Cannibals and Missionaries

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 16)

Cannibals and Missionaries falls into an easily recognizable category of narratives, the tale of a “ship of fools.” The basic plot device is a straightforward one: take a more or less representative cross section of humanity, isolate it from the rest of the world, subject it to a crisis of some sort, and see what happens. The group will then serve as a microcosm of all society, of all humanity. The form is at least as old in Western literature as the late middle ages; at present it is experiencing a revival in disaster motion pictures of the Airport or Poseidon Adventure variety.

McCarthy’s “ship” is a modern airliner; her “fools,” a group of liberals sent to Iran to investigate government atrocities. Most of the group are Americans; they include an American priest of the Episcopal Church who is in trouble with his congregation for having a black radical preach in his parish, an elderly Episcopal bishop, a college professor with connections with the CIA, a Senator who supposedly ran against McGovern for the Democratic presidential nomination, a liberated Jewish woman journalist, and an unmarried woman college president who immediately begins to survey the group for a new sexual partner. Joining the group in Paris to give a more international flavor are a Dutch politician and a lecturer at Oxford.

Also along on this journey, but riding in first class while the committee sits back in tourist, is a group of wealthy American art collectors on their way to look at the treasures of Iran. They get included in the body of hostages after Charles Tarrant, an aging homosexual art collector, is overheard by one of the hijackers bragging about the vast private collections of his fellow travelers. The price for release of the collectors is delivery of their paintings to the terrorists; the price for the rest of the party includes the usual release of political prisoners, coupled with the demand that Holland end its association with NATO.

Early in the trip, the Americans’ only concern is with who actually is coming on the trip; no one wants to be the only one along, for there seemingly is safety in numbers on an expedition like this one. De Jonge, however, more sensitive to the complexities of European and Middle Eastern politics, is anxious about...

(The entire section is 946 words.)