El “cipitío” en el Salvador Sheraton

El cipitío en el Salvador Sheraton

This short book describes itself as a “literary chronicle/collage about the FMLN Offensive in San Salvador, from November 11-21, 1989.” Of course, the offensive didn’t just take place in the country’s capital: as the book itself notes, the guerrilla’s tactics involved multiple strikes throughout the country, preventing the armed forces from concentrating in any particular zone. There was “bloody combat in San Miguel, Usulatán, and Morazán in the East; La Paz, San Vicente, and Cuscatlán, in the Centre; Cabañas and Chalatenango, in the North” (25). Nor was this the first time that the guerrilla had been active in the city: the war had never been simply a rural rebellion, and the FMLN had never adopted the Maoist strategy of (say) Peru’s Sendero Luminoso, which involved encircling the cities from the countryside. And yet, in November 1989, the war came to San Salvador in new ways, for instance in that the guerrilla moved (more or less) in the open in working class suburbs such as Mejicanos and Soyapango, while for its part the state for the first time bombed these parts of its own capital city from the air.

Briefly, this long-running “low-intensity” war became resolutely high-intensity for everyone, not just for the peasants of far-flung departments such as Chalatenango or Morazán. San Salvador was briefly the scene of urban warfare reminiscent of Beirut or Sarajevo. Nobody was entirely safe, as was demonstrated by the two notable events that are this book’s focus: the extrajudicial killing of the country’s most prominent group of intellectuals, six Jesuit scholar-priests at the Universidad Centroamericana; and the guerrilla incursion into the capital city’s wealthiest neighbourhood, Escalón, when for a couple of days they occupied one of its foremost luxury hotels, the Salvador Sheraton. The hotel’s guests at the time included the Secretary-General of the Organization of American States plus a number of US Green Berets. Anticipating a possible hostage rescue operation, (then) President George H W Bush sent down an elite group of Delta Force operators. So November 1989 was the moment when El Salvador almost became Vietnam, with a direct engagement between the guerrilla and the US armed forces.

But El “cipitío” is not particularly interested in framing the Salvadoran revolution in terms of a Cold War proxy conflict. Rather, it envisages the guerrilla to be accompanied by “thousands of spirits [who] watch approvingly and guarded the periphery: they are Indians who had died in 1524, 1832, 1932… There were the defenders of Cuscatlán, the “Land of Treasures. There was Tayte Anastasio Aquino, the Indians Feliciano Ama and Chico Sánchez, and with them, in every one of the guerrilla… the “Negro” Farabundo Martí” (16). So the portrait the book paints is of a hybrid postcolonial revolt, with Aztec and Mayan elements as well as the specifically Salvadoran sprites the “cipitío” of the title and his companion the “ciguanaba,” a ferocious woman warrior. The cipitío transforms a guerrilla detachment into spirit beasts–a jaguar, a quetzal, a deer, and so on–to whisk them invisibly past the sentries and roadblocks and into the heart of the territory claimed by the Salvadoran bourgeoisie and international capital. And once their point is made, he (literally) spirits them away again, to fight another day. For this is a struggle that won’t come to an end in any eleven-day “final offensive,” or even with the peace accords three years later. This is a “long war” indeed (to borrow James Dunkerley’s phrase), and it continues to this day.

Things Fall Apart

Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart, cover

Chinua Achebe’s classic novel Things Fall Apart (1958) is often seen as a riposte to European representations of African life and culture, not least for instance Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, which Achebe memorably described as the work of “a thoroughgoing racist.” Achebe’s critique is that Conrad’s novella treats “Africa as setting and backdrop which eliminates the African as human factor. Africa as a metaphysical battlefield devoid of all recognizable humanity, into which the wandering European enters at his peril.” Moreover, he continues, “The real question is the dehumanization of Africa and Africans which this age-long attitude has fostered and continues to foster in the world.”

I wonder, however, about the effectiveness of this riposte. Not least because Things Fall Apart reads as an extended obituary to a vanished way of life and as such mimics a quasi-anthropological perspective on colonized cultures. However much Achebe wants to distinguish himself not only from Conrad but also from the colonial District Commissioner who features at the book’s conclusion as a would-be ethnologist contemplating writing a book to be entitled “The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger” (209), he sustains rather than undermines the tropes that enable such Eurocentric visions.

Achebe’s novel is certainly obsessed with mourning and death: both the ultimate suicide of its protagonist, Okonkwo, a strongman in an Ibo village called Umuofia, and the vanishing of the precolonial customs and structures with which Okonkwo’s demise is associated. Okonkwo is an ambitious striver, whose rash actions lead first to his exile from the community and later to his killing himself (an unholy action) as he realizes that resistance to cultural invasion is apparently futile. But this has already been foretold: towards the end, after a convert interrupts a ritual performance and unmasks one of its participants, we hear that “the Mother of the Spirits walked the length and breadth of the clan, weeping for her murdered son. [. . .] Not even the oldest man in Umuofia had ever heard such a strange and terrible sound, and it was never to be heard again. It seemed as if the very soul of the tribe wept for a great evil that was coming–its own death” (187). We are, I think, to share in this sorrow, and thus to condemn the coming of the colonizers.

But such lamentation is a typical feature of colonial discourse itself, which regularly mourned–and continues to mourn–the destruction of indigenous practices and lifestyles for which it itself was and is responsible. From the cult of the “noble savage” and The Last of the Mohicans to the fascination towards supposedly uncontacted tribes from Amazonian Peru to the Andamans, imperial powers have always professed ambivalence towards the consequences of modernization and/or development. But this mourning is expressed so as to suggest that these are the inevitable victims of a progress that is unstoppable, the price we pay for so-called civilization. At the same time, the anthropological lament tells us that as soon as the pristine authenticity of the indigenous is compromised, they cease to be (really) indigenous at all. Hence, it is not only no use trying to save the victims of colonization: in that as soon as we know of them they are irredeemably transformed (acculturated, inauthentic), it is not worth saving them either.

Perhaps the success of Achebe’s book, as no doubt (and by some distance) the best-known and best-selling novel written by a black African, is due to its playing into precisely this colonial fantasy. It helps that its narrative is set in some rather vague and imprecise past: the Ibo are presented very much as people without history, whose way of life is perpetuated through constant repetition undergirded by folk memory. As the colonizers arrive, inducing a “terrible sound” never heard before and “never to be heard again,” this is the eruption of a new mode of temporality into an otherwise relatively static (at best, cyclical) way of life. Okonkwo then has to die, in a foolhardy act of useless resistance, because his life is unimaginable after the taint of Western corruption has come.

In fact, however, the Ibo (now usually called Igbo) have had a rather more interesting postcolonial history than the novel suggests. Indeed, the very notion of Igbo identity is itself largely the product of colonial contact, and led to a dramatic twentieth-century history (not least the Biafra rebellion) in which Achebe himself played a not insignificant part. But this afterlife of the I(g)bo would come as a surprise to a reader of the novel, riven through as it is with an air of chilling finality. And I would argue that this attempt (almost literally) to close the book on I(g)bo culture is as dehumanizing as anything to be found in Conrad or his ilk. For it denies them their human complexity, even as the figure of Okonkwo himself (twice over traitor to his tribe) points indirectly to the mythic dimension of the dream of precolonial purity.

For more, see my lecture on Arts One Open.


If there is a guiding principle to Latin American postcoloniality, it is surely that which is encapsulated in Juan Bautista Alberdi’s famous phrase, “Gobernar es Poblar”: “To Govern is to Populate.” As the Argentine jurist put it in Bases y puntos de partida para la organización política de la República Argentina, a book which outlines the structure of a future constitution of the country, the point of this maxim is to ensure that the constitution is not empty: “What name would you give a country, or what name would it deserve, if it comprised two-hundred thousand leagues of territory and eight-hundred thousand inhabitants? A desert. And what name would you give to the Constitution of such a country? The Constitution of a desert. Well, that country is the Argentine Republic, and whatever its Constitution may be, for years it will be nothing more than the Constitution of a desert” (525-526) Hence the exhortation to immigration, and not just any immigration, as Alberdi was at pains to explain even years later: “To populate is to enrich when you people the country with folk who know what they are doing when it comes to industry and who are accustomed to work that is productive and enriching. To populate is to civilize when you people the country with civilized folk, that is, with settlers from civilized Europe. That is why I have said in the Constitution that the government should encourage European immigration. But to populate is not to civilize, indeed instead it leads to brutishness, when one peoples the country with Chinese or Indians from Asia, or with blacks from Africa” (“Gobernar es Poblar” 271). Population has a qualitative aspect, as well as a quantitative one. It matters who or what constitutes the population, who or what gives flesh or life to the constitution.

In the first place, Alberdi’s remarks indicate clearly that at least from the standpoint of those who charged themselves with envisaging the constitution of the new Republics that resulted from independence from Spain, Latin American postcoloniality involved less the region’s decolonization than its recolonization. Argentina, Alberdi tells us, has still yet to be properly colonized; it needs to be colonized again, but now on the North American model, rather than along Spanish lines. Settler colonialism was to replace administrative hierarchy, wiping out the rigid division between a ruling caste on the one hand, whose roots were not truly in the country, and a vulgar mass on the other hand, who lacked all social or political responsibility. For in the second place, it is clear also that the act of population, for Alberdi, also implied the process of forming a people. “Gobernar es poblar” could equally be translated as meaning “To govern is to construct a people.” Only the presence of a people would ensure that the new republic’s constituted power was more than mere facade, deserted and empty.

And so the history of Latin American populism begins: as the injunction to construct a people that would give life to the otherwise hollow institutions of the new Republic. The people are never separate from constituted power; indeed, it is the architects of the constitution who dream them up and call them forth to take their (supposedly) rightful place. The problem, of course, is that the region is hardly in fact unpopulated. Nobody believes for instance that Argentina is truly a desert, truly devoid of population: Domingo Sarmiento would provide, in Facundo, what is in some surprising ways a remarkably sensitive anthropological account of at least some of the human settlement that already occupied the Argentine pampa, the uncivilized and (quite literally) unsettling gaucho who were an obstacle to true settlement, proper settler colonialism. The fiction of a terra nullius is always self-consciously just that: a fiction. And elsewhere in Latin America (Mexico, Peru, and so on), the notion that the territory was mere “desert” was always much more untenable still. The problem was that the population was not yet a people, no more than Asian or African immigrants could ever (in Alberdi and others’ eyes) constitute a people and redeem the deserted constitution. The pre-existing population of Latin America were, rather, variously an unformed mass, barbarous hordes, or recalcitrant and atavistic Indians whose principle of (dis)organization did not fit easily with the political organization imagined for the postcolonial settlement. So the history of Latin American populism is not merely that of calling forth a people to flesh out the constitution: in recolonizing the territory, claiming it back in the name of the new Republics, the framers of political order would also have to deal with the multitude that always already precedes them.

The basic trope of populist rhetoric invokes what is apparently a primordial social division. Indeed, as Yves Mény and Yves Surel indicate, we can define populism precisely by its rhetorical maneuvers: first, it demarcates a fundamental cleavage between “the top and the bottom, the rich and the poor, the rulers and the ruled,” in short, between “the good, wide, and simple people” and “the corrupt, incompetent, and interlocking elites”; second, “elites are accused of abusing their position of power instead of acting in conformity with the interests of the people as a whole”; and third, populism then insists that “the primacy of the people has to be restored.” Direct democracy is encouraged: “The ideal populist political system comes close, at least on paper, to a ‘pure’ democratic regime where the people are given the first and final word” (Mény and Surel, 12, 13). So populism combines: a framework of an overriding distinction between people and elite; an analysis that presents this distinction as antagonism rather than mere difference; and a gesture of solidarity with the people, against the elite. And yet we will never fully understand the populist impulse if, like so many and not least Ernesto Laclau in his celebrated analysis, we are content simply to trace its rhetorical gestures, its apparent antagonisms and solidarities. For populism is, in the end, the attempt to construct political unity by positing the people as the basis of political legitimacy, and therefore by displacing or conjuring away a pre-existing multitude. The populist sleight of hand consists in recasting the multitude as people while at the same time presenting itself as somehow anti-institutional and progressive; in short by appropriating and converting constituent into constituted power.

And this, ultimately, is the history of Latin American postcoloniality, which is therefore fundamentally structured by populism even in those periods or places where populist movements are in abeyance, seem not to have the upper hand, or even appear to be definitively absent. From the nineteenth century to the present, with rare exceptions (and the neoliberal period of the 1980s and 1990s may arguably be one of those), governance in Latin America has involved the projection of unity in the face of the legacy of a Spanish colonial regime that had always been content (not least in its division between creole and Indian republics) to live with difference and duality if not multiplicity. Latin American postcoloniality has been an attempt to undo the basic structures of Spanish imperialism while preserving its constituent institutions (as well, of course, as its class and racial privileges) by recasting them along North American lines as somehow by (if not for) the people. To this end, it has projected a whole series of spurious hegemonies of integration, mestizaje, development, and so on, of which classical populism has merely been the most successful (perhaps because it was its purest incarnation) if only at the same time its most miserable failure. For the rock on which this project has founded has been the continual insistence of the multitude, the fact that the dream of a wholesale neocolonial resettlement could only ever be wishful thinking. The multitude has ensured that constituted power in postcolonial times has remained unsettled, hollow and deserted.

works cited

Alberdi, Juan Bautista. Bases y puntos de partida para la organización política de la República Argentina. Obras completas. Vol. 3. Buenos Aires: La Tribuna Nacional, 1886. 371-558.
—–. “Gobernar es Poblar.” Escritos póstumos de J. B. Alberdi. Vol. 8: América. Buenos Aires: Cruz Hermanos, 1899. 266-276.
Mény, Yves, and Yves Surel. “The Constitutive Ambiguity of Populism.” Democracies and the Populist Challenge. Ed. Yves Mény and Yves Surel. Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2002. 1-21.


Reading Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe is a somewhat uncanny experience. You know, or you think you know, the general lineaments of what has become a classic narrative and founding myth of modern civilization’s relationship both to nature and to (purportedly) premodern barbarism. This is, after all, a familiar or even over-familiar story. Crusoe is the name of a seventeenth-century castaway who reconstructs a civilized life on a remote island with primitive tools; he finds a footprint on the beach and realizes he is not alone on the island; he subsequently is aided by and tutors his man “Friday.”

Presumably at some point Crusoe and Friday are rescued, but the story as it exists in popular consciousness doesn’t have (and perhaps doesn’t need) any particular conclusion: it is a tale about origins, not conclusions. Any destiny the tale may imply is that incarnated in the process of gradual civilization itself, a process that is (it’s suggested) without any fixed end.

Coming to the book itself, however, is a disconcerting reminder of how much is omitted, simplified, or corrupted as narrative becomes myth. For Defoe’s novel bears at times little more than a passing resemblance to this idea of Robinson Crusoe that has become embedded in our cultural (un)consciousness.

To begin with, the story as told by Defoe takes an awfully long time to get to the famous island. Crusoe isn’t shipwrecked until almost forty pages in, and before that point he’s already had a whole set of other adventures and misfortunes: a terrible storm in the North Sea on his maiden sea voyage; kidnap and captivity at the hands of Barbary Coast pirates; escape across the North Atlantic, in the company of a young Spanish Moor, Xury; and a stint as a planter in Brazil.

So the origin (if the book is really a story about origins) is several times deferred or, perhaps better, foreshadowed and so repeated in advance. The North Sea storm anticipates the hurricane that will shipwreck Crusoe’s boat in the Caribbean; his captivity in North Africa will be duplicated by the sense that his island home is a prison; his negotiations with Xury are a preemptive mirror of his relationship with Friday; and his life as planter foreshadows his attempts to establish agriculture as a castaway. By the time that we get to the founding moment, when Crusoe finds himself alone on his island, everything is already repetition.

A similar doubling can be found in the narrative provided of and on the island itself. For while the book opens as more or less standard first-person (pseudo-)autobiographical narrative, at the beginning of his sojourn Crusoe also starts to keep a journal, which he includes more or less verbatim in his account of those early days and months. So the same events are often told twice: once by Crusoe as novelistic narrator, and a second time in quotation as it were, by Crusoe as character. (Compare 37-56 with 57-61.) And so although the journal is intended initially as a kind of therapy–so “as to deliver my thoughts from daily poring on them, and afflicting my mind” (53)–this doubleness threatens a kind of narrative madness, the possibility of an endless proliferation of accounts. What, after all, if in the journal he had written up the process of writing the journal itself? An aporia threatens to open up, of narratives redoubled like reflections in multiple mirrors.

After a while, Crusoe appears to realize the senselessness of this procedure by which everything has to be described twice–a senselessness brought on ironically by an activity designed to give sense to his experience. As such he notes, for instance, of one construction he had made that “This wall being described before, I purposely omit what was said in the Journal” (61). Not long after, the conceit of quoting the journal is abandoned altogether or rather, as its conclusion or the end of the citation is never signaled with anything like the clarity that its introduction had apparently merited, the journal and the broader narration seem simply to blur one into another. What is quoted becomes part of the frame, and so the written account becomes part of the “real” world of the narrative. This, of course, in turn mirrors the strategy of the novel as a whole, which purports to be the true story of a castaway mariner, in other words to propose that the character’s narrative is one with that of the world itself, that “his story” is simply history.

Another surprise, for me at least, was that the famous footprint in the sand turns out not to be Friday’s; my assumption that it was collapses a whole sequence of events. The “print of a man’s naked foot on the shore” (122) comes almost exactly halfway through the narrative; but Friday doesn’t arrive on the scene for another forty pages (163). Again, then, there is a strange delay. Here, however, it’s a case of the sign preceding the thing; the two, which in my understanding of the story had been closely associated, are in fact much more loosely related.

More generally, in the novel as a whole signs are quite tenuously related to things. For the most part, in fact, Crusoe seems quite uninterested in naming or charting what he finds in this unfamiliar territory. He tells us early on that he calls his land “the island of despair” (57), but that name is never used again; perhaps like “primitives” are supposed to do, he sees little need to give a name to an environment in which he is fully immersed. But rather more strikingly, he makes no attempt either to follow the standard colonizing practice of naming the various geographical and topographical features that constitute the island: none of the bays or hills or woods have any signifiers attached to them; at best, he calls his initial settlement his “sea-coast house” (82; subsequently his “castle” [122]) and his inland outpost his “country-house” (82). Nor, though he notes his unfamiliarity with much of the island’s flora and fauna, does he bother to come up with words for them, either. Indeed, overall Crusoe is remarkably uninquisitive about his surroundings: he doesn’t even care to do much in the way of exploring–which is why the regular visits of so-called cannibals from the mainland escape his notice for so many years.

In short, Crusoe’s attitude is far from that of the typical colonizer, however much he does at various points consider himself the “prince and lord of the whole island” (118). He shows little or no interest in surveying, mapping, and so symbolically or even actually securing the territory that he considers his.

The one exception to Crusoe’s peculiar inhibition regarding naming is, of course, his manservant to whom he famously gives the name “Friday” because that was “the day I sav’d his life; I called him so for the memory of the time” (163). And yet this, too, is a remarkably uncertain signifier: Crusoe has repeatedly told us that he relatively soon lost track of the days, despite his best efforts. In an early fever he feels he surely “lost a day in [his] accompt, and never knew which way” (76), so Friday should by rights be either “Thursday” or “Saturday” or even (if Crusoe has tried to compensate for his error, either one way or the other) perhaps “Wednesday” or “Sunday.” In any case, the notion that the name will help fix memory and time is surely an illusion, as Crusoe should be fully aware.

In short, then, Robinson Crusoe turns out to be a rather odd and even singular book. It most certainly fails to ground in any secure way the various narratives of origin that claim it as some founding example loaded with significance, whether these be the fantasy of heroic self-fashioning (the economists’ “homo oeconomicus”) or the black legend of anti-heroic imperialism (the postcolonialists’ ur-colonizer). If anything, it actively destabilizes such accounts, by demonstrating the unknowability and precariousness of origins, narrative, and signification in general. Which is a striking conclusion to take from a book that supposedly has none.

To put it another way, Crusoe’s tale is best understood as more of a posthegemonic anti-narrative in which the many affects that mark the castaway’s long isolation soon undo any claims to construct hegemonic narrative. And yet, of course, in the popular (un)conscious those stories continue regardless.


Guyane, I was told, makes Europeans go crazy. Or maybe it just attracts the ones who are crazy already. It’s like a mental asylum for white people.

Officially an integral part of France (the only place on the South American mainland where the currency is the Euro), Guyane attracts legions of fonctionnaires–civil servants and public sector workers–from Europe. They work in administration and in the schools, in customs and in the police; there is also a sizeable contingent from the armed forces, plus the Guiana Space Center in Kourou draws technicians and scientists.

French workers in Guyane are paid a premium–i.e., more than they would be earning back home–both, again I was told, to compensate for the discomfort and sacrifice of life in the tropics, and in recognition of the fact that the cost of living in Guyane is (perhaps surprisingly) higher than that in Paris.

But still the métropolitains complain. They are bored and easily distracted; they lament their distance from the metropolis, their confinement in this “enfer vert” or green hell; they turn to drink, to drugs, to sex. They go a little bit crazy.

Same as it ever was. Guyane is a reminder that colonialism, at least as experienced by the colonizer, was always as much about boredom and minor debauchery as it was about the exercise of power. It involved a few too many gin and tonics at the club in the afternoon, perhaps followed by a drunken trip to the local brothel. Or as Carolyn Fick puts it of eighteenth-century Haiti, “for the colonial planter, life was generally one of monotony and isolation, compensated by sheer dissipation and indulgence” (The Making of Haiti 16).

Of course, Guyane is not an exact incarnation of traditional colonialism, but then it never was: it was above all a penal colony, rather than the site of agricultural production and exploitation; indeed, even now, compared to Suriname and Guyana there is for instance very little sugar processed or rum distilled. Its economy is dependent upon subsidies, and the people draw welfare from the French state. Unemployment is a particular problem.

If anything, Guyane is an instance of colonialism inverted: where the plantation system depended on black slaves who were forced to work without pay, contemporary welfare colonialism involves paying people to compensate for the fact that they can’t work. And yet, strangely, everything else remains the same.


Journey to Nowhere coverAbout halfway through Shiva Naipaul’s Journey to Nowhere, the author finds himself at a “New Earth Exposition” in San Francisco, confronted with a panoply of hippies and New Agers as well as people he describes as “shaggy feminists, liberated homosexuals” and “earnest, mustachioed teachers worried about Energy” (188). He falls into conversation with a succession of representatives of the “World Hunger Project,” one of whom remarks “I can see you’re a pretty negative type, Shiva. [. . .] You’re hung up on logic and all that kind of bullshit” (198). For Naipaul, this is one of those moments when the deluded proponents of alternative lifestyles condemn themselves, leaving little more to be said. But there’s no doubt that the hippy was right about one thing: Shiva is certainly a “pretty negative type.”

Journey to Nowhere is an account of the Jonestown disaster (about which I’ve written before). Naipaul’s book, published in 1980, is written almost in the immediate aftermath of the disaster, and indeed he visits Guyana just a couple of weeks after this “revolutionary suicide” of almost a thousand Americans, at a time when there is still much press interest in the events.

What makes Naipaul’s approach different is that he believes that hitherto the blame has not been spread widely enough. “No one,” he argues, “accepted any measure of personal responsibility for what had happened” (228). For instance, he quotes numerous survivors and defectors from the People’s Temple but notes that not a single one “has ever admitted any culpability for the carnage that occurred at Jonestown. Not one has ever conceded that past complicities may have contributed to the Guyana tragedy” (157). This was no case of simple brainwashing on the part of a devious would-be messiah, Naipaul tells us; they were in fact all in it together. What’s more, even the so-called “Concerned Relatives” are almost as much to blame as the people they ultimately failed to save: “by their words and action, they helped create the conditions” for the mass suicide; “their hysteria goaded [the People’s Temple] toward extinction” (156).

But the blame is ultimately spread much further still. Naipaul has little truck for the notion that Jonestown is a case of utopian idealism that somewhere went wrong. He finds fault with the idealism in the first place, which “had already gone wrong [. . .] eaten up with inner decay” (297). Hence the seeds of Jonestown’s destruction are already found in San Francisco’s “New Age Exposition,” Los Angeles hedonism, Berkeley’s student radicalism, and Oakland’s Black Panthers. California, that glittering, sun-drenched mirage, turns out to be the setting for wholesale “intellectual and spiritual collapse” (208), a place where “the intellect was dead and its place taken by a set of shared pathological obsessions” (211). Moreover, Naipaul wants us to take the metaphor of sickness seriously: “ideas had indeed become viruses” (211); “they were a disease you caught; a contamination of the intellect” (196).

California, however, is simply the concentration of a set of obsessions and pathologies that are distinctively American, a “laboratory” (199) in which all that is wrong with the country comes to the surface: “America’s wilder dreams have always rolled to the Far West. Fantasies flourish best in a warm, sensual climate” (202). And so it was with Jim Jones and his followers. It was not just that they had been infected by some Californian contagion; they had brought the madness with them in their trek (which Naipaul repeatedly calls a “hegira”) from Indiana and the Middle West. For everything “was already in place when Jones left Indianapolis for the Redwood Valley. Those who were received into its inner circles knowingly recruited themselves into corruption” (249).

It gets worse. There’s a reason why Naipaul subtitles his book “A New World Tragedy”: he sees Jonestown as an indictment of the Americas as a whole. This is no simple anti-Americanism in which the vices of the dominant are mocked or denounced. If anything, it is the dominated, and particularly the blacks who figured so strongly in Jones’s multiracial vision, who are to blame. Was it not Huey Newton who came up with the notion of “revolutionary suicide”? Had not “the basic groundwork [for Jones’s fatal paranoia] been done by his black radical precursors” (288)? What the People’s Temple suffered from, in the end, was “an intolerably aggravated racial consciousness. [. . .] The Temple was the disease it claimed to be fighting. In that lay its most hopeless corruption” (249).

Hence the appropriateness of the Guyanese setting for the final denouement. Naipaul portrays Guyana as a sort of Jonestown in macrocosm, ruled over by a paranoid leader (Forbes Burnham), in thrall to ideologies of black consciousness and socialist cooperation (a “Cooperative Socialist Republic”), suspicious of visitors who are subjected to surveillance and vacuous propaganda. Guyana, like the People’s Temple, is a place of “degeneracy,” of “moral decay” (105), of “a kind of universal mental retardation” (31). Or perhaps not quite universal: Naipaul describes going to a party in Georgetown where his host’s enervated young English wife dances with him and whispers in his ear “Take me away with you! You must take me way from here! [. . .] Every night I dream it’s my turn to drink the poison” (111). Coming from Trinidad, it is as though Naipaul is a “concerned relative” aghast at what he repeatedly terms the “cultural and intellectual regression” born of “the vocabulary of resentment and racial self-assertion” (26).

The figure to whom Naipaul ultimately resorts to understand Guyana (and so by extension Jonestown) is, perhaps unsurprisingly, that of the first black post-independence leader in the Americas: “In the Caribbean, only Haiti could furnish parallels to this almost complete subversion of government: King Christophe had been reborn” (39).

Finally, however, it would be worth putting to Naipaul the same question that he implicitly puts to the concerned relatives of Jonestown. Is not his own description of the postcolonial Americas, with the “riffraff” (27) like “animals” (17) in the grip of nefarious ideologies of racial and cultural empowerment amidst a “jungly nightmare” (13) . . . is all this not a little hysterical? Indeed, has not Naipaul rather lost touch of his much-prized “logic and all that bullshit” in his total negativity towards the Americas and any possible dream of liberation or social justice?