Guyana: Jungle Brothers

Two books by two brothers make Steve Braunias want to visit their setting — obscure Guyana, in South America.
Shiva Naipaul.
Shiva Naipaul.

Books can take you places, but I want to go for real to that exact place I've been reading about in two books by two brothers. Strange when brothers become authors; stranger still that V.S. Naipaul and Shiva Naipaul should choose to write books examining hot, wet, small, poor, obscure Guyana.

Lost to the world somewhere on the jungle borders of Brazil and Venezuela, an Amazonian fantasia with its jaguars and giant armadillos, the size of Kansas but even emptier with a population of 800,000, kind of Marxist (its full, hopeful name is the Co-Operative Republic of Guyana), the former British colony has always attracted visitors searching for something - gold, salvation, clues. Sir Walter Raleigh sailed up the wide Essequibo river in pursuit of the golden city of El Dorado. Jim Jones set up his death camp on the edge of Guyana's rainforest.

Before and after the Jonestown massacre, the Naipauls were there, poking around, taking notes. Their books were published 17 years apart, both brilliant psychological studies, both records of unhappiness. The experience perhaps killed one of them.

He has his knighthood and his Nobel, but probably no one reads Sir V.S. Naipaul anymore. He'll turn 84 in August. It's almost a surprise that he's still alive; his novels and his critical acclaim seem a thing of the past, a literary enthusiasm from another time. Shiva Naipaul, born 13 years after his celebrated brother, died mid-sentence in 1985. He was 40. His book Journey to Nowhere might be his masterpiece, but who remembers him now?

I saw the book listed on Amazon. He'd travelled to Guyana two weeks after the mass suicide of 918 Americans in November 1978 at the People's Temple compound at Jonestown. I had the feeling I had another book, unread, about Guyana; I hunted through my bookcase, and found a second-hand copy of V.S. Naipaul's The Middle Passage, from 1962. I expected two versions of the same place, differing accounts, portraits with little or nothing in common. But it was as though they were written by the same person.

V.S. Naipaul arrives in the capital, Georgetown, in time for Christmas; so does Shiva. They sigh at the terrible food, marvel at the beautiful houses on stilts made from Guyanese hardwood, record comic accounts of peculiar, belligerent Americans. V.S. Naipaul notes "the brown Demerara River"; Shiva notes "the brown Atlantic". V.S. Naipaul writes that Guyanese will tell you the Essequibo River contains an island as large as Barbados. Shiva Naipaul writes that Guyanese people will tell you an island as large as Barbados is contained in the Essequibo River.

They met Janet Jagan. One of the most extraordinary American politicians of the 20th century, she was born to a middle-class Jewish family in Chicago, and co-founded Guyana's Marxist-Leninist People's Progressive Party with her husband, a black Guyanese, who was elected Prime Minister. V.S. Naipaul dined with the couple on the day they'd nationalised electricity. The CIA perceived the Jagans as a Communist threat, and successfully schemed to topple the party from power. By the time Shiva Naipaul took Jagan for a drink at his Georgetown hotel, she was in opposition. She later became president of Guyana, which is now a pseudo-socialist state, its economy puttering along on exports of gold, sugar, shrimp, rice and timber.

V.S. Naipaul is driven to the Atkinson airfield, and flies into the interior. He notes the cashew and mango trees, the hawks and sedge, and pulls a despairing face. All the socialism in the world, he sighs, won't improve its Third World squalor.

Sixteen years later, Shiva Naipaul notes the papaya and breadfruit trees, the odour of mud and swamp ("I began to feel the city itself was rotting away slowly in the heat"), the beggars "sleeping in the shadows of the peeling buildings". His despair is real. When he's driven to the Atkinson airfield, he flies to Jonestown, and walks on the dead.

The second part of Journey to Nowhere is an account of Naipaul's travels in America, where he attempts to understand the culture that shaped Jones and his followers. It's fluent and thoughtful, a superior kind of journalism. But the stench of death follows every page, wafting in from his eyewitness account of Jonestown, which gives the middle of his book a terrible power.

V.S. Naipaul.
V.S. Naipaul.

He's taken on a guided tour of the People's Temple. The muddy path that leads visitors into the compound is "a narrow corridor sliced through the jungle". He sees a fire in a pit: government labourers are burning mattresses, blankets, shoes, dolls. The midday sun is blazing. "A cloying smell of putrefaction irradiated the air." In the laundry, he sees a cardboard box with empty containers of Fla-Vor-Aid soft drink, which had been mixed with cyanide. Only a fortnight had passed since the 918 men, women and children drank their poison, with Jones bellowing at them, "Don't lie down with tears and agony! Stop this hysterics! This is not the way for people who are socialist communists to die!"

A rack of spice bottles and jars of preserved peppers is in the kitchen. A cookbook: How to Feed Your Baby the Natural Way. A playground with swings and slides. A creche with children's names chalked on the blackboard: Tiffany, Jay, Yolanda, Liza, Clarence, Angela. "I saw sunhats, Afro combs, a set of false teeth." Smoke billows from the pit. "Insects flashed among the bright flowers. Wind rustled the grove."

The smoke, the sun, the smell: Naipaul is in hell. "We were walking on planks laid across the ooze. It was here that most of the bodies had lain, piled three or four deep, bursting in the tropical heat, leaking away into the Guyanese soil. Despite the planks, our feet sank ankle-deep into the ooze."

Paul Theroux ran into Shiva Naipaul about a year later. "He said he had never seen anything worse. He was dispirited by the experience, and for a while it rendered him mute. He suffered something akin to a nervous breakdown during the writing of the book." Friends said Naipaul never recovered.

Theroux's comments are from Sir Vidia's Shadow, that bizarre book about how his long friendship with V.S. Naipaul turned into something akin to hatred. He loathes him for nearly 400 pages. It's almost an act of worship. Shiva Naipaul, though, is dismissed with a few mean paragraphs here and there. Theroux's first impression, when Shiva was 20: "A fool...There was langour and fatigue in the droopy way he sat, and the way he walked, dragging his feet." The last time he saw him, he struck Theroux as "confused, unhappy, angrya sotslow and clumsy."

As for Shiva Naipaul's writing, Theroux regards it as counterfeit, a bad Xerox of V.S. Naipaul's writing. But Journey to Nowhere is a better book than The Middle Passage. Obviously he had a stronger subject - horror - but it's the prose that is more spectacular. For all its occasional duplications, Shiva Naipaul evokes Georgetown and Guyana with greater skill than his elder brother. The genius of V.S. Naipaul is evident in everything he writes, but there's a phoneyness to his attitude and demeanour in Guyana; Shiva Naipaul writes with feeling, really seems to see the place, traces and observes it more alertly. He makes you want to see what he saw. He makes you want to follow in his footsteps, even to Jonestown.

Little remains of the compound these days. Occasionally a reporter will visit, and bring back sightings of a plaque, a sign, a path. The planks have gone. The ooze has leaked deep beneath Guyana's jungle floor. There are other things to catch the eye and thrill the senses - the thundering Kaieteur Falls are a Niagara without the crowds, the rainforest is untouched - in the only English-speaking country in South America. I want to see the birds and beasts. I want to wander the streets of the "hot white city" of Georgetown, as V.S. Naipaul described it. I want to make a literary pilgrimage.



LAN Chile flies from Auckland to Santiago, with return Economy Class fares starting from $2168. Local carriers go on throughout South and Central America.


World Expeditions goes to Guyana, travelling from Georgetown to Kaieteur Falls and back over eight days. Tours start from $4250pp and depart in February, April, July and August.

- NZ Herald

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