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Mary McCarthy: Cannibals and Missionaries

While it had become fashionable in Europe to write terrorism novels by this time, the US, still immune from such attacks, had not really caught onto this theme, so McCarthy, in her last novel, was in many ways ahead of her time. Once again, the critics failed to see that this was a satire. Several complained that none of the characters was sympathetic, forgetting the title of the book and that, in McCarthy’s world, neither cannibals nor missionaries are sympathetic. Though one or two of the characters do come off better than their fellows, the three groups – well-to-do liberals, rich art collectors and terrorists – were never going to be on McCarthy’s list of favourite people, and she has satirised some of them before. The story is relatively simple. A group of terrorists – Palestinians and Dutch urban guerrillas – hijack a plane carrying a group of liberals flying to Iran (in the Shah’s time) to protest human rights abuses. The terrorists plan to bargain with the lives of the liberals. However, by a stroke of luck, they find that, in the first-class compartment, is a group of very rich art collectors and they will do much better bargaining for lives against valuable art works rather than against money. McCarthy’s not very subtle point is that the world will value valuable works of art more than the lives of people. (That’s called satire, not irony.)

McCarthy does have fun skewering the well-meaning liberals, from the world of politics, religion and academia. But with all three groups, she has degrees of goodness and badness – yes, even the terrorists can have some good members. This may be fine in a novel but you have to wonder if this is what the real world is like. However, in a remote Dutch farmhouse, where much of the action takes place, we end up with both a fine, representative collection of Western art as well as a fine representative collection of Western thought, and McCarthy cleverly milks (and satirises) this juxtaposition. It just about works, though not everyone was convinced, and the somewhat bloody denouement is more or less what we could have expected.

Publishing history

First published 1979 by Harcourt, Brace & World