Lyrical prose and magical realism inform a tale born of atrocity: the infamous mass suicides in Jonestown, Guyana in 1978. Similar enough in circumstance to warrant an association to the actual event, the Jim Jones-type preacher in Children of Paradiseexhibits the same megalomaniac extremes, from religious fanaticism to savage hypocrisy, exercising complete control over those who have followed him in pursuit of salvation in the arms of a loving if exacting God. Steeped in the graphic images and moral lessons of the Bible, the preacher’s followers absorb his sermons, diatribes designed to meld their minds into receptacles for whatever behavior he chooses to enforce. Like automatons, children and adults willingly follow direction, fearful of disappointing the preacher who, in their minds, is God in human form.
Beyond the devastating images etched on the public consciousness by the actual event, D’Aguiar’s fictional retelling puts a human face on the tragedy. An aura of fatalism glows in the midst of nature’s bounty, the mockery of innocence and simple joys of childhood in the face of the premature death that awaits them. It is the children who tug at our hearts, those without choice or benefactor. Trina, an exceptional ten-year-old girl and her beautiful mother, Joyce, become the faces of the commune, as well as guards Eric and Kevin, a preacher whose every need is studiously attended.
The jungle offers its own sounds and images, but the addition of the thought processes of a captive gorilla, Adam, caged in the center of the commune, suggests the connections between human, animal and nature in a primal setting, Eden-like but for the anticipation of those final, shocking images. Though the preacher serves as counterweight—the force that stifles and destroys every attempt at exception save what he permits—other peripheral characters are meaningful in their struggles to adapt to the demands of commune life: a boy who flees to the jungle to avoid the preacher’s wrath and punishment; a girl stolen from a mother allowed to leave, but only without her daughter; a gorilla who forms an attachment to a trusting Trina, who views unfolding events with anguish and terrible comprehension.
With Joyce and Trina yearning for escape, the reader cannot help but nurture hope for them, an opportunity to temper the very brutality of the story. But while magical realism tempts the mind to visions beyond earthly boundaries, especially in a fecund and dangerous jungle, it cannot obliterate reality, the truth of an isolated and regimented commune meant to serve the greater glory of one man’s mission, a grand gesture, a madman’s exercise of hubris, religious fanaticism and ego. The commune flourishes, government oversight ameliorated by corruption and bribery, far from the prying eyes of strangers. Members are cowed by belief, ecstasy and punishment, manipulated and coerced in their blind devotion to a God who has eluded them in the country of their birth.
In 1978, Jonestown struck a psychic blow on a world both outraged and disbelieving, but it is only the most graphic contemporary example of such phenomena. The receptiveness of people terrified by an out-of-control world, science and technology constantly challenging the age-old beliefs of God and the Bible, has created a fallow field for charlatans and despots, whether religious or political, inflaming passions, stoking fears and justifying the most bizarre behavior—even mass suicide—in service of appeasing an angry master. How do such things happen? Why do people follow charismatic leaders, like lemmings, off a cliff? Why does society turn away from suspicious behavior? D’Aguiar offers a glimpse into this world in a novel that weighs on my heart like a stone, a pervasive evil that beautiful phrases and magical realism cannot disguise.