“The Missionaries,” by Owen Stanley is a book that can be enjoyed without having to first categorize it. But while reviewing it I feel it is necessary to identify some of the qualities present in order to attract the target audience and repel those who are clearly the targets of its humor. So, trigger warning, if you think Hillary Clinton should have won the 2016 US presidential election you’re not going to want to read this book. But if you think that the high point of Boutros Boutros-Ghali’s career was reached as a double entendre during a Seinfeld episode then this might be the book for you.
The book is a binge, an aristophanean binge. The characters are in some ways caricatures, but the narrative proceeds fluidly from one fantastically ridiculous scene to the next. The absurdities are piled up, one on top of the other, until the eventual catastrophe finally resolves the comedy.
The story takes place in the indefinite past that, based on tell-tales like typewriters and the existence of the UN, must be taking place during the Cold War. An island in the Pacific called Elephant Island is being administered by an appointee of the Australian government named Roger Fletcher. He has managed to pacify the indigenous (and cannibalistic) tribesmen by convincing them that he is a minor deity of theirs. When the UN is given a mandate to move Elephant Island to independence, it unleashes a chain of events that demonstrates how social justice policy decisions and stone age tribal dynamics can combine to form a close approximation of the Apocalypse.
I would be a spoil sport if I revealed all the better bits that make up this comedy. For me the innovation is seeing all of the sacred cows that are typically given the best lines in novels about the third world (or is it fourth world?) getting mugged by reality. All the pieties about empowering non-western societies come back to bite the smug leftists right in the ass. In fact, from my point of view, they get off too easily. I would have enjoyed much more pay back. But I have quite a bit of Sicilian in my family tree so I shouldn’t be considered an objective judge.
I thoroughly enjoyed the book and highly recommend it for anyone on the right wing who thinks the UN should be defunded and moved to Newark, New Jersey. My only real complaint is I wish it were much longer. I could see this as the basis for series of books or a long television series with episodic action leading slowly to the eventual climax at the end of season five (or even eight). So much more could be added to the characterizations and back stories. I feel cheated that I won’t get to read the prequel describing the arrival of Fletcher to Elephant Island and his taming of the natives. We could have been given flashbacks of the UN personnel in their earlier roles. And of course, we could find out whether the capital city (Ungabunga) was named by the indigenous people or (more likely) by Fletcher. But, alas, we’ll probably never learn these important details. Damn you Owen Stanley!
Nevertheless, I wholeheartedly recommend The Missionaries to anyone who was ever forced to read any of that genera of modern novels that bemoan the fate of noble indigenous peoples under the control of evil, white, colonial rule. My most dreary example of this genera was a book I received as part of a subscription to a magazine. The book was “At Play in the Fields of the Lord” (APITFOTL) by Peter Matthiessen. It was just alive with noble savages and filthy with misguided missionaries and other white people getting in the way of noble savagery. Reading “The Missionaries” is a sort of catharsis for this. It’s as if reading APITFOTL infected my soul and left an overgrown boil that had festered for all these years and this new book was an intellectual scalpel that lanced that boil and allowed it to drain and heal. Wow, I sound like a very angry old guy. Anyway, read the book oh my brothers. It’s good for the soul.