Children of Paradise – Fred D’Aguiar


Truth is stranger than fiction, they say.

And this is what crossed my mind after reading Fred D’Aguiar’s Children of Paradise, a novel that factionalizes Jonestown and the events leading up to the massacre at the Peoples Temple in Guyana in November 1978.

As a Caribbean person who lived during the period on the island of Trinidad, next door, I came to the novel partly to reflect and, of course, partly to follow the Guyanese-American author D’Aguiar’s handling of that unimaginable horror that so challenges any kind of fictive re-creation.

And as I ticked off the stitching of the fabula with documented affidavits and testimony of witnesses, I found myself still searching for adequate plot, for motive.

Of course there is a storyline: a love thread, a chief villain, a maze of evil and many many victims, but still …

Why the almost race-less characters? Why had the virile, the halt, the lame, the old, the young, the gay guards Kevin and Eric, voyaged so far from their birth-land in the US, following Father, bringing their families into this false Eden, the central minotaur of this labyrinth, the caged gorilla, Adam?

This last week of April 2014, the basketball furore in America over alleged racist statements and the thrown banana picked up, peeled and eaten by a player in a European soccer match before the said player took his corner kick, revived in good measure the missing link: People still dreaming of an anti-discrimination world almost 40 years after, still.

So O Captain! My Captain!

Can the ascension of the innocents at the end of D’Aguiar’s novel, or the Pied Piper trail down to the escape pier, suffice as a fair enough Anansi story ending? Trina’s flute, is it an effective lullaby for the children?

Perhaps the shortcomings of this novel lie neither with the storyteller nor the art of fiction. Perhaps all storylines for this massacre belong to the victims.

For Children of Paradise is told from beginning to end in the present tense, a stylistic device which evokes a kind of memorializing that warns against recurrence.

In this instance, add the historical fact that the Caribbean is a place to which many have been brought unwillingly, and many have come voluntarily with a medley of widely contrasting motives, binding irresistibly the possessor to the dispossessed. 

And though this may seem unrelated, a similar massacre of innocents played out itself five years later, in the last weeks of October 1983, on an island not too distant up the Caribbean, a massacre which no truth and reconciliation has been able to assuage.

Ideology, and leadership woven into a religion for the dispossessed – similar outcome – betrayal – disbelief – silence – another bad dream for which no Anansi story is adequate.

For me, there are some patches of ground and events that greatly challenge the art of fiction. For our memorials, we have affidavits and accounts of witnesses. But it is difficult to pry satisfactory Anansi stories out of these. In my opinion, Jonestown Guyana is one such patch of ground and event.


©Cynthia James – April 2014

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