The Song of the Suicides:
Revisiting the Jonestown tragedy

by Salvador Hernáez

The Song of the Suicides, a novel written in Spanish, revolves around the tragic events of Jonestown in 1978.

About the same time that the terrible events in Guyana took place, Spain – which had just emerged from forty years of Franco’s dictatorship – had other things to worry about: assassinations by the Basque independence group ETA, the referendum to endow us with a Constitution and, of course, the Spanish national football team. The news of the tragedy of Jonestownthat reached the Spanish people was very limited, and increased only with reports in magazines that copied what appeared in American media. I think it is prudent to say that 99 percent of Spaniards barely know about that visionary project and the massacre with which it ended.

A little more informed than the average, I always wanted to incorporate this subject to my own journalistic jobs, but it could not be until the idea of the novel, The Song of the Suicides, began to haunt me. I hope that, thanks to it, Spanish readers will know more precisely what happened there, the Peoples Temple project and its messianic communist leader.

It maybe will sound like a Spanish topic, but the idea of the novel is inspired by a passage from Don Quixote, in which a shepherd dies of love for the beautiful maiden who has rejected him. This will be the beginning of the story that develops in three scenarios.

Brief summary of The Song of the Suicides

The first part of the novel takes place in the Swiss city of Basel in the present day – the story actually begins on November 19, 2018 – with the suicide of a young heir of a pharmaceutical multinational, who has taken the same potion that killed the people of Jonestown but forty years earlier. This event leads to a police investigation, of course, but given the social importance of the characters involved,  it quickly involves Interpol and the Swiss secret services, since they control a good part of the Swiss economy of the country. Much attention falls on Dr. Graft, a potentate who runs a powerful pharmaco-chemical association.

In parallel, and with a more journalistic approach, the reader learns the story of Louise, an African-American girl in Los Angeles in 1975. An orphan, a victim of the fights between black power factions of the sixties and seventies, Louise is saved from heroin and prostitution by the Reverend Jim Jones.

The research for this part has allowed me to dive into conflicts, almost forgotten, about the struggle of African-American peoples for their social and political rights, as well as into the techniques of mental manipulation used against the revolutionary political parties and religious sects, so suspiciously similar to the mental control practices developed by the CIA in the 1950s.

Converging in Jonestown on November 18, several characters tell us their experiences in the commune in the second and third parts of the novel. The story comes through two points of view, that of a disaffected target of socialist utopia and that of a young, almost a girl, fanatical follower of the leader Jim Jones.

The ancient Templars are in Switzerland forty years later, unveiling a pharmaceutical conspiracy of great importance, involving governments, corporations and secret services. This conclusion has helped me to reflect on a issue that is very topical in Europe: assisted suicide, which in the Helvetic Confederation is already a reality.

The most fantastic and controversial part of the story, refers to the interests of the big pharmaceutical companies to develop more powerful drugs for the modification of behavior, which I think they have achieved in many ways. The current world I imagine is a cross between the novels  of George Orwell’s 1984 and Brave New World of Aldous Huxley, in which much of the false happiness of the Western world is based on pharmacology.

A novel about the Jonestown massacre

The knot of the novel occurs forty years before, when the protagonists meet in the Peoples Temple Agricultural Project. That is why it is so important to know the motivations of the characters involved in that tragedy, which is why I owe a good part of the writing to the systematic work developed on this website. Any doubt that I had about the characters, I found the answer here, a place where I could explore the life, joys and miseries of the protagonists of the Guyanese tragedy.

The most interesting thing about this website, for my imagination, are not the certainties, but the historical gaps that allow me to place fictional characters in novelistic situations, to recreate real scenes that are unknown. I then consider how they developed, such as the death of Jones, the interests of pharmaceutical companies or the involvement of several intelligence services. I was amazed by the fact that Guyana coincided with other extraordinary individuals, such as a Black Nationalist gunman named Claude “Chuchessa” Hubert, who assassinated two leaders of the Black Panther organization in 1969; Jim Jones with his Agricultural Project; and Rabbi Edward Washington and his black supremacist aspirations through his pseudo-religious sect, the House of Israel. I incorporated them into the story along with other historical figures from the Temple story itself, such as Joe Mazor, a detective who worked for both the Temple and for the Concerned Relatives; and Temple attorney Mark Lane. All seem like guys taken from their own novels, and it was not difficult to locate them in the plot of this one.

Unfortunately, some characters related to the debacle of the Temple, are still alive, and perhaps my story may disturb them. To them I apologize. I can only note the historical digressions that I have taken the liberty of including as the type of fantasies that comprise a novel.

(Salvador Hernáez is a Spanish journalist. His novel The Song of the Suicides, has not yet been published. The Spanish version of this article is here. Contact: soroporras@gmail.com.)

Originally posted on September 28th, 2018.

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