From Maya to murder

JONESTOWN by Wilson Harris Faber pounds 9.99
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The Independent Culture
Guyana has always been central to Wilson Harris's work. A Caribbean state set on the South American mainland, a nation hewn from the uneasy influences of peoples from four continents, a society which seemingly responds to the call of both modern Western rationality and ancient Mayan beliefs: Harris's homeland provides the ideal theatre from which to explore the central themes of his novels: the nature of identity, cultural difference and historical memory.

His latest work, Jonestown, tells the tale of one of the more startling events of recent Guyanese history - the mass suicide in November 1978 of more than 900 followers of the messianic cult leader Jim Jones. Jonestown had been a Utopian community, aiming to create a world of racial togetherness. It was almost inevitable, given his intellectual preoccupations, that Harris would be drawn to the story of its destruction, which here forms a backdrop to an exploration of "the erosion of community and place which haunts the Central and South Americas". How, asks Harris, "does one build new architectures out of the rubble of traditions and out of diasporas across millennia?"

As always, Harris dispenses with the constrictions of conventional narrative structure and plot: he was producing magic realism long before Garca Mrquez and Rushdie made it fashionable. Jonestown is narrated by Francisco Bone, a survivor of the suicide. It takes the form of a "Dream-book", a visionary work composed from the images and experiences of Bone who, shocked by the killings, jumps out of reality and into an endless journey across myth, history and culture. Bone is accompanied by two figures whose stories form a counterpoint to his own. Mr Mageye, Bone's school teacher and the "Magus-Jester of history" helps "transcribe the Dream-book into cinematic dress, into ghost-theatre". Deacon, Bone's "Skeleton twin", had been Jones's right-hand man, but became the avenger who killed him. Deacon, Mr Mageye tells Bone, "plays the role model of Fate" and Bone is tied to him "as a Fool to be taunted and insulted and reviled".

Into this rich tapestry Jones weaves a host of cultural references, from Moby-Dick to The Four Quartets to The Satanic Verses. But his biggest influence is the Popol Vuh, the Mayan book of origins, whose fluid approach to time is reflected in Bone's narrative itself.

There is considerable poetry in Harris's archaeology of both myth and psyche. Yet the frenzied leaps across time and logic, and the studied incoherence of the novel, never allow Harris's own storytelling truly to flower. There is something mechanical about the deliberate attempts to push the narrative to the edge of incomprehension - the story will be "bewildering to the Western mind", warns Bone - which diminishes Harris's ability to wring meaning from the clashes of times and cultures that he sets up. His belief that "the mixed people who live in Guyana today are related to the Aboriginal ghosts of the past" and that "Jonestown was the latest manifestation of the breakdown of pre-Colombian civilisations", far from opening up new historical vistas, rather closes them down, for it provides little insight into "the erosion of community and place" in modern-day Guyana, or indeed into the psychological traumas that led to the Jonestown killings themselves.

Ultimately the problem lies in Harris's desire for redemption solely through the power of the Imagination. The real communities of Guyana seem to vanish in Harris's mythmaking. The irony is that Jonestown, the novel, is just as Utopian as Jonestown, the community that died in November 1978.