While the title of may lead you to anticipate a religious story, The Missionaries is anything but. A comedic, fast-paced account of the modern world’s attempts to improve the violent tribal islanders of Elephant island, and all of the bungling drama that occurs as a result shows that interfering indirectly does nothing but harm. The story is a comedic caricature of many elements familiar to anyone: Out-of-touch intellectuals trying to do good, a misanthropic survivalist trying to escape bureaucracy, distant and influential governments delivering “essential catalysts” such as lawnmowers “carefully selected by experts” to the completely undeveloped tropical nation, and lawyerly shenanigans in the courthouse following prodigious and occasionally obscene bouts of violence.
At first I imagined the author intended to tell an underdog story of a fair-minded, salt-of-the-earth man fighting against the mindlessly second-nature invasiveness of a proselytizing globalist from the United Nations, but it quickly became clear that there is no real good guy, nor main character. Wildly different characters have their moments in the spotlight and come from a wide array of backgrounds and motivations to form a vacillating network of activity; thefts and murders, cannibalism and committee-meetings, hoodoo curses and superstitious deification of a white man, “decolonization” efforts and sadomasochism, all within a framework and context that even a young reader could understand and enjoy; despite the poke-in-the-eye commentary and graphic nature of the subject matter, the writing is pleasant, and funny—In a childlike move, the author named the primary settlement Ungabunga, and treated the name as seriously as any good stand-up would. It must be observed that the author used accents and various degrees of the native pidgin extensively for characterization; while good, it does cause a bit of chop in an otherwise smooth ocean.
I thoroughly enjoyed this read. The characters are larger-than-life, but I have met them before in the strong moods of my friends. Reality resembles the cartoonish cast of the novel so well, I became convinced before I realized it. Satire of this quality and depth of engagement is rare, especially when it fits inside the framework of a story. I was reminded of the Wizard of Oz and Tarzan of the Apes at different times although this work does not carry the advantage of the years of endearment those pieces carry, nor the polish: The version I saw had several small punctuation errors and the author stuffed commas into his statements like they were sequins on a pop star. While clearly written to inspire a laugh, pointing the finger in turn at the different sillinesses of mankind, the places that truly shine are the narrative descriptions of the landscapes on Elephant Island, like this one:
As the track penetrated farther into the heart of the gorge, the walls above and below it grew more precipitous, until they were great slabs of rock, in some places overhanging the path, dank, fissured, streaked with green slime where seepages of moisture broke through. The thunder of the torrent at the head of the gorge grew steadily more penetrating and overwhelming, magnified between the encroaching walls of the chasm, while the air grew steadily colder.
I found myself wanting far more of this sort of thing, and less of the corruptness of the characters and the resultant snafus. Still, The Missionaries knew what it was about and delivered it, tipped its cap, and left just as I grew tired of it.
While it may not be great literature in the same way as some of the comparisons I made—I believe it suffers from references to modern institutions and the charming style of humor will not hold up over time—The Missionaries casts an interesting light on the nature of multiculturalism, cultural interactions, and human hubris which has never departed the world stage but is occasionally forgotten: Everyone is a missionary, really. It is a humorous and enjoyable read, quick and funny with lively pacing. At one-hundred and sixty-five pages, it is a digestible yarn that appeals to a wide audience; in a day and age when the marketplace of ideas is all about shouting and scandal as people hold up their sacred cows and dance, it was deeply refreshing to read a work which did the true job of the court jester and made us aware of our failures to attain a perfect ideology.