The reader who encounters Children of Paradise (HarperCollins, 384 pp.) without any knowledge of Peoples Temple history will discover a work of magical realism revolving around a mythical commune deep in the jungle of an unnamed country. The preacher is never named, nor is the capital city housing the group’s headquarters. The preacher has many assistants, prefects and guards, but few receive the specificity of given names, though the women who attend the preacher — Pat, Nora and Dee – are interchangeable. The three major protagonists, Joyce, Trina and Adam, however, do emerge as idiosyncratic individuals against a background of blurry types. Upon these three characters depends the success of the novel.
Trina is the precocious adolescent who understands the preacher better than any adult. Joyce is her skeptical mother, whose history with the preacher is never entirely clear. She is college educated, a member of the inner circle, but not a true believer. Her hope throughout the story is to flee with Trina the hell she has come to tolerate, though just barely. And Adam is a gorilla.
In his acknowledgments placed at the end of the volume, the playwright/poet/novelist Fred D’Aguiar writes, “The result is a novel inspired by Jonestown rather than in strict adherence to it, and for that I am solely responsible.” He adheres to certain facts about Jonestown – its thousand residents, its totalitarian power structure, the intensity of its leader’s charisma – but not to others. This is the fiction writer’s prerogative: to pick and choose salient details from reality to craft his narrative.
However, for those who do know the story of Jonestown – for example, the readers of this publication – the novel presents problems of credibility. In order for a work of fiction to be convincing, readers must entertain what nineteenth-century Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge famously called “that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith.”
In a front-page article in The New York Times Sunday Book Review section for March 14, 2014, Julia Scheeres, author of A Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Jonestown, wrote that the end of D’Aguiar’s novel “was still raw and powerful enough to make me weep.” Despite having accumulated prodigious information about Peoples Temple and the tragedy of Jonestown, Scheeres was able to suspend disbelief for the 384 pages of this version of the massacre. Or perhaps she could put her knowledge of the actual Jonestown aside for the duration of her reading. Just as Franz Kafka assumed his reader would “buy” the idea that a man can wake up one morning transformed into a cockroach, D’Aguiar takes for granted that the gorilla who lives in a cage at the center of the commune thinks, feels and acts exactly like a human being with a conscience.
Jonestown was in fact home to a chimpanzee named Mr. Muggs, but the gorilla named Adam – the first human in creation? a representative pre-lapsarian Man? – is wholly the author’s creation.
Adam … allows sleep to take him wherever it wants. His last thought of the night is of Joyce, Trina and the preacher, three people he feels he has to obey from this night on no matter what they ask of him.… He wishes never to wake from this sleep, where his cage is no more and nothing and no one impedes his path, his will. Coming up in front of him, only a speck to begin with, he can just about make out a figure, another gorilla, waiting for him as he gallops near. The head and body look familiar, and before he can put a name to the form, he finds himself tumbling through the air into the arms of his mother.
Just as Adam’s cage is situated at the heart of the community, his actions determine the plot of the narrative. During their escape from the prison-like compound, Joyce and Trina yield to the girl’s altruism and return to bring all the children of the commune with them to safety. When Trina tries to include Adam in the escape, though, “Joyce cannot believe her ears, but she knows not to argue with her daughter anymore.”
Even readers who possess only headline knowledge of what happened at Jonestown remember that none of the children escaped the fate of the poisoned fruit drink erroneously and infamously called Kool-Aid. Even Mr. Muggs died, mortally wounded by gunfire on that final day.
Verisimilitude is not D’Aguiar’s aim in Children of Paradise. In his acknowledgments, he describes the role played by Guyanese writer Wilson Harris, whose 1996 novel, Jonestown, was published only in Britain. “He is the presiding spirit behind my writing of this novel.” Harris’ book, the first full-length effort at literary fiction about Jonestown, fits unabashedly into the category of magical realism, a South American literary movement popularized by Gabriel García Márquez in One Hundred Years of Solitude.
Children of Paradise perfectly suits the definition of this kind of fiction: “a literary or artistic genre in which realistic narrative and naturalistic technique are combined with surreal elements of dream or fantasy.”
Here is Adam, outfitted to lead the children near the end of the story: “the parade crowns Adam its king. He wears a crown made of calabash cut to resemble a castle with an elastic strap under his chin; a velvet cloth partly covers the crown and partly hangs around the sides of it, with beads and false precious stones sewn into it. A king’s cape trimmed with sequins hangs on Adam’s shoulder, and Trina ties it in place with a bow around his neck.”
Ultimately, magic saves no one. The crass will of the preacher will prevail, in fiction as in life: “He has held sway over people since his teens. He was born for this. You tell people something, anything, with enough conviction, and they believe you.”
(Annie Dawid, author of three volumes of fiction, lives in Colorado. Her other article in this edition of the jtr bulletin is Jonestown Manuscript Sees Partial Publication. Her complete collection of articles for this site may be found here. She can be reached at email@example.com.)