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Journey to Nowhere: A New World Tragedy by…

Journey to Nowhere: A New World Tragedy

by Shiva Naipaul

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Of course I remembered the mass suicides in Guyana at the Peoples Temple led by Jim Jones in 1978. However, I was busy at the time with three small children and didn't keep up with the news and analyses. I just happened upon this book used and picked it up. This is an analysis of what this author believes to be the causes of the event. Naipaul assumes that the reader knows what happened, when and where and begins with the interviews and analysis. I had to actually resort to wiki to catch up.

Naipaul was born in Trinidad and educated both there and at University College, Oxford. This background of course influenced his perceptions and judgements about what happened, especially his experience as a person of Indian descent. He begins to tell the story of The People's Temple with historical background of Guyana. Naipaul is attempting to find out how this tragedy was allowed to happen in Guyana. He presents some interesting ideas, e.g. that the idea of third world countries is actually a concept put upon these countries by first world countries. He talks about the stereotype of the angry Black militant leaders (his term) who appear in these countries and makes reference to what he believes is influence on them by American Blacks who traveled to Africa. This power dynamic resulted in much discrimination in Guyana against non-Blacks and, I would argue Naipaul's own discrimination against Blacks both African and American. Jim Jones was a self-proclaimed Socialist who was indeed welcomed by the government of Guyana, who eventually turned away from American relationships and embraced the govt. of Cuba, the U.S.S.R. and other communist countries. A lot more information and background are given here, but this first section is basically setting the scene for the Temple's welcome to Guyana and the lack of oversight of the group by their host country, and the influence of Jones on the government of Guyana, as well as their coverup of the background of the horrific events that occurred there.

Naipaul describes visits and interviews with many people, witnesses, experts, etc. He presents multiple sides of stories of events from many varied perspectives. There are no notes in the book, which I found to be more than a disappointment, only a bibliography. Although, he does seem to show lots of different perspectives and states that there is no explanation for how so many people who were part of this had different experiences and saw very different things. For example, there were many stories of abuse of Temple members, starvation, overwork and beatings. There were others who never witnessed any of that and described it all as a wonderful experience. Naipaul states that there are too many people who saw no abuse to be explained away by being kept from seeing it e.g. by not being allowed in certain areas. However, there are recordings of Jones preaching and rehearsals of mass suicide. The point is also made that many, many Temple members previously lived in terrible poverty and received no medical care, many were mentally ill, poorly educated although there were also some well educated and more knowledgeable members. In other words, for some, circumstances in Guyana that would be judged a nightmare to many would actually be a better experience than most of them had at home in the U.S.

Naipaul extensively describes life in the U.S. and particularly California in the 60s and 70s as being receptive to and welcoming of a great variety of social experiments. He specifically talks about support for Jones from Black Panthers, American politicians such as Willy Brown, and many others. I found Naipaul's description and judgements to be a little harsh of California, although I often find California amusing myself, having lived there most of my life.

Naipaul also claims that as the U.S. government realized the Socialistic threats made by the Temple, government agents began harassing the Temple, disrupting them, and discrediting them much as they did the Black Panthers in the same period. Some say they were threatened by what could have been public perception of a successful socialistic lifestyle.

Revolutionary suicide is defined and described by Naipaul and attributed to this event at least as an explanation of how people were convinced to participate. I found this to be an interesting section and something I had not heard about in this regard. Naipaul describes how it almost becomes inevitable, or the only way out and as a powerful political statement, giving meaning and purpose to both the lives and deaths of people who perceive themselves to be powerless. Naipaul actually claims revolutionary suicide begins when the oppressed rises up and says no to his oppressor. It is seen as a positive action of resistance, comparable to self-immolation. He states that Che Guevara says that revolutionary death is the reality, not victory, which is the dream. All revolutionaries are doomed. Naipaul interviews Huey Newton and other Black Panthers and draws connections in this excerpt:

"A linking of the Revolution with personal doom, forged in the twisted passions of Sergei Nechayev...touched up and romanticized by Che Guevara against the mountain scenery of Cuba and Bolivia, picked up by a former Oakland street boy Newton and given another little twist, ends up on the lips of Jim Jones in the Guyanese wilderness."

There are many interviews and visits to Oakland and Guyana among other places, that make me listen to Naipaul and I do find his thesis fascinating. I do find this last description to be a bit of a stretch, especially considering that Jim Jones, whose mother believed she had given birth to a messiah was already killing small animals and acting out in other ways before he ever left Indiana to move his congregation to California.

I am fascinated, ambiguous, and don't care much for Naipaul, as you could perhaps tell. Nevertheless, four stars for this ambitious work. ( )
4 vote mkboylan | Aug 4, 2013 |
Peoples Temple/Jones, Jim, 1931-1978/Mass suicide > Guyana
  Budzul | May 31, 2008 |
This is the gripping account of the 1978 Jonestown massacre in Guyana. Naipaul was a gifted writer and investigative journalist, with a keen eye for detail. This book digs beneath the surface to uncover the roots of Jim Jones' cult movement (The People's Temple), ultimately tracing it back to "the junk people whom America prefers to forget." ( )
  downstreamer | Jan 7, 2008 |
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