Wilson Harris’s novels center on his belief that polarization in any community is destructive in any form it takes, whether it is between the imperial and the colonial, the human and the natural, the physical and the spiritual, the historical and the contemporary, the mythic and the scientific, or even the living and the dead. The healthy community should be in a constant state of evolution or metamorphosis, striving to reconcile these static opposites. Artists within such communities must aspire to a unifying perception if they are to be truly creative, and their art must reflect a complementary, reconciling vision. The artist should reject, for example, the rigid conventional demarcation between past and present, corporeal and incorporeal, literal and allegorical. Time past, present, and future should be interlaced. The dead should exist side by side with the living. The literal should be indistinguishable from the metaphorical. In adhering to such ideas of fictional form, Harris produced innovative novels that some see as complex and challenging, others as obscure and idiosyncratic.
This perception of society and the artist and of the form fiction should take informs all of Harris’s novels, with gradations in emphasis, scope, and complexity. Some novels, for example, emphasize the polarization rather than the integration of a community. Some accent the allegorical rather than the realistic. Some juxtapose the living with the dead. There are shifts in setting from novel to novel. Harris’s artistic psyche is embedded in Guyana, and, though he settled in Great Britain in 1959, in his fiction he constantly returns to his native land, making use of the varied landscape of coastland, estuaries, jungles, waterfalls, mountains, and savannahs. In his later novels, the range of his settings expands to include the Caribbean, Great Britain, and Latin America.
The polarization in the assessment of Harris’s work continues. His advocates lavish praise on him, some perceiving him as a candidate for the Nobel Prize. Although an enormous amount of scholarly work has been devoted to Harris’s fiction, especially in the 1990’s, this Guyanese novelist has not entered into the broad circle of cultured readership that has embraced his Caribbean contemporaries V. S. Naipaul of Trinidad and Gabriel García Márquez of Colombia. Naipaul and García Márquez, both outstanding journalists as well as novelists, create a clear historical context for their fiction. Although a deep level of historical awareness is present in Harris’scanon, history is braided with other discourses, such as those of myth, science, and anthropology, as in his use of the Carnival motifs. Perhaps this multilayered quality has inhibited mass reception of Harris’s work. Some observers continue to complain that his novels are strange, with, as David Ormerod has observed, “no discernible yardstick for meaning—just a simple bland identification, where X is symbolic of something, perhaps Y or Z, because the author has just this minute decided that such will be the case.” Shirley Chew, referring to The Tree of the Sun, has stated: “Harris has failed to rise to some of the more common expectations one brings to the reading of a novel.” It is possible that such criticism is indicative of an inability to respond to the demands of Harris’s challenging innovations; on the other hand, it is perhaps a reminder to Harris of his own rejection of the static polarization in community and creativity, a warning to him to heed the conventional in his pursuit of the innovative.
The Guyana Quartet
Palace of the Peacock, Harris’s first novel, is the first of The Guyana Quartet, four sequential novels set in different regions of Guyana. The novel is a perfect introduction to Harris’s canon: It establishes the ideas and forms that are found in subsequent works. Set in the Guyanese interior, the novel recounts the journey upriver of Donne, an efficient and ruthless captain, and his multiracial crew. They are looking for a settlement where they hope to find the Amerindian laborers who earlier fled Donne’s harsh treatment. The account of the journey is provided by a shadowy first-person narrator, Donne’s brother, who accompanies them. After an arduous journey, Donne and his crew reach the settlement, only to find that the American Indians have left. They again set out in search of them, and, as they travel farther upriver, several of the crew meet their deaths—some of them accidentally, some not. Eventually, Donne and two members of the crew reach the source of the river, a waterfall, and, abandoning their boat, begin climbing the cliff, only to fall to their deaths. Thenarrative is quite thin and is not given in as linear and realistic a way as this outline suggests. The novel, for example, begins with Donne being shot and killed before undertaking his journey, then proceeds to tell of the entire crew drowning but coming alive just before they reach the Amerindian settlement, and concludes with Donne falling to his death but reaching the mountaintop where stands the Palace of the Peacock.
The novel clearly is allegorical. Critics agree that Harris employs Donne and his strange crew as representations of antithetical yet complementary aspects of human experience. Their interpretations of what precisely these characters represent are quite diverse, however, and the novel accommodates them all. The novel is seen as examining the brotherhood of invader and invaded, the common destiny of the diverse races of Guyana, and the complementary and interdependent relationship between the material and the spiritual, the historical and the contemporary, and the living and the dead. The novel could be interpreted also as an allegorical study of the growth of the artist in an environment inhospitable to art. Drawing from his own experience in the challenging Guyanese hinterland, where he wrote his early pieces while working as a land surveyor, Harris shows that harsh surroundings put the aspiring artist in a quandary, for he is forced to look to his physical well-being by developing a materialistic, aggressive outlook that works against his contemplative, humane, artistic nature. At the end of the novel, Harris’s narrator comes to realize that as an artist he must accept that he is the sum total of all the diverse antithetical experiences and impulses that coexist tensely but creatively in his psyche.
A cursory explication of the novel as such an allegorical bildungsroman will provide an insight into Harris’s unconventional artistry. Harris examines his narrator-protagonist’s progression toward acceptance of the polarities of his artistic psyche in four broad phases that correspond to the four books of the novel. In book 1, the narrator, aspiring toward artistic and humane goals, suppresses his assertive and dictatorial tendencies. From the opening paragraph, it is evident that the narrator and Donne are alter egos: They represent antithetical aspects of one individual, who could be termed the protagonist. Their oneness is emphasized as much as their polarities. The protagonist’s rejection of his Donnean qualities is signified by Donne’s death in the novel’s opening section and by the awakening of the narrator in a maternity ward, suggestive of a birth. After this scene, the journey upriver begins and Donne is found aboard the boat with his crew, but it is the narrator whose voice is prominent. At the end of book 1, Donne is described as being a shadow of his former self.
In book 2, the protagonist discovers that he cannot totally suppress his Donnean qualities, for to survive as an artist in his harsh environment he must be both the humane, contemplative observer and the assertive, forceful participant. This shift is indicated by the narrator’s mellowing attitude toward Donne, who reappears as his former assertive self in book 2. Donne himself, however, mellows toward the narrator, admitting that he is caught up in “material slavery” and that he hates himself for being “a violent taskmaster.” Their gradual adjustment to each other is shown in the relationships among the eight members of the crew, who, described by Harris as agents of personality, represent overlapping but distinct impulses of the divided protagonist. Their personalities tend to run the scale from Donne’s to the narrator’s. They have their own alter egos. In book 3, as Donne and the narrator adjust to each other—that is, as the protagonist tries to resolve the inner conflict between his contemplative and active natures—various pairs of the crew die.
In book 4, the protagonist attains a new conception of himself as an artist—a conception that accommodates his antithetical feelings and attitudes. He now perceives that though as an artist he must resist the qualities of Donne and members of the crew close to him, he cannot deny them, for the artist incorporates all of their characteristics no matter how unrelated to art they may appear to be. The artist must acquire the all-embracing vision. A host of metaphors suggests this complementary conception. The protagonist reaches the Palace of the Peacock, with its panoramic perspective of the savannah, by falling back into the savannah. The Palace of the Peacock is also El Dorado, which Harris describes as “City of Gold, City of God”; it encompasses both material and spiritual riches. The Palace, moreover, has many windows offering an encompassing view of the world below and stands in contrast to Donne’s one-windowed prison of the opening chapter. Taken together with the peacock’s color spectrum, the many eyes of the peacock’s tail, and the harmonious singing that pervades the many palatial rooms, the Palace paradoxically suggests both oneness and multiplicity. Such a perception of the artistic vision offered in this interpretation of Palace of the Peacock is not unique; it is found, for example, in the works of Yeats and Blake, whom Harris quotes several times in the novel. The uniqueness of the novel is to be found in the form and setting Harris employs to explore this familiar theme.
The Guyanese hinterland is most evocatively depicted in the novel, though realistic description recedes before the symbolic and allegorical functions of the setting. Although the characters occasionally emerge as living individuals and their conversations have the authentic ring of Guyanese dialect and speech rhythm, they appear primarily not as human figures but as allegorical forms. As a result, the protagonist’s conflicts are not dramatized in any particularly credible, realistic situation. (The Secret Ladder, the last novel of The Guyana Quartet, which describes a similar river journey and a similarly ambivalent, tormented protagonist, provides a slightly more realistic, less allegorical study.)
The Far Journey of Oudin, Harris’s second novel, is set in the riparian Abary district of Guyana, which is not too far inland from the Atlantic coast. The setting is as evocatively portrayed as is the Guyanese interior in Palace of the Peacock. The inhabitants of this community are East Indian farmers whose forebears came to Guyana as indentured laborers. A few of these farmers have accumulated material wealth and have established a contemporary version of the master-laborer relationship with the less fortunate. The Far Journey of Oudin emphasizes the community’s greed. It tells of Rajah’s conspiring with his cousins to murder their illegitimate half brother, to whom their father left his property. The murderers suffer for their crime: Ram, a powerful, ruthless moneylender, brings about their ruin with the help of Oudin, a drifter, who resembles the murdered half brother. Ram orders Oudin to abduct Rajah’s daughter, Beti. Oudin, however, elopes with her. Thirteen years later, when Oudin is dying, Ram seeks to make Oudin and Beti’s unborn child his heir.
The narrative in this novel is slightly more substantial than that of Palace of the Peacock, but it is similarly submerged beneath Harris’s allegorical emphasis. The characters, fluctuating between allegorical and literal functions, do not really come alive. The novel begins with Oudin’s death and his vision of the past, which merges with the present and the future. He exists on several levels; he appears, for example, to be the murdered half brother. The novel emphasizes the polarized relationship between Ram, the unscrupulous materialist, and the sensitive, spiritual Oudin, whose unborn child to whom Ram lays claim symbolizes the possibility in the dichotomized community of reintegration—a factor that is underscored by the novel’s circular structure and the recurring images of the union of opposites, such as the reference to the marriage...
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