Grand-scale massacres and mass suicide performed as a climax to religious observances were a feature of nearly all the ancient civilisations. The descriptions of such happenings, when reported in accounts of archaeological excavation, arouse astonishment but little else. We cannot share in the religious awe evoked by the original event; the mutilated skeletons generate no emotion; they could as well be logs of wood. And even in the last century, when the news of distant colonial disasters could take months or even years to filter back to the metropolis, the excitement which was sometimes generated by sacrificial forms of sudden death was more likely to be the result of political contrivance than a spontaneous response to shock. But what was formerly too remote is now all too close. When events of this sort occur in our own age, even in the most remote places, it is only a matter of hours before a lurid rehash of the story appears on the telly. Our sensibilities are then so numbed by horror (which is exacerbated by the current fashions of journalism) that most of us lose all sympathy with the human problems of the participants.
The cult of murder through which Charles Manson came to dominate the members of his ‘family’ has provided a nice fortune for the author of Helter-Skelter, and there have been scores of analyses by professional psychologists and sociologists of various kinds: but I have yet to come across any commentary on that gruesome affair which conveys insight into the paradoxes of the human situation which it exemplifies. The accounts I have read have all been designed either to produce a degraded titillation of my sadistic impulses or to reduce Manson and his crew to ciphers in a table of statistics.
Shiva Naipaul is very much alive to these contrasted weaknesses of the journalistic and academic approaches to the more gory forms of human tragedy, and he seems to have started out with the worthy intention of writing an assessment of the ‘messianic climax’ of November 1978 in Jonestown, Guyana, which would be neither a sociological tract nor a sensationalist catalogue of debauchery and crime. It is a brave attempt and in places very interesting, but Naipaul is handicapped by the limitations of his sociological understanding and by commitment to a mannered journalistic-travelogue style of presentation which runs directly counter to his serious intentions. Furthermore, he is frequently overpowered by the quite exceptional stench which emanates from parts of his raw material, and which has become blended with personal prejudices of his own.
Perhaps we should start there. Shiva Naipaul (brother of V. S.) is of Indian stock but was born and reared in Trinidad. This gives him a disillusioned, though strongly partisan, attachment to the Indian element in Guyanese politics, and also, but more relevantly, a deeply felt hostility towards the Guyanese black dictator, Forbes Burnham, who managed, at the outset of independence in 1964, with British and American backing, to outmanoeuvre the Indian socialist leader, Cheddi Jagan. It could well be that Burnham’s politics are quite as unpleasant as they are here depicted, but there is so much overkill in Naipaul’s treatment of this issue that one is led to suspect the integrity of the rest of his account.
There are, however, other parts of Naipaul’s background which provide him with just the kind of cultural detachment which is essential if a ‘balanced’ view of the Jonestown tragedy is to be achieved. At Oxford, he read classical Chinese, and the prize-winning novels and travel books which are now his living are written from a London base. He is not a man without roots, but, to an exceptional degree, he is able to view the dialectic between the capitalist ‘haves’ and the Third World ‘have-nots’ without full commitment to either side. He holds no brief for the Anglo-Americans, either present or past, who have profited, and still profit, from the exploitation of the Third World, but he considers that, at least for the peoples of the Caribbean, the post-colonial era has been a disheartening story of downhill all the way.
Up to a point, Naipaul brings the same kind of double-sided criticism to bear on the complex characters of Jim Jones himself and of those of his followers whose life-histories are singled out for relatively detailed attention. But early on in his book Naipaul adopts the stance that Jones and Burnham were birds of a feather, and this raises major difficulties. As presented here, the whole of Burnham’s Guyana is another Jonestown which in turn was just a special transformation of certain very unpleasant facets of life in the United States, particularly in California. Naipaul shows us clearly enough that on his way to perdition Jones was regarded by many as a saint, but because he is equated with Burnham, who can be allowed no redeeming features whatsoever, the ‘good’ sides of Jones’ character show through as a kind of confidence trick.
I don’t think that this was Naipaul’s intention. On several occasions he makes the point that it is difficult to see how Jonestown can have been, as some have suggested, simply a ‘Potemkin Village’ put up to impress the innocent visitor; and he goes to some lengths to draw sometimes exaggerated parallels between Jones and other far more reputable Californian notables, such as Buckminster Fuller. But this only serves to contaminate Fuller. Jones and all his works are irredeemably evil. I can’t help feeling that the reality must have been much more complicated than that.
The form of Naipaul’s presentation has been carefully thought out but is, to my mind, very awkward. The first two chapters are mainly devoted to an account of the more depressing aspects of Caribbean politics during the early 1970s, interspersed with brief sketches of life in Georgetown, Guyana, as Naipaul observed it when he first arrived there in late 1978, two weeks after the Jonestown mass suicide. Chapter Three is a similar jumpy, non-sequential outline account of the rise and fall of Jonestown itself, from its establishment in late 1974 to the final disaster in 1978. At this stage we are given very little information about Pastor Jones and his flock, but there is a strong emphasis on the empathy between Jones and Burnham: ‘Thus did Jim Jones and the People’s Temple come to Socialist Guyana – with tears, deception, and voodoo... the warm welcome extended by the Guyanese Government to Jim Jones and his People’s Temple ... was a marriage made in heaven ... that marriage ... between Jim Jones and the Government of Forbes Burnham lasted until the moment when a dump truck full of armed men appeared at the far end of the Kaituma airstrip – and the killing began.’
Chapter Four is a flashback to some of the enthusiastic accounts of Jonestown which were still being put out by relatively detached, if naive observers as late as May 1978. For the most part Chapters Five and Six are a straight piece of journalistic impressionism: bits and pieces of documentary from Georgetown late 1978, a visit to the remnants of Jonestown along with other journalists, patches of interviews with survivors. But in the middle of Chapter Five we are given a step-by-step summary, from 1970onwards, of the ‘Stoen case’, which was the immediate precipitating cause of what happened on 18 November 1978. For any reader who does not already know the basic facts of the story and who wants to keep his bearings throughout Naipaul’s exasperating tergivisations, this section is an essential anchor point.
That brings us to the end of Part One, but up to now we have never really been told what all the fuss is about. We know by oblique cross-reference that on 18 November 1978 Pastor Jones and 900 of his devoted followers committed suicide by drinking a sweetened cyanide soup. We know that in the background of this event one of Jim Jones’s former mistresses (and her estranged husband) was seeking custody of her child through an ineffective legal process in the Guyanese courts, and we know that the California Congressman Leo Ryan, along with a delegation of Concerned Relatives of adherents of Jones’s sect, had been shot dead by Jones’s assassins. But Naipaul’s assumption is that his readers all know much more about the general history of the tragedy than he has bothered to tell us. Perhaps they do, but if not, they will find him very confusing.
The same mannered style of reportage permeates Part Two, but the author is now located mostly in California. Here he interviews survivors of the Jonestown tragedy, and members of the People’s Temple sect who had deserted the fold before Jones had deserted San Francisco for the lusher and even more corrupting climate of Guyana. Naipaul also gives a lot of attention to other eccentric sects and charismatic leaders who have flourished in California during recent decades (including Manson), the implication being that only evil can come from such a social atmosphere, and that the crazy horrors of Jonestown were no more than the logical end of the road for all kinds of rootless victims of American society, both black and white.
The florid style makes for difficult reading, but what does come through is that Jones, like other charismatic leaders, held his adherents together by a kind of inverted terrorism – whipping up the belief that all the resources of the American Government and of American biological science were being devoted to the destruction of the elect of the People’s Temple. However, it is only at page 158, fifty pages from the end, that we learn something about Jones himself – his youth in Indiana, the sources of his incoherent religious ideas, and the history of his earlier attempt to create a Shangri-La in 1962 in Brazil. And it is only at page 200 that we learn how the People’s Temple came to California in 1965 in the era of love and peace which boiled over into the mishmash of violence provided by the Mansonite Corporation, the Symbionese Liberation Army, the Weathermen, and the other strange expressions of radical protest which burgeoned in that part of the world during the late 1960s.
Naipaul does here make his case that the Jim Jones phenomenon had many transformational parallels, but he loses sight of the protagonists. It is perhaps in an attempt to make amends for this dehumanisation that he has his final chapter consist of a series of brief, quite disjointed autobiographical statements by various individuals who had been linked either with Jones’s Temple or with Buckminster Fuller. But it doesn’t add up.
There is a big theme here which deserves much cooler, less impressionistic treatment. Naipaul’s book is an appetiser but not itself a meal. Perhaps it is just that the timing is wrong. We are already too far away from the Jonestown affair to take it as yesterday’s headline news; we are not far enough away to begin to think about it as part of the history of our time.
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