Brutal, subtle, and witheringly savvy, Phil Klay’s first novel, “Missionaries,” casts a scathing light on American military ventures overseas, while also immersing readers in the tumult of Colombia as it struggled toward peace and democracy in the first decades of the 21st century.
Klay won the National Book Award in 2014 for “Redeployment,” his short-story collection about Americans at war in Iraq, and “Missionaries” in some ways picks up where “Redeployment” left off — at least as far as its American characters are concerned. They include journalist Lisette Marigny, stationed in Kabul when we meet her, and US Army Special Forces medic Mason Baumer, encountered on his deployments in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Colombia.
Alternating with Lisette’s and Mason’s accounts of themselves are the narratives of two Colombians: Juan Pablo Pulido, a lieutenant colonel in the Colombian military, and Abel, a teenage boy when the book begins, whose entire village, including his family, was wiped out by leftist guerrillas.
Juan Pablo is the most fascinating of the four. A clear-eyed strategist, stoically accepting the collateral damage that comes with trying to contain the political and drug-cartel violence ravaging his country, he is perfectly aware that he — like anyone with any power in Colombia — has blood on his hands. Any transgressions he has committed, however, are all in aid of building a better country for his college-age daughter, Valencia, and her peers.
“If her generation were ever so safe that they could look on mine with disgust,” he reflects, “that would only mean that my life’s work had been successful.”
If Juan Pablo is the compromised conscience of the novel, Abel is its soul. With his family exterminated, Abel falls into the hands of right-wing paramilitary leader Jefferson Paúl López Quesada. The atrocities that Jefferson inflicts on hapless citizens in the rural region bordering Venezuela where he rules are graphically detailed by Klay. But Abel maneuvers his way into a more benign side of Jefferson’s agenda, orchestrating the building of housing and other amenities in impoverished rural communities that desperately need them.
Klay, through archival and on-the-ground research, delivers what feels remarkably like a genuine South American novel built from lived experience of his numerous Colombian characters. His take on his increasingly skeptical American characters is persuasive too.
Lisette is looking for a war the United States isn’t losing, and when someone suggests Colombia to her, she heads there. Once there, however, things don’t feel that different from Afghanistan."[T]his was an extension of the same war," she believes, “not the endless war on ‘terror’ but something vaguer, harder to pin down and related to the demands of America’s not-quite-empire which was always projecting military power across the globe and just shifting the rationale of why.”
Mason, newly transferred to Bogotá as a military adviser to the Colombians, shares some of Lisette’s doubts about American interventions around the world, and begins to have misgivings about his vocation as a soldier, too, after he and his wife start a family.
With his four central characters in place, Klay moves the action to La Vigia, a trouble spot on the Venezuelan border where some of the worst atrocities took place — and where he soon has enough pawns on-hand (including Abel, who’s trying to adopt a new civilian life as a small-store owner) to be drawn into an utterly haywire and savage game.
Klay employs a touch of gallows humor in his accounts of Colombia’s worst self-inflicted wounds. (“The goal is to avoid a massacre,” Jefferson chides his minions at one point. “Nobody wants a massacre right now.”) Still, the book’s violence may be stronger than some readers can take. Klay, a US Marine Corps veteran who served in Iraq, pulls no punches in exposing the nature of both Colombian factional atrocities and America’s bloody interventions overseas.
Lisette’s frustration with the failure of her news stories to have an effect on her fellow citizens may reflect Klay’s own struggle with the country that sent him to war. “All the reported facts in the world shrivel up and die,” she muses, “in the presence of universal indifference.” Moreover, she disdains what she sees as Americans' “naïve belief … that merely to tell the stories of the oppressed and victimized is a political act.”
So where does that leave us? With a call to march in futile antiwar protests or embark on some equally quixotic citizens' crusade to dismantle the military-industrial complex?
“Missionaries” offers no answers. Instead, in a bitter twist, it closes with yet another scene of conflict in yet another far-flung battlefield, with unexpected players employing unexpected means of carnage. As he does throughout the book, Klay has something urgent to say here about the way his country operates in the 21st-century world. It isn’t simple, and it sure isn’t pretty.
By Phil Klay
Penguin Press, 407 pp., $28
Michael Upchurch is the former Seattle Times book critic.