In The Guyana Quartet, Wilson Harris transforms the history and landscape of his native land into myth. By allowing the creative imagination to travel backward and forward through time, he examines the history and landscape of his country in the hope of finding the true identity of his people (and the people of the Caribbean in general) and the potential for future development. The journey, moreover, becomes a quest for “the essential unity within the most bitter forms of latent and active historical diversity,” as Harris himself puts it. It is indeed a quest for a vision of the true essence of life and nature.
Palace of the Peacock, the first novel in the sequence, begins with a dramatic scene dreamed by the narrator, in which a horseman, riding at breakneck speed, is shot. The shot seems to affect the dreaming narrator by pulling him up and stifling his “own heart in heaven.” The rider dies, with a “devil’s smile,” and the horse, “grinning fiendishly,” snaps at the reins. The old woman Mariella, whom the explorer, Donne, has treated as a useless creature and ruled “like a fowl,” has killed the horseman, her captor and tormentor; she then frees his chickens and controls them by feeding them.
Before the dreaming narrator fully awakes into the fictional past, he meets Mariella, who tells him of Donne’s cruelty and shows him evidence of it. He, in turn, observes and strokes the beauty she has managed to preserve in her thighs. Awaking in full, he is caught between the poetic vision inspired by Mariella and his predominantly materialistic perception of Donne. He cannot understand the cracks that have begun to appear within the “monument of conquest” that his own admiring self and Donne himself have constructed. As the novel progresses, however, it becomes clear that the relationship between the narrator and Donne represents the dialectical forces within the self—that is, between the popular and the mundane elements of human nature and behavior and the transcendental possibilities inherent in them. The tension of the novel is derived from the struggle between these two opposing forces.
The main part of the novel, however, presents the details of a seven-day journey which Donne and his crew make upriver into the Guianese jungle. Each of the four books into which the twelve chapters are divided seems to emphasize a significant stage of the crew’s symbolic journey through introspection and reflection to a vision of new potentialities and the possibility of rebirth.
After the first day of the journey beyond Mariella, from whom the folk had fled, the dreaming narrator is interrupted, and a journey through the “straits of memory” unfolds through a third-person narrative voice. Touched by the presence of an old Amerindian woman whom they have taken with them as a guide, they are beset by all the old guilts and insecurities; they also, however, begin to perceive a blurring of the differences between themselves and their captive, between the conquerors and the folk. The landscape itself functions on the symbolic as well as the realistic level.
On the seventh day, after the wrecking of the boat and the apparent deaths of the crew members, the voice of the dreaming narrator returns to present the “inapprehension of substance” to the reader. Completely freed from the materialistic perspective of Donne, his dreamed twin brother into whom he was previously absorbed, he now sees through his truer spiritual eye.
To present the final vision to which the dreaming principal and the journey itself have advanced, Harris resorts to the medium of music: the harmony that enfolds all the elements of diversity. Peacock and palace, soul and flesh, savannah and forest, time and eternity, illusion and reality, the material and the spiritual are all presented as one entity. The crew, having lived through the challenge of second death, have realized the insignificance of conquest and wealth, which previously obsessed them. Consequently, they can envision the possibility of rebirth and spiritual fulfillment. Moreover, the formation of a true community, comprising all the various elements of the history and personality of Guiana, is perceived as a distinct possibility.
Like Palace of the Peacock, The Far Journey of Oudin functions on both the realistic and symbolic levels. Also like the first novel in the sequence, The Far Journey of Oudin involves the dreaming principal. This time, however, the narrative is not controlled by a single point of view (either first-person or third-person); instead, the plot is developed through a shifting point of view. The burden of synthesizing and assimilating the separate pieces of the author’s vision of life is left to the reader.
The novel begins with Oudin’s death, which he experiences as a dream—a dream of the cyclic process of life, of planting and reaping, of beginnings and endings. He, however, realizes that “his labour of death” has come to an end. His dream is shattered by a scream from his wife, Beti, as she discovers his dead body. At this point, however, the moneylender Ram (hence the world of reality) enters the scene, and a flashback to the events that preceded Oudin’s death begins.
The owner of a large estate (inherited from his father, despite the fact that there were two older sons in the family) finds himself increasingly disappointed with his three sons and hands over nearly all of his possessions to a half-witted son, whose mother (the father claims) was “an out-side woman . . . dead in childbirth.” Outraged, the brothers, led by the eldest, Mohammed, and their cousin Rajah conspire against their half brother and murder him. Ram, who has been gradually building himself into a powerful figure through theft and other illicit means, covets Mohammed’s land. To fulfill his plans, Ram enlists Oudin ( who has appeared out of nowhere) to accept employment on Mohammed’s land. Oudin’s appearance becomes a curse for Mohammed, whose wife loses the “manchild” he hoped would become his heir and wastes away to death. This marks the apparent ascendency of Ram and the downfall of Mohammed, whose brothers and cousin eventually die. Eventually, Mohammed himself dies. This economic struggle between Ram and Mohammed, however, is not the main concern of the novel.
The bulk of the novel depicts each conspirator’s confrontation with the reality of his deeds and his eventual death. The reader is allowed to witness the most intimate details of the life-in-death the conspirators subsequently experience....