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Jonestown massacre is template to attain liberation from tragedy

Readers may remember the Jonestown commune massacre of almost 1,000 men, women and children at the People’s Temple in Jonestown, British Guyana. It took place Nov. 18, 1978. The leader of the doomed sect was Jim Jones, their misbegotten savior.

Congressman Leo J. Ryan and four members of his investigatory party were shot as they tried to board a plane at Port Kaituma airstrip.

From this gruesome piece of history, Fred D’Aguiar, an acclaimed novelist, writer and poet, short-listed for the T.S. Eliot Prize in poetry, writes the novel, “Children of Paradise.” The book uses the facts of Jonestown as the starting point for a broader piece of fiction. Born in London and raised in Guyana until age 12, D’Aguiar teaches at Virginia Tech.

So why would he bring back the elements of this story that many might wish to forget? D’Aguiar’s intent is to show that art, interweaving history and fiction, can make something meaningful and liberating out of the incomprehensibility of tragedy. He wants to stress “the perseverance of the mind and the power of Story with a capital S.”

Another reason for the author’s writing is that continuing violence near him has triggered an impulse to help people. Because he is a trained psychiatric nurse, he understands events that might otherwise overwhelm them. D’Agular’s school, Virginia Tech, is where 32 people were killed and 17 injured by a deranged shooter, senior Seung-Hui Cho, in still another massacre April 16, 2007.

(Full disclosure: I resisted reviewing “Children of Paradise” as a possible conflict of interest. Reason: I was involved, as a Treasury Department official, in a later tragedy involving a cult: the death of four ATF agents as well as the deaths of David Koresh and 73 Branch Davidians at Mount Carmel, near Waco, Texas, on April 19, 1993.)

Back to Jonestown: Stories always work best when individual characters are developed. “Children of Paradise” begins with the story of Joyce and her daughter, Trina, who follow a charismatic preacher from California to the jungles of Guyana, where “a thousand congregants have cleared a swath of dense jungle and built a utopian society,” watched over by armed men and teenage prefects. Every day ends with sermons that preach violence.

Paradise doesn’t last long. Trina is mauled by the commune’s caged gorilla, Adam. The preacher, to Joyce’s disbelief, pronounces the child dead. All the commune members huddled around the apparently lifeless girl repeat, “If father says the child is dead, then it has to be so.” In fact, Trina isn’t dead. Father “raises” Trina from the dead, and this apparent miracle as well as a later piece of stagecraft, strengthen his messianic leadership.

The commune returns to a forced normal, helped by guards practiced in the art of listening at doors of dormitories for any sign of dissent, and, if heard, banging against doors for absolute silence.

As a reader, one senses that the worshipers are not in a Kansas state of innocence - or even what passes for virtue in California - anymore. Instead, they are in a fetid jungle of suppressed desires. Mother and daughter begin to plan an escape from the compound. It should be noted that their attempted escape is fictional.

Adam, the gorilla, has a central role in the drama. The reader is required to suspend disbelief as the author accords the animal human attributes. For example, Adam remembers his own childhood as he sees little Trina, the victim of his own too-hard handling, placed in a coffin outside his cage. “Adam peers through his bars … and up at the sky, where bales of cloud have all too soon begin to whittle away… in the dropping furnace of the sun.”

There is beautiful writing about the jungle. For example, “… the rain lashes the life out of things and chokes gutters and pours down walls and wells up in drains and spreads outward and creates instant rivulets that snake in every direction … The downpour washes the children, the leaves, grass, and vines. All appear sprightly, polished, and renewed.”

Alas, not renewed for long. Children and their parents are separated in dormitories. The preacher’s principle is that all adults watch all children as a community activity. That is, when adults are not feeding pigs, cutting trees at the sawmill, or collecting eggs, milking cows or washing clothes.

As the novel moves to its grim ending, the question is whether or not mother and daughter, Joyce and Trina, with the help of Adam, will be among the 30 or so who fictionally escape the commune via canoe.

In the end, almost all of Father’s followers drink the grape-flavored Kool Aid laced with potassium cyanide, ladled out in cups of death disguised as love.

Michael D. Langan was Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary for Enforcement at the U. S. Department of Treasury in 1993.


Children of Paradise

By Fred D’Aguiar


363 pages, $25.99