Author: Phil Klay
Publisher: Penguin Press
Publishing Date: October 6, 2020
Phil Klay’s Missionaries begins not in a smoke-filled battlefront, but in the memories of Abel, watching a skin and bones crucifix with a bloody wound in its side. Abel will grow up to be a lieutenant in a Columbian militia, and later an employee of the brutal warlord Jefferson, but now, he is just a child, pondering the mysteries of death and life. Abel is visiting Father Eustacio, asking questions of eternal salvation, and the priest directed to look upon the crucifix and ponder the depths of God’s love and the intimacy of Christ’s suffering. God’s love, he says, is seen here, in this suffering of Christ, in this bleeding wound, a suffering which remains in the midst of violence but is not consumed by it. With this contradiction, Phil Klay opens his premiere novel Missionaries, a work about the ways in which war is exported and propagated, and ultimately transfigures the world.
Tim O’Brien, when writing about the Vietnam War, famously said that it’s impossible to tell a true war story, because every story about war as a moral act is untrue: any attempt to give it a sense of dignity or valor or honor glosses over the horror of war, however the war begins. Any sense of justification for the war, to alleviate the moral fog which accompanies it, is largely post-hoc justification. Wherever one turns in the lengthy tradition of American writings on war, from Stephen Crane and Ernest Hemmingway to Philip Caputo, Kurt Vonnegut and Tim O’Brien, the sentiments are largely the same on this point. And, in this way, the protagonists of these works struggle to make meaning, in that their best attempts to find meaning in violence leave them empty. As seen best in Hemmingway, and in a more comic way in Vonnegut, war is an act which calls for meaning while burning any meaning-making devices that we bring into it.
Klay’s Missionaries puts this legacy to the test, not by creating an apologia for war, but by helping readers to see that the struggle of war is not against flesh and blood, but against global powers, principalities, and institutions. War is not, as is frequently the frame, generated by interstate disputes, the discrete province of two countries, or even by multiple parties in the same area. War is, as Klay’s book displays, better understood as a world phenomenon, a globally encompassing force: operators from Columbia using American weaponry firing on Yemeni tribesmen. The individual actors within the novel, attempting to lead moral lives, live into codes, and extricate themselves from the ongoing field of violence, are ultimately caught up in a process they cannot control.
These processes and institutions—whether a journalism industry which demands more and more intimate depictions of violence, political institutions which make mockeries of elections, or technological cultures of weaponry which rely on spreadsheets more than wisdom—are the real villains here, villains which encompass and alter the agencies of the four main characters. Their varied stories comprise the first two-thirds of the book, as they engage war professionally from different vantage points and sides of the business of war. None of the figures are themselves the most important members in their organizations, but mid-level personnel with some ability to choose, to heal, or to harm. Yet, in time, the global process of war will bring them together in the final third of the book, to show them the limits of their agency and the violence of the processes they have created.
What is left for the central characters is not simply enduring suffering, but recognizing those limits of their agency, and an invitation to shift the scope of the institutions which now fund these globally-encompassing wars: election reform, limits of weapons sales, reshaping military culture. But in the meantime, the four central figures must do the best they can to either stay out of the way of war or become helplessly entangled in its hunger. In the wake, meaning must be made of the Leviathan which swallows each of them up, and spits them back out changed.
But where does this meaning come from? In Klay’s previous work, the Pulitzer-winning Redeployment, religious themes are more lightly present. The story “Prayer in the Furnace”, the story of a chaplain’s dilemma over a confession, is the most direct, but throughout, the theme of finding meaning in conflict, of seeking absolution, and making atonement runs through the stories, albeit in a more indirect fashion. Here, religious imagery permeates the background of the stories—nuns helping give birth, spiritual experiences suppressed, the daughter of a protagonist who begins to believe her Jesuit teachers, the Lord’s teachings of forgiveness recalled by one who has suffered at the hands of the Columbian cartels. Everywhere, the quiet presence of what could be dismissed as a cultural religion imposes itself, reminding the protagonists that there is a world that exists for which the mechanical processes of war cannot account.
To return to the opening image, Christ remains hidden throughout the book, and in less deft hands than Klay’s, a sermonic priest would soliloquy at the book’s end, offering a noble word of hope for the powerless. But hope is not here in this obvious way. Rather, what emerges is akin to Graham Greene’s Power and the Glory: the suffering Christ, who loves the world, works to renew and redeem the central characters from the illusion that they could heroically save themselves or the world around them. At the end of the book, the missionaries, i.e. the agents of violence, move on to a new locale, taking their world-creating war with them, and little has materially changed for Columbia, except that the gospel of war has created new converts, new martyrs, and many, many witnesses.
It is not the case that the presence of Christ, which marks the novel’s world from beginning to end—in desperate prayers, crucifixes, remembered teachings—is absent. But, as we see in the beginning scene, the Word who suffers in the world, the terrifying Holy Christ of Cunaviche, remains present to the world’s suffering from within it. The salvation of the world here comes not through the main characters escaping the violence which encircles and swallows the earth. But it comes in the persistent offer that the broken characters are given to embrace a very different totalizing reality: that they cannot be persons apart from others, nor can they be healed by force, and that it is only through embracing the suffering reality that they will begin their way home. Small acts of penitence, of reconnection, and of rescue become—even in the face of war’s persistence—markers of hope. Klay’s book is remarkable, at once a study in the global connections which make a mockery of the national glosses put over wars, and a revival of the best kind of Catholic novel writing in which God is at work in the depths of the dark.