife … not much

38% done with At Play in the Fields of the Lord

How dare they put it on a map!

I love the image of the short wave radio as they travel up the river and the American music playing, as if like a voice from heaven, and them saying ‘Praise the Lord’ into the overgrowth and stinking rottenness of the jungle.

Then they see the overgrown cross but refuse to clean it because it’s a Catholic cross. Same god, different cross, apparently.

They really hate the jungle

34% done with At Play in the Fields of the Lord

One thing I enjoy is how Matthieson will give a detail that has no explanation and then revisit that same detail from another pov (Lewis’), it gives us an understanding into how things are working out in the irrational jungle.

I like the scenes with Hazel; she’s well written. She not the shrill, uppity shrew you’d think at first, she’s more complicated.

Father Xantes is a total mystery; he knows something.

28% done with At Play in the Fields of the Lord

I’m conflicted. On the one hand I really am not a fan of drugged out freak out scenes in books (nor dreams). I also don’t really like we learn so much about Lewis via this method. However, it is well written – I love the bit about describing the fat lady as a dinner feast dumped into a bag – and there is a feverish to everything (the heat), so I’ll leave it.

“How long can a man hold his heart in silence?”

18% done with At Play in the Fields of the Lord

This is quite the assembled cast of characters, each with their own serious issues.

I like how squalid everything is; nothing is good in this jungle – it contrasts nicely with the jungle Indians who are living, for the moment, in relative peace and happiness. No wonder they’re about to have some bombs dropped on them.

The image of things falling from the sky is continually repeated, too. Falling and the fallen.

7% done with At Play in the Fields of the Lord

That opening image of the shining airplane against the blue sky and above the peaks of the Andes mountains is so beautiful. In fact Matthieson reminds me of Conrad; his language is beautiful and filled with little poetic beats – such as the image of men leaping from an airplane into the jungle before the plane even comes to a stop, and the white sun in a white sky like a fried egg.

This is off to a great start.