The Novels

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

The Guyana Quartet is an omnibus volume made up of four novels originally published separately. The first of these is Palace of the Peacock, a strange story about a crew of men fighting their way into the Guyanan jungle on a small riverboat powered with an outboard motor. The mechanical power is supplemented by oarsmen at the many passages where roaring rapids threaten to capsize the fragile craft. Harris’s densely metaphorical style of writing is strongly reminiscent of Joseph Conrad’s rich, impressionistic prose. Like Conrad, Harris is keenly interested in revealing the influence of environment on human character.

One by one, the crew members are killed, most of them swept away by the river, one or two murdered in irrational quarrels. The driving purpose of Donne, the colonizer leading the crew, is to recapture a group of runaway workers and force them to return to toil on his estate. He ends up achieving only his own destruction. The Palace of the Peacock, which he reaches at the end of his journey, is a fantastic dreamlike structure housing nothing but dead men.

Harris has an impressive knowledge of the world’s literature, and the influences of many different authors can be detected in his novels. These include the poets William Butler Yeats, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and William Blake. Palace of the Peacock, in addition to being reminiscent of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1902), calls to mind Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s greatest poem, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” (1798), in which the crew of a ship met with disaster. It is, of course, also reminiscent of Herman Melville’s greatest novel, Moby Dick: Or, The Whale (1851), in which a whole shipload of men meet with disaster on a futile quest motivated by one man’s arrogant pride.

Palace of the Peacock is a novel about the virtually unexplored interior of Guyana, a country about the size of Great Britain but populated by fewer than three-quarters of a million inhabitants. The next novel, The Far...

(The entire section is 839 words.)