“Arise my child, and take your rightful place among the living!” Thus commands the charismatic preacher to the girl named Trina who lies still in her coffin. Only moments before he had invited some of the people in the large gathering to come close to inspect the child and bear witness to the lifeless body. The scene is fraught with anticipation and drama: “A gasp escapes the crowd as Trina jerks awake. She rises staggeringly to her feet. People faint. Small children scream and hide behind parents.” It is a miraculous work performed by the man known to all members of the assembly as Father. It is further proof of his power and goodness. Or so it seems.
In Fred D’Aguiar’s novel “Children of Paradise,” a remote area in the dense Amazonian jungle has been made habitable by an impassioned religious congregation. They are of various races and ethnicities dedicated to overcoming racism, classism and sexism. Although a more inhospitable locale would be difficult to find, their zeal to make a better world has overridden the adversity posed by their formidable natural surroundings. Theirs will be a true utopian community. Maybe they can become a beacon of hope for the misguided world beyond the commune’s bounds.
Their leader is the electrifying preacher who claims to have a direct link to God. As a conduit for the Almighty, his pronouncements and demands are divinely ordained and not to be questioned. He has delivered his followers from the bowels of urban poverty, from the violence of mean streets, from the racism and militarism that pervade the United States. Within their tropical idyll the horrors and indignities of modern life no longer denigrate them. Free from the temptations of a materialistic society they are no longer distracted from loving everyone and engaging in what must be their paramount concern: preparing for the reward that awaits them in heaven. By dutifully following the dictates of their grandiloquent leader, eternal life and happiness are assured. “He is Father to all. He plucked each and every one of them from their mad and aimless ways and brought them to the wilderness and placed them one step closer to paradise.”
But all is not well. Some devotees have grown skeptical and are becoming apostates. In the increasingly paranoid and authoritarian atmosphere such persons run the risk of public humiliation, beating and worse.
The novel is inspired by the story of Jonestown, Guyana, where, in 1978, Rev. Jim Jones and more than 900 followers of his People’s Temple died in a mass suicide. Many administered poisoned Flavor Aid to their children before drinking it themselves. Others were shot by settlement guards while trying to escape the gruesome ritual.
The incident led to the expression “drinking the Kool-Aid,” which erroneously substitutes another soft drink name for the one Jones made his followers drink. In an interview D’Aguiar was asked about this phrase and how it has become part of American vernacular. He responded: “It is a cruel misnomer extrapolated from Jonestown and one of the reasons I wrote my novel to depict resistance rather than blind obedience to messianic sadism. We apply the term to denote a total surrender to an idea or force. In Jonestown there was resistance to Jones and that is why he needed a remote location and a regime of mental and physical torture that resulted in an erosion of the will of his followers. … I took pains in my novel to chart the stages of this breakdown of the will of the community, and I showed pockets of resistance to Jones as well. The Kool Aid was just a final act in a play of death, along with bullets, beatings, sleep deprivation, starvation, and marathon sessions of Jones preaching that was recorded and relayed on speakers around the compound, all hours of the day or night.”
In the novel’s camp, outsiders are suspect. All that is foreign to the totalistic gestalt of the commune is a potential contagion. Captain Aubrey Bryant and his first mate have had a cordial business arrangement with the settlement and frequently transport commune members in their boat. It is in the course of these business excursions to the state capitol and back that Trina and her mother Joyce begin to imagine a life away from the regimented forest enclave. As mutual attraction and affection between Joyce and Aubrey deepen, escape becomes a genuine possibility. Both will pay dearly, Joyce at the hands of the commune and Aubrey at the hands of a corrupt government in the pay of Father and his inner circle of obsequious collaborators.
Within the settlement is a gorilla named Adam. His home is a cage within the larger cage of the claustrophobic compound. He is central to this tale of human beings who have given over their freedom and rationality to the lethal designs of a crazed charlatan. Sometimes the preacher demonstrates his dominance over Adam, who appears to understand and obey the leader’s exhortations. But the gorilla proves sentient and has a mind of his own. Adam understands the children of the compound in their spontaneous efforts at play, to simply be children in spite of the community’s imposition of mental and emotional shackles.
D’Aguiar’s story poses profound questions regarding volition, authority, loyalty and love. This book revisits a strange and tragic event of recent history in grim, sometimes surrealistic but compelling fashion.