Wilson Harris 1921-
(Full name Theodore Wilson Harris; has also written under the pseudonym Kona Waruk) Guyanese novelist, short story writer, essayist, critic, and poet.
The following entry presents an overview of Harris's career through 2001. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volume 25.
A highly regarded figure in contemporary Caribbean literature who has written over twenty novels, Harris is best known for two major series, The Guyana Quartet (1985) and The Carnival Trilogy (1993). Harris defies narrative convention and recognizable genre categories in his works which blur the boundaries between external reality and internal states of mind. His narratives are complex and highly imaginative works, interweaving conventional plot with experimental fictional elements often described as poetic, mystical, or surrealistic. Most of Harris's novels are set in the cities, villages, and Amazonian jungles of Guyana. These settings convey the region's history of European conquest and colonization, and Harris's characters include such diverse representatives of Guyana as the descendents of the aboriginal Amerindians, the slaves brought from Africa and India, and the European colonizers. His frequent use of symbolism is drawn from a rich cultural history of Amerindian folk legend, classical mythology, Christian iconography and allegory, Jungian psychoanalytic theory, and English literature. Harris is celebrated as a postcolonial writer whose works have wide appeal for addressing universal human questions. His major themes include redemption, the role of the imagination, the ambiguity of language, the forging of identity, and the nature of artistic creation. While there are numerous darker elements in his fiction, Harris's works ultimately convey a positive, life-affirming outlook. Recognized as an important literary and cultural critic, Harris has also published commentary in several collections of essays.
Harris was born March 24, 1921, in New Amsterdam, British Guiana (now Guyana), of Amerindian, African, and English descent. His father was an insurance agent. From 1934 to 1939, Harris attended Queen's College in Georgetown, the capital of Guyana. Upon graduation, he studied land surveying and geomorphology until 1942 when he began working as a government surveyor, leading expeditions into the Amazonian forests in the interior of Guyana. His familiarity with the geography and cultural diversity of Guyana has contributed to the content and themes of many of his novels. In 1945, Harris married Cecily Carew, but later divorced. In 1959, he moved to London, England, where he met and married the Scottish writer Margaret Burns. From this point, Harris began to focus on fiction writing, publishing his first novel, Palace of the Peacock, in 1960. During the 1970s and 1980s, Harris lectured as a guest or visitor at many colleges and universities throughout the world, including State University of New York at Buffalo, Yale University, University of California, and University of Texas at Austin, as well as Mysore University in India and University of Aarhus in Denmark. Harris also served as writer-in-residence at many colleges and universities, including University of West Indies, University of Toronto, and Newcastle University, Australia. Harris won the Guyana National Prize for Fiction in 1987.
Harris's earliest published works include the poetry volumes Fetish (1951), The Well and the Land (1952), and Eternity to Season (1954). The Guyana Quartet is comprised of Harris's first four novels: Palace of the Peacock, The Far Journey of Oudin (1961), The Whole Armour (1962), and The Secret Ladder (1963). In this series, the landscape, history, and culture of Guyana become symbols for the landscape of the mind. In Palace of the Peacock, the unnamed narrator and his brother, Donne, begin a journey through Guyana, and ultimately experience a type of rebirth. Donne is a cruel plantation owner, whose workers have fled to escape his oppressive treatment of them. The narrator, who is considered a dreamer, goes with Donne in search of the workers. Led by Donne's female companion, the two brothers embark on a journey of self-discovery in which they experience a series of visions. The Far Journey of Oudin is set in an East Indian community in Guyana and recounts the complex history of the family of Oudin, a recently deceased man who emerges as the hero of the story. Oudin, a servant, flees with Beti to save her from the unwanted advances of another man. Beti becomes pregnant with Oudin's child and the two forge a contract to relinquish their baby to another man when it is born. After Oudin's death, it is discovered that Beti had swallowed the contract in order to keep her child. The Far Journey to Oudin has a more conventional plot and is less dream-like than Palace of the Peacock. The Whole Armour focuses on Magda, a prostitute in a brothel, and her son, Cristo, who is accused of murder and flees for his life. He is joined by Sharon, with whom he conceives a child. Cristo is eventually captured and sentenced to death. The Whole Armour contains a more realistic narrative, eschewing the blurring of dream-states and reality which characterizes Palace of the Peacock. The Secret Ladder also features a primarily realistic plot. Told by a third-person narrator, the story revolves around Russell Fenwick, a government surveyor who is sent to a remote village to carry out an assignment. Fenwick becomes involved in the cultural and political struggles of the ethnically diverse population, which hampers his ability to complete his job. Heartland (1964) includes characters from Palace of the Peacock and serves as a sequel to The Guyana Quartet.
The Eye of the Scarecrow (1965) is one of Harris's most unconventional narratives. The novel is set in Georgetown, Guyana, and the Amazonian rainforest. The story unfolds as a series of diary entries written by the narrator. Events are narrated in non-chronological order as the narrator recounts a quest with a character called L—— for a mythical four-gated city. The story eschews conventional linear narration with a series of dream-like associations and memories. The characters themselves begin to fragment and meld together, so that they become interchangeable as well as indistinguishable. In The Eye of the Scarecrow, Harris invented a narrative presence, referred to as “It,” which transcends all story-telling conventions. The “scarecrow” of the title functions as a metaphor for language and the process of writing. The Waiting Room (1967) achieves even greater degrees of abstraction, narrative fragmentation, and metaphorical meaning than Harris's previous novels. The story is told through the diary of Susan Forrestal, a woman who is blind despite having undergone several eye operations. She and her husband are killed in an explosion, and her diary is found among the debris. The diary focuses on Susan's various eye surgeries and her memories of a former lover who disappeared into the forest years earlier. Tumatumari (1968) interweaves conventional storytelling with elements of Harris's more experimental narrative devices. After Prudence suffers a mental breakdown, she is nursed by Rakka, her Amerindian servant. Prudence's memories of the past are narrated through dream-states and varied levels of consciousness. The image of the mask which serves as a metaphor for identity is an important concept running throughout the novel.
In Ascent to Omai (1970), Victor embarks on a quest in the jungle to seek a land claim made by his father, Adam. In the jungle, Victor is bitten by a tarantula and enters a realm of unconscious childhood memories. Black Marsden (1972), a relatively conventional narrative, is set in Scotland and features Clive Goodrich, who becomes wealthy after successfully gambling in soccer pools. His meets a beggar known as Doctor Marsden and subsequently undertakes an internal journey into his imagination and his dreams. Companions of the Day and Night (1975) features central characters from Black Marsden. Clive Goodrich, the fictional “editor” of Companions of the Day and Night, constructs a complex narrative from a compilation of papers, diaries, and artwork produced by a figure known as Idiot Nameless. Goodrich recounts the journey of Idiot Nameless into Mexico during the Easter season. The novel interweaves references to Christian iconography with Mexican history. In Da Silva da Silva's Cultivated Wilderness (1977), da Silva is a painter living in London. The narrative, which emerges from da Silva's paintings, addresses the theme of redemption through love. In this work, Harris makes use of strong metaphorical allusions and striking visual imagery. The novel also uses sketches and graphs to illustrate central ideas within the narrative. The Tree of the Sun (1978) serves as a sequel to Da Silva da Silva's Cultivated Wilderness. The story in The Angel at the Gate (1982) is presented as the “automatic writing” of Mary Stella Holiday, who undergoes hypnosis by Father Joseph Marsden. The narration is split between two characters, Mary and Stella. Other characters in the novel are drawn from the song “Mack the Knife.”
The Carnival Trilogy is comprised of Carnival (1985), The Infinite Rehearsal (1987), and The Four Banks of the River of Space (1990). This trilogy has been compared to Homer's Odyssey. Carnival, one of Harris's longest novels, traces the life and death of Everyman Masters, a South American plantation owner. The narrator, Jonathan Weyl, meets Everyman Masters on a ship headed for England and discovers that their family histories are intimately intertwined. Carnival addresses several major themes of Harris's earlier works, such as redemption and the imagination. The Infinite Rehearsal is an autobiography of a fictional character, Robin Redbreast Glass. The novel interweaves passages from Harris's earlier novels with allusions from such writers as T. S. Eliot, James Joyce, Joseph Conrad, and William Shakespeare. Resurrection at Sorrow Hill (1993) is set in an insane asylum where the inmates believe they are historical figures such as Montezuma, Leonardo da Vinci, Socrates, Buddha, and Karl Marx. Two inmates, Hope and Butterfly, fall in love and are eventually shot by D'eath, Butterfly's jealous lover. Jonestown (1996) focuses on two fictional survivors of the Jonestown massacre that took place in Guyana in 1978. The narrative interweaves elements from the incident with the historical fall of the ancient Mayan culture in pre-Columbian South America. The historical context of The Dark Jester (2001) is the conquest of the Incas by the Spanish in 1532. The narrator, known as the Dreamer, engages in extended conversations with a mysterious figure called the Dark Jester.
Critics have agreed that Harris's abstract, experimental narratives are difficult to read, often describing his work as dense, complex, or opaque. Many critics, however, have asserted that although reading Harris's work is challenging, it is rewarding. Harris has been lauded for his exploration of the themes of conquest and colonization and the struggles of colonized peoples. Reviewers also have noted his skillful tapping of the geography and history of Guyana as a metaphor for the landscape of the mind. Many critics have declared that his novels are an attempt to express truths about the way people experience reality through the lens of the imagination. Some commentators have faulted Harris's novels for nonlinear plot lines, which are difficult to follow, and for his preference of internal perceptions over external realities. Other critics have faulted Harris's characterizations, viewing them as fragmented and unconventional. Harris's use of language has been described as poetic, and many critics applaud what they feel to be a rhythmic, musical flow in his prose. Many critics have praised Harris for his ultimately positive world view as expressed in both his fiction and his literary criticism. He has also been recognized for his rich array of cultural and literary references. Critics have frequently extolled Harris's extensive use of recurring symbols and metaphors throughout his fiction. Commenting on his nonfiction, several reviewers have noted that Harris's essays push the boundaries of traditional literary criticism, just as his fiction pushes the limits of the novel genre. Several detractors have considered Harris's essays to be incomprehensible, but others contend that his vision is important in examining issues such as colonialism, multiculturalism, and the possibility for a truly global literature.
Fetish [under the pseudonym Kona Waruk] (poetry) 1951
The Well and the Land (poetry) 1952
Eternity to Season: Poems of Separation and Reunion (poetry) 1954
*Palace of the Peacock (novel) 1960
*The Far Journey of Oudin (novel) 1961
*The Whole Armour (novel) 1962
*The Secret Ladder (novel) 1963
Heartland (novel) 1964
The Eye of the Scarecrow (novel) 1965
Tradition and the West Indian Novel (lectures) 1965
Tradition, the Writer and Society (essays) 1967
The Waiting Room (novel) 1967
Tumatumari (novel) 1968
Ascent to Omai (novel) 1970
History, Fable and Myth in the Caribbean and the Guianas (criticism) 1970
The Sleepers of Roraima (short stories) 1970
The Age of the Rainmakers (short stories) 1971
Black Marsden: A Tabula Rasa Comedy (novel) 1972
Fossil and Psyche (criticism) 1974
Companions of the Day and Night (novel) 1975
Da Silva da Silva's Cultivated Wilderness and Genesis of the Clowns (novels) 1977
The Tree of the Sun...
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SOURCE: Boxill, Anthony. “Wilson Harris's Palace of the Peacock: A New Dimension in West Indian Fiction.” CLA Journal 14, no. 4 (June 1971): 380–86.
[In the following essay, Boxill argues that, with Palace of the Peacock, Harris brought a new type of novel to the body of West Indian fiction—the “poetical novel.”]
When Wilson Harris' Palace of the Peacock was published in 1960, a new kind of novel was added to the repertoire of West Indian fiction—the poetical novel. This does not mean that poetry has been lacking in the West Indian novel. There are passages of lyrical beauty in so many of the novels that it would be tedious to list them. George Lamming is often referred to as primarily a poet who has turned to prose. Indeed, there is much evidence of this in his novels, but although poetic passages abound in Lamming not one of his novels leaves the reader with overall impression that he has just read a poem. In fact, Lamming's occasional long-windedness is the opposite of what one expects of poetic compactness and compression.
Edgar Mittelholzer, in his two novels, Latticed Echoes (1960) and Thunder Returning (1961), did make an attempt to create poetical novels, but the motifs which are intended to give a poetical effect are so arbitrary and become so involved when put together that the general effect of the works is one of confusion...
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SOURCE: Adler, Joyce Sparer. “Wilson Harris and Twentieth-Century Man.” New Letters 40, no. 1 (autumn 1973): 49–61.
[In the following essay, Sparer discusses Harris's complex use of language, symbolism, and multiple levels of consciousness to create “a vision of the possibility of a new conception of man by man in this age of humanity's deepest crisis and disunity.”]
“Dear Reader, (THE JUDGE WROTE HALF IN THE MARGIN OF HIS BOOK AND HALF ON A VACANT CARD). My intention, in part, is to repudiate the vicarious novel … where the writer … claims to enter the most obscure and difficult terrain of experience without incurring a necessary burden of authenticity, obscurity or difficulty at the same time.” So begins a letter from the novelist/judge through whom Wilson Harris speaks in Ascent to Omai. It concludes with a reference to the undertaking the writer does believe in: “the formidable creative task of digesting and translating our age.”
From bits like this in the novels and from Harris's essays and talks, we grasp that he does not want to write simplifications of individual experience from some one-sided point of view. His extraordinary aim is to create in his art an equation in language of the many interacting levels of human consciousness, to draw up from its depths a vision of the possibility of a new conception of man by man in this age of humanity's...
(The entire section is 4901 words.)
SOURCE: Russell, D. W. “The Dislocating Act of Memory: An Analysis of Wilson Harris' Tumatumari.” World Literature Written in English 13, no. 2 (November 1974): 237–49.
[In the following essay, Russell examines the major thematic developments in Tumatumari as a complex expression of “the art of memory.”]
In describing a new radical art which will go beyond the dead-end realism of the novel, Wilson Harris states “that, in fact, an art of memory which dislocates, in some measure, an idolatrous plane of realism by immersing us in a peculiar kind of ruined fabric, may help to free us from a consensus of bestiality, monolithic helplessness, monolithic violence.”1 Just such an art of memory is used by Harris in Tumatumari in his presentation of the drama of consciousness of Prudence, and the novel becomes a complex act of memory. Although the poetic density of the language and structure of the novel continually shows the inadequacy of any purely intellectual analysis of the work, a discussion of the major thematic developments is useful in permitting the reader to share to some extent in the “dimension of translation as well as digestion”2 of this dislocating art and act of memory achieved by Prudence and her author.
The landscape in which this act of memory takes place is permeated by a sense of void, introduced in the first scene...
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SOURCE: Mackey, Nathaniel. “The Unruly Pivot: Wilson Harris' The Eye of the Scarecrow.” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 20, no. 4 (winter 1978): 633–59.
[In the following essay, Mackey discusses the novel The Eye of the Scarecrow as a pivotal work in the development of Harris's self-reflexive narrative style.]
But I experienced once more the resulting chaos I knew, loss of orientation, the unruly pivot around which revolves the abstract globe in one's head.
Wilson Harris must be one of the most daring authors writing in English. Born in 1921 in British Guiana (since become, with independence in 1966, Guyana) and now living in England, Harris has published—in addition to a book of poems, a book of critical essays, two books of retellings of native Caribbean myths, and scattered essays and stories—thirteen highly unusual novels.1 The sixth of these, The Eye of the Scarecrow, can be said to be the pivot (the “unruly” pivot) on which Harris' work turns decidedly self-reflexive. I say “decidedly” because this novel is not necessarily the first in which the insights offered pertain as much to the writing itself as to the ostensible subject of that writing, the characters and the events which occupy the work. Palace of the Peacock,...
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SOURCE: Adams, Rolstan. “Wilson Harris: The Pre-Novel Poet.” Journal of Commonwealth Literature 13, no. 3 (April 1979): 71–85.
[In the following essay, Adams argues that Harris's early poetry acts as a key to understanding the images, themes, structures, and characters of his later novels.]
Between 1951 and 1955 Wilson Harris published three collections of poetry which, when closely scrutinized, provide a critic's best insights into the images, structures, and characters of Harris's novels published later. That there is a distinct thematic thread running through the poetry into the novels is little in doubt. And perhaps the most rewarding aspect of Harris's poetry is the imaginative process which is revealed in his development as a major prose-writer of the Caribbean. The collections of poetry are entitled Fetish (1951), Eternity to Season: Poems of Separation and Reunion (1954), and The Sun: Fourteen Poems in a Cycle (1955). The first two appeared under their own titles from the Georgetown Lithographic Press, under the auspices of the Miniature Poets Publishing Group. The Sun poems were published in 1955 in Kyk-over-al, Vol. 6, No. 2, edited by A. J. Seymour.
By the time these poems were published, it had seemed to Seymour, a fellow-poet, that Harris was going to be the first major Caribbean poet. But Harris became better known for his...
(The entire section is 5846 words.)
SOURCE: Mackey, Nathaniel. “Limbo, Dislocation, Phantom Limb: Wilson Harris and the Caribbean Occasion.” Criticism: A Quarterly for Literature and the Arts 22, no. 1 (1980): 57–76.
[In the following essay, Mackey explores the sense of geographical “place” in Harris's representations of the Caribbean.]
… in a context such as the Caribbean and the Americas … the life of situation and person has an inarticulacy one must genuinely suffer with and experience if one is to acquire the capacity for a new relationship and understanding.
She succeeded in getting rid of the scaffolding of the song, to make way for a furious and fiery duende, companion of sandladen winds, that made those who were listening tear their clothes rhythmically, like Caribbean Negroes clustered before the image of St. Barbara.
—Federico García Lorca
To go back to Lorca's “Theory and Function of the Duende” perhaps offers a usable route into what Wilson Harris is up to. Lorca, in his now famous essay, suggests that “the duende is a power and not a behaviour, … a struggle and not a concept” and that “every step that a man … takes toward the tower of his perfection is at the cost of the...
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SOURCE: Cobham, Rhonda. “The Texts of Wilson Harris's Eternity to Season.” World Literature Written in English 22, no. 1 (spring 1983): 27–38.
[In the following essay, Cobham examines the evolution of Eternity to Season from its initial publication in 1954 through its final edition in 1978, marking technical changes, reorganization of lines and phrases, omissions, and additions.]
The first publication by Wilson Harris to appear under the title Eternity to Season was a small pamphlet containing three poems: “Troy,” “Behring Straits” and “Amazon.” The pamphlet appeared in 1952 and was privately published by Harris himself.1 Between 1952 and 1954 a number of new poems using related images were published in Kyk-over-al.2 Eventually this new material was combined with the original three poems in a larger collection, also called Eternity to Season, which was brought out in Guyana as part of the Miniature Poets Series in 1954. In 1978, a new revised version of the collection was issued in London by New Beacon Books. In addition to these published texts a further “manuscript” of the poems exists. It consists of a copy of the 1954 text with Harris' tentative jottings in the margins and between the lines, indicating planned changes to the text. Most of these handwritten revisions were incorporated into the 1978 New Beacon edition....
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SOURCE: Harris, Wilson, and Michael Fabre. “Interview with Wilson Harris.” World Literature Written in English 22, no. 1 (spring 1983): 2–17.
[In the following interview, Harris discusses the setting, characters, and themes of The Secret Ladder, the evolution of his artistic vision, and his concept of the novel genre.]
[Fabre:] How would you introduce The Secret Ladder to the general reader? How should one begin to approach the novel?
[Harris:] It might be useful to start with saying something on the landscape of the Canje. There is a passage which tells you a little about it:
The Canje was one of the lowest rungs in the ladder of ascending purgatorial rivers, the blackest river one could imagine. Every tributary had buried its grassy head in a grave of wilderness, green as diabolic flame, with a high waving colour of fresh seeming youth belonging nevertheless to the darkest fluid of the river's age. No one lived upon, or cultivated, the Canje's swamps and savannahs. On higher land where the water still appeared to possess the actual banks and definition of a river, the inhabitants wrestled with themselves to make a living within their uncertain ground which was continuously threatened by an erosive design eating slowly across the river's catchment.1
The Canje relates to the...
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SOURCE: Sander, Reinhard W. “The Quest for Form: Wilson Harris' Contributions to Kyk-over-al.” World Literature Written in English 22, no. 1 (spring 1983): 17–27.
[In the following essay, Sander assesses Harris's early development as a writer by focusing on his contributions to the journal Kyk-over-al between 1945 and 1960.]
Form and content are then inseparable. In fact everything is Form—the mystery is Form.
—Wilson Harris, 19551
The literary magazine Kyk-over-al was edited and published by A. J. Seymour from 1945 to 1961. It appeared half-yearly and contained short fiction, plays, poetry, critical articles, and reviews that originated in Guyana and the West Indies. Its emphasis, however, was clearly on poetry and the theoretical debate about the quality and direction of a distinctive West Indian literature.2 Wilson Harris contributed numerous poems and articles to the pages of Kyk-over-al, as well as several pieces of short fiction. His contributions appeared fairly regularly in the magazine, from the very first issue of Kyk in 1945 to the very last issue in 1961.3 The magazine therefore contains a substantial body of writing by this author which yields some insights into his development preceding the publication of his first novel, Palace of the Peacock, in 1960.
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SOURCE: Drake, Sandra. “Revolutionary Hope as Immanent Moment: The Writing of Wilson Harris.” In Process of Unity in Caribbean Society: Ideologies and Literature, edited by Ileana Rodríguez and Marc Zimmerman, pp. 168–75. Minneapolis: Institute for the Study of Ideologies and Literatures, 1983.
[In the following essay, Drake explores Harris's writing style in terms of the relationship between literature and society.]
This paper is a brief and somewhat preliminary outline of a project on which I am now working, an analysis of the work of the Guyanese novelist Wilson Harris. I am especially interested in how his difficult, peculiar and relatively inaccessible writing is to be regarded by people concerned with the relation between literature and society.
Harris' work also presents interesting questions of genre. I suggest that he is a writer of revolutionary insights, not alone in the text of his work but also in its texture—that is, in his use of language. Some have dismissed him as “elitist.” His work is difficult, but all literature is not merely obscure but impenetrable to those who cannot read. It is patronizing to suggest that literature be kept simple to accommodate those who do not read well—the “masses.” If literature has value, then the point is to make it—all of it—accessible, and the relevant question to ask of a given literary work is not whether it is...
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SOURCE: Durix, Jean-Pierre. “The Visionary Art of Wilson Harris.” World Literature Today 58, no. 1 (winter 1984): 19–23.
[In the following essay, Durix provides an overview of major themes in Harris's novels, concluding that his art is “a deep exploration of the paradoxes of vision, for which a new approach must constantly be invented.”]
When Wilson Harris published Palace of the Peacock, his first and best-known novel, in 1960,1 the Times Literary Supplement immediately perceived the originality and imaginative power of this Drunken Boat in prose.2 The creative evolution of the author since that date has led many critics to consider him a major contemporary writer worthy of the Nobel Prize.3
Wilson Harris was born in 1921 in New Amsterdam, in what was then British Guiana. Educated in Georgetown, he took part in the artistic movements which accompanied the postwar awakening in many colonial territories. His first poems and stories were published in Kyk-over-al, a local literary magazine. Strangely enough, he started his career as a government surveyor in the interior, mapping the virgin forest and studying the variations in the rivers. He soon led several scientific expeditions into the bush, where he spent a considerable part of his time. This contact with primeval nature was to leave a decisive mark on his...
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SOURCE: Thorpe, Michael. Review of The Angel at the Gate, by Wilson Harris. World Literature Today 58, no. 1 (winter 1984): 152.
[In the following negative review, Thorpe argues that The Angel at the Gate is only accessible to “seasoned” readers accustomed to Harris's “opaque” narrative style.]
Wilson Harris's novels are psychical “expeditions,” negotiable only by seasoned voyagers attuned to spatial narrative woven of incremental correspondences and image clusters, the splitting and doubling of character and action (“mutualities”), motifs of vision, transfiguration, flight and ascent, parallel inner and outer universes, dreams of paradisiacal wholeness, interspersed with key terms in the author's metaphysics. This is itself a quest for a sacred pattern or “law of love,” an ever-present “wall” of possibility—“the conversion of casualty that exists in each moment” (echoing Eliot), dissolving seeming fixities of race, personality, inheritance, time and history.
The “automatic narrative” of The Angel at the Gate is explicitly linked with Yeats's A Vision. The author is Yeats to his elect medium, Mary Stella Holiday, dual woman and privileged seer; he is also creator of the hierophantic Father Joseph Marsden (returned from an earlier novel), whose risky shamanistic art (Eliade is epigraphically invoked) constructs a...
(The entire section is 349 words.)
SOURCE: Durix, Jean-Pierre. “Through Tension to Metamorphosis: The Angel at the Gate by Wilson Harris.” World Literature Written in English 24, no. 1 (summer 1984): 120–27.
[In the following essay, Durix discusses the automatic writing and multi-layered narrative construction in The Angel at the Gate, describing the narrative as “a dream journey.”]
The Angel at the Gate by Wilson Harris starts with a liminary note signed “W. H.” explaining that the plot of the novel is a transcription of Mary Stella Holiday's automatic writing, which took place while she was undergoing treatment and receiving guidance from Father Joseph Marsden, a priest-cum-hypnotist living at Angel Inn, an old house in London. The narrative arises out of Mary's malaise and her desire to situate herself in relation to others. This specific form, a narrative within a work of fiction, is not new in Harris' corpus: he has used this model in The Eye of the Scarecrow, The Waiting Room and Companions of the Day and Night. However, here the multi-layered construction reaches a new stage with the use of automatic writing and the role such a technique can have in the development of imaginative powers.
The reader is led along two strands of narrative. On the first level, Mary Stella is merely the author of the notes which form the framework of the book. On a second plane,...
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SOURCE: Sander, Reinhard. Review of The Womb of Space: The Cross-Cultural Imagination, by Wilson Harris. World Literature Today 59, no. 3 (summer 1985): 477.
[In the following positive review, Reinhard praises The Womb of Space as an attack on the traditional critical establishment.]
The Guyanese writer Wilson Harris is a major contemporary novelist and thinker (see WLT 58:1, pp. 19–23). In more than a dozen works of fiction, he has realized a new, original form of the novel that in almost all respects constitutes a radical departure from the conventional novel. In his two previous collections of critical essays, Tradition, the Writer and Society (1967) and Explorations (1981), he presents the reader with the vision of a new society which underlies his esthetic concepts, and with his notions about the function of the writer. His latest critical work, The Womb of Space: The Cross-Cultural Imagination, will again serve as “an indispensable guide to Harris's understanding of his own novels,” but it is much more than that. It is an attack on the traditional critical establishment, for which “literature is still constrained by regional and other conventional but suffocating categories.”
Utilizing a genuinely comparative approach, Harris juxtaposes and analyzes the work of two dozen writers from Europe, Africa, the Americas, Asia, and...
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SOURCE: Dasenbrock, Reed Way. Review of Carnival, by Wilson Harris. World Literature Today 60, no. 2 (spring 1986): 351.
[In the following review, Dasenbrock asserts that Carnival is “even denser and more abstract” than Harris's previous novels, and that it is “less a narrative than a metanarrative,” noting that death is a major theme of the novel.]
Wilson Harris (see WLT 58:1, pp. 19–23) has always operated at a very high level of abstraction, higher than any of his fellow West Indian novelists, higher perhaps than any other contemporary novelist in English. Even in his first novel, Palace of the Peacock (1960), the actual journey or quest upriver consistently gives way to more allegorical or dreamlike levels of narrative, so much so that any sorting out of the novel with an eye to “what actually happened” is utterly and deliberately impossible. Twenty-five years and many novels later in Harris's career, Carnival is even denser and more abstract, less a narrative than a metanarrative or commentary on a potential narrative. And whether one regards Harris's evolution as a rich and exciting development or a one-way trip down an abstractist cul-de-sac, there is no denying his unique vision or dedication to that vision.
There is an outline of a narrative in Carnival, about a character (a writer?) named Everyman Masters and his...
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SOURCE: Harris, Wilson, and Stephen Slemon. “Interview with Wilson Harris.” Ariel 19, no. 3 (July 1988): 47–56.
[In the following interview, originally conducted on 28 April 1986, Harris discusses “post-colonial allegory,” particularly in respect to Carnival.]
[Slemon:] You have talked about how modern allegory enables new kinds of vision, and I'm interested in the question of post-colonial allegory, or the allegorising of Otherness. One aspect of the allegorical mode is that it automatically involves binocular vision or a kind of double vision, and binocular vision necessarily involves depth perception. In what way does the allegorical element in your writing contribute to this new vision you are trying to evoke?
[Harris:] The thing that activates my mind is how to conceive the reality of genuine change. I have never forsaken that even though I am not engaged in any political party and my politics tend to be not quite politics. But this press for genuine change remains deep-seated and fundamental in my imagination. That implies a transformative scale. What I discovered was that there is a persistent development, if that is the word, moving in the fiction I write, and to some extent it has to do with what I would call the absent body. For in my judgement, there can be no genuine authority, no mutual authority, without visualising the capacity of inner...
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SOURCE: Drake, Sandra E. “The Search for El Dorado: Conquest in Palace of the Peacock.” In Wilson Harris and the Modern Tradition: A New Architecture of the World, pp. 49–70. New York: Greenwood Press, 1986.
[In the following essay, Drake explores the themes of conquest and desire in Palace of the Peacock.]
Conquest is the greatest evil of soul humanity inflicts on itself and on nature.
—Wilson Harris, Explorations, p. 136
Palace of the Peacock, Harris's first novel, develops a version of the Caribbean Ur-myth. … Harris explores how the attempt to find love and self-fulfillment, when misconstrued as desire and conquest, becomes the source of both personal and social disaster. Conquest, which he has called “the greatest evil,” is the attempt to possess the object of desire or to attain a desired objective. Such possession is possible only if one assumes separation between subject and object. Thus the whole psychological and epistemological basis of the idea of conquest depends on the maintenance of identity and differentiation. Palace of the Peacock calls into question the conventionally assumed differentiation of subject and object and the possibility of satisfying desire through any conventionally purposive activity based on such a conventional differentiation. From this point of view the...
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SOURCE: Drake, Sandra E. “Tumatumari: The Great Game.” In Wilson Harris and the Modern Tradition: A New Architecture of the World, pp. 91–107. New York: Greenwood Press, 1986.
[In the following essay, Drake explores the feminist themes of family, society, and history in Tumatumari.]
We play the game of history, my child
Henry Tenby, Tumatumari, p. 127
History never repeats itself but it never outlasts itself either.
Comrade Block at Port Mourant, Tumatumari, p. 74
The consequences of centuries of failure to resolve social oppression in Guiana are explored in Tumatumari. The oppressive relations obtain among races and between the sexes; the exploration is organized around shifting patterns of identification and differentiation within the collective psyche of a family. The principal locus of this reorganization of collective familial and societal experience is the mind of Prudence Tenby Solman. The almost simultaneous deaths of her newborn child and her husband precipitate her mental breakdown; the reorganization occurs in the brief period between these events and her suicide, which has a paradoxical quality of finally triumphant and redemptive sacrifice and rebirth.
The great game, the game of history to which...
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SOURCE: McLeod, A. L. Review of The Infinite Rehearsal, by Wilson Harris. World Literature Today 62, no. 3 (summer 1988): 498–99.
[In the following positive review, McLeod describes The Infinite Rehearsal as an apparently simple yet deeply profound novella, asserting that it is “an allegorical political parable” that explores “the universal imagination.”]
Like Melville, Tolstoy, and Steinbeck, Wilson Harris has chosen the novella form for [The Infinite Rehearsal] one of his most profound yet apparently simple fictions. In the form of a fictional autobiography by Robin Redbreast Glass, Harris has written (in prose that at times becomes so surrealist as to verge on the opaque) an allegorical political parable concerning “the ceaseless rehearsal of the play of truth”—or “an infinite rehearsal of a play of the birth of history.” His concern is with the universal imagination and the essential nature of the spirit and of value.
Throughout his poetry, fictions, and essays, Harris has concerned himself with the problems of multiculturalism, change, and the complex processes of reinterpreting tradition; he has attempted to offer a radical methodology whereby postcolonial societies can create their own cultures through a return to myth, through nonlinear narrative, and through multivoiced viewpoints (see WLT 58:1, pp. 19–23). In many ways The...
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SOURCE: Mannes-Abbott, Guy. “Post-Colonial Identity.” New Statesman & Society 3, no. 117 (7 September 1990): 46–47.
[In the following review, Mannes-Abbot offers a positive assessment of The Four Banks of the River of Space, noting that the novel “almost perfects the fabulism” of the first two novels in the Carnival trilogy.]
Wilson Harris has come to that stage in a writing life where The Four Banks is both a manifesto and exhibition of his poetic craft. If it lacks Zameenzad's sheer story-telling exuberance, it almost perfects the fabulism developed in the first two parts of this trilogy. Harris's alter ego is “Anselm,” and this is his book of dreams. In it, he wanders through history as a “living dreamer” to re-aquaint himself with his family past in Guyana. He “invokes them as live absences … they seem to paint one (as one paints them).” They become strategic “stepping stones” in the “abysses” left in his language, to approach a post-colonial identity.
Harris toys with his colonised tongue, lamenting the “thin word of my age.” He advocates focusing attention on “the crumb of the Word” to encounter the “unimaginable” in its tapestry. He makes gestural use of quantum physics to write of a “polyhistoric kind of being”; a lapse into occasionally choking self-reference.
The Four Banks...
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SOURCE: Webb, Barbara J. “The Myth of El Dorado: Los pasos perdidos and Palace of the Peacock.” In Myth and History in Caribbean Fiction: Alejo Carpentier, Wilson Harris, and Edouard Glissant, pp. 61–81. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1992.
[In the following essay, Webb compares Palace of the Peacock with Alejo Carpentier's Los passos perdidos (The Lost Steps), observing that both novels depict a symbolic quest for cultural and personal identity within the context of Caribbean history.]
In Carpentier's Los pasos perdidos (The Lost Steps, 1953) and Harris's Palace of the Peacock (1960), Latin American and Caribbean history is the context of a search for cultural and personal identity. The basic similarity between Lost Steps and Palace is the evocation of the history of the European conquest and the search for gold in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. This is symbolically represented in the quest motif of the legend of El Dorado. The protagonists of both novels travel backward through time as they work their way upriver to the interior of a South American jungle. By means of this symbolic journey, Carpentier and Harris are able to interweave the modern theme of alienation with Western, Oriental, and native American mythology. The historical and mythical elements function quite differently, however, in the two...
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SOURCE: Webb, Barbara J. “The Poetics of Identity and Difference: Black Marsden and Concierto barroco.” In Myth and History in Caribbean Fiction: Alejo Carpentier, Wilson Harris, and Edouard Glissant, pp. 129–48. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1992.
[In the following essay, Webb compares Black Marsden with Alejo Carpentier's Concierto barroco, arguing that both novels narrate a journey in which “the protagonists confront questions of personal identity and the relationship between art and reality.”]
The ludic conception of the novel, the play of language, form, and ideas in what Harris calls the “Conception of the Game,” is the context of the reexamination of writing, history, and cultural identity in Harris's Black Marsden (1972) and Carpentier's Concierto barroco (1974). The ludic elements in these two later novels are humor, parody, and above all the self-referentiality of the texts. Theater and carnival are the common paradigms for Harris's and Carpentier's experiments with novelistic form in the two works. Both writers emphasize the act of writing as improvisation and role playing; but their aim, like that of the carnival masque, is to overthrow all notions of cultural domination in order to achieve an open-ended vision of fiction and reality.
In these two novels the journey is the inverse route of the conquest,...
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SOURCE: Gurnah, Abdulrazak. “A Confluence of Spaces.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4728 (12 November 1993): 22.
[In the following mixed review, Gurnah summarizes the main themes of Resurrection at Sorrow Hill and The Carnival Trilogy, noting that the trilogy's prose is “obstinate and difficult.”]
The Guyanese writer Wilson Harris long ago rejected realist fiction because of its “authoritarian” reliance on event and circumstance, and developed a different method in his own work. His prose cultivates ambiguity—not in the playful manner of postmodernism, which in the Harris cosmos is irresponsible frivolity—but in order not to foreclose on possibilities by precision. His language aspires to express “multitudinous life”: the simultaneous existence of past and present, life and death, the visible and the invisible. In this respect, his fiction resists being processed into the “strait-jacket” of meaning, and values above everything “multi-layered luminosities” and “numinous exactitudes” of experience. Resurrection at Sorrow Hill is his twenty-first novel, and it covers very familiar Harris terrain.
As in his last three novels, Carnival, The Infinite Rehearsal and The Four Banks of the River of Space (reissued by Faber as The Carnival Trilogy), the central debate in this fiction is conducted through myth and...
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SOURCE: Morton, Brian. “The Voyage In.” New Statesman & Society 6, no. 278 (12 November 1993): 39.
[In the following positive review, Morton focuses on the central themes of Resurrection at Sorrow Hill and The Carnival Trilogy.]
Stephen Hawking is to the postmodern novel what J. W. Dunne and An Experiment with Time were to early Modernism. Both provide a consoling objectification of creativity that demands no recourse to psychology. For most readers, Hawking's invocation of God was a satisfying cadence rather than a disturbing philosophical crux; for hadn't God just been dispensed with?
The problem is essentially the same with the Guyanese novelist Wilson Harris, except that Harris' fiction begins with the death of God and enacts the resurrection of meaning, as it were backwards, from the singular mystery of the Creation. The central drama of Harris' work, from The Palace of the Peacock (1960) onwards, is the validation of dream and the confounding of death. He has spoken about the “re-visionary strategies” of his fiction: the steady unfolding of the mythological sub-structures of which he was unaware at the time of writing, such as the connection between ship/sanctuaries and the City of God in the Carnival trilogy.
Harris is a metaphysical writer; not so much in the sense that he is concerned with abstract philosophical...
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SOURCE: Thorpe, Michael. “Wilson Harris: Writing against the Grain.1” Ariel 25, no. 3 (July 1994): 113–20.
[In the following essay, Thorpe argues that The Radical Imagination represents “the distillation of Harris's thought and art,” noting that Harris is at least as influential and important a literary and cultural critic as he is a novelist.]
Two recent compilations supply what may be regarded, respectively, as the distillation of Wilson Harris's thought and art and of the critical responses of an élite corps of Harrisians, devotees, and unravellers of his works during the years 1969–90. The Radical Imagination gathers his lectures and talks in the years 1989–91, including his Smuts Memorial Fund Commonwealth lectures at the University of Cambridge in 1990, “Cross-Cultural Crisis: Imagery, Language and the Intuitive Imagination.” Wilson Harris: The Uncompromising Imagination, whose purpose is to laud him on his 70th birthday in 1991, is both fittingly celebrating and, in parts, bracingly critical. Together, these volumes provide occasion, as Harris's work has constantly done, for re-evaluating the possibilities of literary creation.
Towards the close of his first Smuts lecture, “The Fabric of the Imagination,” Harris writes:
When the human animal understands his genius, he roots it in the...
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SOURCE: Breslow, Stephen. Review of Resurrection at Sorrow Hill, by Wilson Harris. World Literature Today 69, no. 1 (winter 1995): 203–04.
[In the following review, Breslow discusses Resurrection at Sorrow Hill in terms of Harris's use of language and allegory.]
Wilson Harris, the Guyanese-born, English-settled dreamer of South American mythologies, has continued his cycle of poetic novels with Resurrection at Sorrow Hill. Like the other novels of this long series, begun with The Guyana Quartet—which comprised the novels Palace of the Peacock, The Far Journey of Oudin, The Whole Armour, and The Secret Ladder (1960–63)—this latest text hangs its intensely complex fabric of poetic legendizing and abstract discourse upon a simple, quasi-realistic skeletal frame story. Imagine an insane asylum located in the remote Camaria region of Guyana where the patients and the psychiatric director articulate fantasies of their “real” and imagined lives to one another over a period of years, as recorded in the asylum “dream-book” written by one of their members, named Hope. A pivotal idea, the notion of dual personalities, allows Harris's characters to create mythical doubles of themselves, who in turn interact among one another in a kind of hallucinatory, epic theater in which the mythic resonances and opportunities for thought become far more...
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SOURCE: Gurnah, Abdulrazak. “Imagining Guyana.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4866 (5 July 1996): 24.
[In the following review, Gurnah discusses how Jonestown addresses broad questions of culture and freedom in the context of Guyanese history.]
On November 18, 1978, in the interior of the Cooperative Socialist Republic of Guyana, over 900 American followers of the “messianic” Pastor Jim Jones died in Jonestown. Most of them took their own lives in a practised ritual suicide, drinking the Fla-Vor-Aid laced with cyanide which was given to them by the Pastor's assistants. The day before, an American Congressman and a group of Concerned Parents on missions to rescue their off-spring were ambushed and killed by Jones's followers. It was the climactic act in the duplicitous and paranoid rhetoric of racial brotherhood and socialism which had held Pastor Jones's flock in thrall. The mass suicide was the last deluded act of defiance against enslavement in the United States. Some of the followers were shot as they tried to evade their co-operative fate.
Francisco Bone, the narrator of Wilson Harris's new novel [Jonestown,] is a survivor of Jonestown. On a “Dateless Day,” from his address at “New Trinity, New Amsterdam,” he sends a manuscript of his Dream-Book to “W. H.” to edit. The initials obviously stand for Harris, a curiously ineffectual conceit, since the...
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SOURCE: Burnett, Paula. “Apocalypse Now and Then.” New Statesman 125, no. 4292 (12 July 1996): 48.
[In the following review, Burnett offers a positive assessment of Jonestown, calling the novel a “mind-altering experience.”]
Reading Wilson Harris is like staring into the luminous, fluid palaces at the heart of a log fire. Those addicted to push-button heating don't know what they're missing. But, like a log fire, you may need patience to get it going. Harris, a Guyanese novelist who was writing magic realism before the term was invented, puts it down to the influence of the rainforest on him as a young surveyor: “There was this peculiar density, depth, and transparency in the rainforest … One thing would correspond with another in startling ways.”
After that, for the writer in him, “language began to bend, to shape itself.” He deplores realism as blind to the “parallel universes of the Imagination,” and post-modernism as having “denied depth” and “ruled out the unconscious.” A great original, he is both poet and mythmaker.
The historical record of Jonestown, the theme of his 20th novel [Jonestown,] speaks of a charismatic religious leader who founded a cult in California and led his followers to a utopian settlement in the Guyanese rainforest. In 1978 the murder of outside investigators was followed by mass suicide....
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SOURCE: López, Alfred. “Meaningful Paradox: The ‘Strange Genius’ of Wilson Harris.” Conradiana 28, no. 3 (autumn 1996): 190–205.
[In the following essay, López discusses the influence of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness on post-colonial fiction, particularly its representation of otherness, and argues that Harris surpasses Conrad in his writing.]
What a golden jest colonialism and postcolonialism are. What untold riches! He knows as he dreams in his cradle. What a gift for a newborn child.
—Wilson Harris, The Four Banks of the River of Space
It is thus not a matter of opposing another discourse on the same “things” to the enormous multiplicity of traditional discourses on man, animal, plant, or stone, but of ceaselessly analyzing the whole conceptual machinery, and its interestedness.
As might be guessed from the title, this is not entirely an essay about Wilson Harris; that is, my intent here is not necessarily to produce a close reading (or rather, a close[d] reading) of one or other of his texts, although we will certainly need to read them closely. Rather, my interests here can be said to begin with an essay written about someone else: a novelist who is (for better or worse) credited in many...
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SOURCE: Adler, Joyce Sparer. “Wilson Harris: An Introduction.” Review of Contemporary Fiction 17, no. 2 (summer 1997): 9–11.
[In the following essay, Adler provides a brief overview of Harris's works and career, highlighting his main themes and literary achievements.]
Harris has done so much to unblock the Western mind-set. But even now genius is not totally inhibited by all the counter-forces of the world in crisis. Harris may be one sign of a changing wind.
All generations are blended: and heaven and earth of one kin … the nations and families, flocks and folds of the earth. … All things form one whole.
—Herman Melville, Mardi
The whole crew was one spiritual family living and dying together in a common grave out of which they had sprung again from the same soul and womb as it were. …
—Wilson Harris, Palace of the Peacock
Wilson Harris is usually described as a Caribbean writer. He should also be thought of as a South American writer. His early years leading government surveys in the interior of Guyana and his contact with the Amerindians—their culture, myths, and condition of being forgotten by the dominant culture—deepened his...
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SOURCE: Raine, Kathleen. “Discovering Wilson Harris.” Review of Contemporary Fiction 17, no. 2 (summer 1997): 42–45.
[In the following essay, Raine discusses the role cultural preconceptions play in Harris's works, noting his reliance on imagination and beauty.]
It is the mark of the new that we never know what it will be until it arrives. Of one thing only we can be sure, that it is unpredictable and is never the outcome of existing “trends.” The wind that bloweth where it listeth is unconstrained, blows round corners. Current ideologies determined by mechanistic and “evolutionary” premises are likely to see the future as the product of the past, whereas perhaps that past is the product of the future in a living—and therefore purposeful—universe. Teleology, rejected by Darwinian evolutionism, returns. In Wilson Harris's world it is premises which are in question, the unknowable determinants. Thus the figure of Virgil and the meaning of his epic are changed by Dante, and Dante in turn resituated by what he becomes for Wilson Harris. The past is living and continually changing because of the future which changes it. Or perhaps there is only one time, one place, one total being in which every human life, every creature and every particle, has its eternal presence within a whole participated by all. Throw away our preconceptions and all becomes very simple—but it is precisely our...
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SOURCE: Melville, Pauline. “Wilson Harris: ‘In the Forests of the Night.’” Review of Contemporary Fiction 17, no. 2 (summer 1997): 50–52.
[In the following essay, Melville focuses on the emotional power of Harris's works, contrasting its impact with other works of contemporary fiction.]
For those of us who are following Wilson Harris in the tradition of Guyanese literature, there is no doubt that he has transformed the literary landscape of the region, and we would be unwise (as would the rest of the world) to ignore his blazing signposts as we try to chart our way forward.
As a writer of fiction and as a fellow Guyanese, there are certain lessons that it has been my privilege to learn from this extraordinary writer. Like Wilson, I have spent many years out of Guyana. But from him I have learned that nationalism is not necessarily important for the creative artist. He gave me confidence in the idea that my imagination can be my homeland and that it can be fed from many sources.
Each of Wilson Harris's novels is a dense nexus of dream, myth, archetype, and prophecy that cuts clearly across the conventions of much Caribbean literature—a literature which mainly focuses on the purely historical features of slavery, colonialism, or indentured labor and which surrenders to an overwhelmingly materialist view of the post-Columbian period. I can think of no other...
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SOURCE: Murray, Stuart. “Postcoloniality/Modernity: Wilson Harris and Postcolonial Theory.” Review of Contemporary Fiction 17, no. 2 (summer 1997): 53–58.
[In the following essay, Murray discusses the ways Harris's works adapt and confront the methodologies of postcolonial theory.]
The continuing theoretical debate over the shape and size, the resonances and the responsibilities, of postcolonialism grows daily more complex. Questions of what might be termed—generalizing—the “local” (an adversarial nationalism, an essentialized concentration on the subject body within postcoloniality, the relationship between the term postcolonial and the praxis of localized politics) are set against the “interstitial” (Homi Bhabha's concept of the “in-between,” the rejection of binary oppositions, a genealogical spectrum for the fracturing and flawed nature of colonial discourse and postcolonial articulation). And this example of the local/interstitial is itself an instance (and only one among many that could have been chosen) of the ways in which presentation of fluid issues finds itself funneling into dualities even as it tries to question the validity of such a model.1
I will hang on to the framework articulated above, even though it encompasses gross oversimplifications, and though through his work he reconfigures it, because it seems to me to be a useful...
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SOURCE: Cribb, Timothy J. “Toward the Reading of Wilson Harris.” Review of Contemporary Fiction 17, no. 2 (summer 1997): 59–62.
[In the following essay, Cribb suggests an approach to analyzing the elements of narrative in the fiction of Harris, concluding that Harris is “both a modernist and a visionary.”]
This essay sketches an approach to the nature of narrative in Wilson Harris's writing. I have chosen a passage ending book 2 of Palace of the Peacock, running between pages 26 and 31 of the one-volume edition of The Guyana Quartet (1985). The text is identical with that on pages 24 to 31 of the single volume paperback edition first published in 1968. My choice is guided by the fact that in this passage the ordinary narrative of events is readily ascertainable; yet even so, a reader is likely to feel a degree of uncertainty. In Harris's later works that degree is much increased. By attending to the sources of the uncertainty here, one can obtain some guidelines for reading the later writing.
But first for the relative certainties. Tutored by four centuries of narrative tradition from Sir Walter Raleigh to Sir William Golding, a Western reader immediately recognizes the situation as a typical moment in a narrative of exploration: the portage of an expedition's boat and equipment around rapids on a venture to the interior. This recognition is itself instructive...
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SOURCE: Steele, Fernanda. “Breaking Down Barriers as Genesis of a New Beginning in Wilson Harris's Palace of the Peacock.” Review of Contemporary Fiction 17, no. 2 (summer 1997): 63–66.
[In the following essay, Steele explores the formal aspects of narrative in Palace of the Peacock, highlighting a number of boundaries that the narrative breaks down.]
Palace of the Peacock, Wilson Harris's first novel, tells us of a scientific expedition from the savannahs into the interior of the Guyana forest, which the head of the expedition, Donne, and his crew can reach only by river. I should like to point out some formal aspects of Palace of the Peacock that might puzzle the reader on a first reading because he is plunged immediately into a world where everything happens in a rapid flowing of images and sensations, where many of the usual “barriers” have been abolished: life and death; dream and nondream. Past, present, and future are not distinguishable and often result in images I would call transparent in the sense that they allow one to see other images, other realities—as, for example, is the case with the old Amerindian woman who reminds us of Mariella, who in turn brings us to a Mission also called Mariella. Spaces interpenetrate, so that when one thinks he is reading of the crew on the river, suddenly he becomes aware that he is following them while they climb some...
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SOURCE: James, Louis. “The Leech-Gatherer and the Arawak Woman.” Review of Contemporary Fiction 17, no. 2 (summer 1997): 67–71.
[In the following essay, James compares the transformative effects of Harris's imagination in Palace of the Peacock to similar ones in the poetry of William Wordsworth.]
One of Wilson Harris's most extraordinary passages of writing comes not in his fiction, but in an essay published in 1973. Harris tells of two moments of danger surveying the Potaro river above the Tumatumari rapids at a time of high water. An anchor snagged and had to be cut loose. Three years later on the same river, the anchor again caught under the water, and, with the boat filling with water, the boatman was unable to cut it free. Just before disaster struck, the anchor came free and was brought up, interlinked with the anchor that had been lost three years before.
For Harris, the moment brought a moment of vision:
It is almost impossible to describe the kind of energy that rushed out of that constellation of images. I felt as if a canvas around my head was crowded with phantoms and figures. I had forgotten some of my own antecedents—the Amerindian/Arawak ones—but now their faces were on the canvas. One could see them in the long march into the twentieth century out of the pre-Columbian mists of time. One could also sense the lost...
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SOURCE: Maes-Jelinek, Hena. “Charting the Uncapturable in Wilson Harris's Writing.” Review of Contemporary Fiction 17, no. 2 (summer 1997): 90–97.
[In the following essay, Maes-Jelinek examines Harris's geographical and metaphorical reconception of the Caribbean and the region's potential for artistic creativity, particularly as represented in Resurrection at Sorrow Hill.]
He saw the complexities yet simplicities of a fiction one may involuntarily write which involves a broken family with an entire humanity though its seed lies in obscure provinces, obscure sorrow hills.
—Wilson Harris, Resurrection at Sorrow Hill
May it not be that God continually writes the world, the world and all that is in it?
—J. M. Coetzee, Foe
In his recent writing, both self-reflexive analytical fiction and imaginative criticism, Wilson Harris has returned emphatically to the Amerindian presence in Central America, as part of “the womb of space,” at once actual territory pregnant with physical and psychical resources, “largely submerged territory of the imagination,” and primordial seat of life and of a creativity that can never be fully apprehended nor given final expression: “No art of total capture or subordination of originality within formula...
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SOURCE: Emery, Mary Lou. “‘Space Sounds’ in Wilson Harris's Recent Fiction.” Review of Contemporary Fiction 17, no. 2 (summer 1997): 98–103.
[In the following essay, Emery discusses how Harris utilizes the imagery of Guyanese visual art as a metaphor for the problem of identity in The Four Banks of the River of Space and Resurrection at Sorrow Hill.]
We may carve or sculpt or paint with a hand that falters even as it seeks the true, exact hand it can never capture, Timehri, hand of God. …
I have dreamt, Judge, of writing a manifesto of the ship of the globe. …
—spoken by Hope in Resurrection at Sorrow Hill
As readers of Wilson Harris's writing, we are drawn into the fictions, drawn almost literally, as his characters “carve, sculpt, or paint” themselves onto the pages that become simultaneously canvases, galleries, and theaters of a reimagined globe. The dynamics of visual creativity figured in Harris's novels engage a conversion of verbal art into visual art, an apparent crossing from the sign system of words to that of visual images. Drawn into this illusionary transfiguration, we see vision itself refigured through and beyond the “imperial eye”1 of conquest, extending the senses and body of the text-reader relation in a...
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SOURCE: Johnson, Kerry L. “Translations of Gender, Pain, and Space: Wilson Harris's The Carnival Trilogy.” Modern Fiction Studies 44, no. 1 (spring 1998): 123–43.
[In the following essay, Johnson focuses on Harris's concern with the body as a metaphorical locus of gendered identity and cross-cultural community in The Carnival Trilogy.]
Vaguely alarming yet unreal, laden with consequence yet evaporating before the mind because not available to sensory confirmation, unseeable classes of objects such as subterranean plates, Seyfert galaxies, and the pains occurring in other people's bodies flicker before the mind, then disappear.
—Elaine Scarry, The Body in Pain
In his recent work, Wilson Harris has been moving toward representing a multiplicity of bodies in relation to each other and to space. These bodies extend out toward and embody the sky, the earth, and the entire cosmos, as Harris sees the body's extension out to “the complex landscapes of the earth [as] a dialogue, half-conscious, half-unconscious, with spatial gulfs of subjectivity through and beyond oneself—in one's nature as in the nature of the cosmos” (Explorations 107). While in many ways this approach, especially as it is incorporated into his recent, allegorical Carnival Trilogy (consisting of Carnival, The Infinite...
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SOURCE: Dieke, Ikenna. “Anagogic Symbolism in Wilson Harris's Palace of the Peacock.” CLA Journal 42, no. 3 (March 1999): 290–308.
[In the following essay, Phillips demonstrates how Harris uses symbolism in Palace of the Peacock to express ideas of deep spiritual significance that can transform the human psyche.]
Critics of Guyanese novelist Wilson Harris have often noted with acute interest the remarkable way in which his fiction is driven, quite literally, by a single dynamo—the symbol-forming imagination which constructs phenomenal space as a protean theater for dramatizing in stark relief and reflective processes its underlying metaphysical reality. Harris's fiction reads like an intricate network of symbolic vignettes pregnant with evocative power and propelled by incredible moral eloquence. If proverbs are for Chinua Achebe the palm oil with which words are eaten, symbols and symbolic inscriptions are for Wilson Harris the cerate by which logos, character, locus and circumstance are invested with profound meaning.1 Quite often in his fiction, the phenomenal prefigures the spiritual and immaterial essences (the noumenal realm). Harris himself has admitted the fact that his fiction foregrounds “a symbolic landscape—in-depth—the shock of great rapids, vast forests and savannahs—playing through memory to involve perspectives of imperilled community and...
(The entire section is 6665 words.)
SOURCE: Phillips, Caryl. “The Guyana Enigma.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5040 (5 November 1999): 26.
[In the following review, Phillips offers a positive assessment of Selected Essays of Wilson Harris, praising the selections for elucidating the difficulties of Harris's fiction.]
In a 1975 review of Wilson Harris's novel Companions of the Day and Night, the Financial Times critic, while noting that it “reads like a poem rather than a novel,” concluded his otherwise favourable notice with the following sentence: “It seems to me to be outstanding in fiction in the past 25 years: Asturias obtained the Nobel Prize for writing just such strange works. Harris is in such a class.” The comparison with the late Miguel Ángel Asturias is an interesting one, for, like Wilson Harris, the Guatemalan novelist and poet was understood to be a “difficult” writer. However, in the Spanish-speaking tradition, Asturias has many peers: Gabriel García Márquez in Colombia and Alejo Carpentier in Cuba, to name but two. On the other hand, Harris, the author of twenty-one novels from Palace of the Peacock (1960) to Jonestown (1996), stands more or less alone in the anglophone tradition. His reputation is high, particularly inside the academy, but there appears to be nobody else writing in English who possesses his imaginative sensibility. He is, paradoxically, admired and...
(The entire section is 1233 words.)
SOURCE: Paris, Bruce King. Review of Selected Essays of Wilson Harris, by Wilson Harris. World Literature Today 74, no. 3 (summer 2000): 569.
[In the following review, Paris offers a positive assessment of Selected Essays of Wilson Harris, noting that the collection provides a useful introduction to Harris's work.]
After a useful map of Guyana locating places mentioned in Wilson Harris's fiction, Selected Essays consists of Andrew Bundy's thirty-four-page introduction and helpful prefaces to each of the four parts of the volume. There is also a concluding bibliography prepared by Hena Maes-Jelinek. In between are twenty-one essays, talks, and novel excerpts by Harris and two concluding notes by Bundy and Maes-Jelinek.
Those who are puzzled by Harris's difficult novels may not always find clarification in Bundy's preface, which in places uses Harris's metaphoric vocabulary and which assumes that there is still much intellectual belief in Jung, archetypes, and myths. Bundy, however, gets the emphasis right in seeing the fiction as a dreamscape with unfixed boundaries in which people and events are symbols that are continually being transformed. There are also such useful insights as pointing to the curious collection of European influences which has produced Harris's very New World vision. Such sources help illuminate, but Bundy's point is that those who try to enlist...
(The entire section is 601 words.)
SOURCE: Tayler, Christopher. “Dreaming with Atahualpa and Faust.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5113 (30 March 2001): 25.
[In the following review, Tayler describes Harris's writing style in The Dark Jester as “romantic modernism,” observing that the characters are “the fragmentary manifestations of a kind of cross-cultural world-spirit immanent within the mind of the dreaming narrator.”]
In November 1532, in what is now Peru, Francisco Pizarro arrived at the city of Cajamarca with a force of about 180 men and requested an audience with Atahualpa, the Inca Emperor. Atahualpa—who only that year had defeated his half-brother Huascar in a civil war—seems to have both underestimated Pizarro and misinterpreted his intentions. On November 16, Atahualpa arrived at the meeting place with several thousand apparently unarmed retainers. When the fairly brusque demands made by the Spaniards were rejected, the Incas were massacred by the invaders' guns, artillery and horsemen. He himself was captured, and, although the Incas provided twenty-four tons of gold and silver in ransom, Pizarro never felt safe enough to let their ruler go free. Atahualpa had ordered Huascar's execution during his imprisonment; using this as a pretext, the Spaniards sentenced him to death. A last-minute conversion to Christianity saved him from being burned at the stake, but he was killed anyway on August 29, 1533....
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James, Louis. “Structure and Vision in the Novels of Wilson Harris.” World Literature Written in English 22, no. 1 (spring 1983): 39–46.
James discusses the narrative structure in Harris's works, based on diagrams included in several of his novels.
Riach, Alan. “The Scottish Element in Wilson Harris.” Scottish Literary Journal 18, no. 1 (May 1991): 68–81.
Riach discusses the influence of Scottish culture on Black Marsden, highlighting the implicit affinities between Scotland and the Caribbean.
Urs, S. N. Vikram Raj. “Wilson Harris: A Major Voice from the Caribbean.” Commonwealth Quarterly 4, no. 15 (September 1980): 87–109.
Urs describes Harris's poetry as “a concrete realization of the concept of man,” and asserts that his poetry is a key to understanding Harris's entire literary oeuvre.
Webb, Barbara J. “History as Mythic Discourse: El siglo de las luces, Tumatumari, and La case du commandeur.” In Myth and History in Caribbean Fiction, pp. 85–128. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1992.
Webb examines the narrative of the quest in El siglo de las luces, by Alejo Carpentier, Tumatumari, by Wilson Harris, and La case due commandeur, by Edouard Glissant....
(The entire section is 242 words.)