Critical Context (Masterplots II: African American Literature)

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Critics are almost universally agreed that Wilson Harris is a very difficult writer to understand. The difficulty is created by Harris’s poetic use of language in his prose fiction. He is certainly not as difficult as the James Joyce of Finnegans Wake (1939) but is at least as difficult as the James Joyce of Ulysses (1922). Hostile critics say that Harris is unnecessarily opaque, while sympathetic critics assert that he is worth the effort it takes to understand him. An example of his densely metaphorical prose from chapter 2 of Palace of the Peacock illustrates the characteristic that is the main bone of critical contention:The rocks in the tide flashed their presentiment in the sun, everlasting courage and the other obscure spirits of creation. . . . A white fury and foam churned and raced on the black tide that grew golden every now and then like the crystal memory of sugar. From every quarter a mindless stream came through the ominous rocks whose presence served to pit the mad foaming face.

A phrase such as “the crystal memory of sugar” is perplexing and threatens to break the fragile illusion of reality while readers pause to decipher its meaning. Although each of the novels in The Guyana Quartet is short, each requires a long time to read because of the complexity of the prose. Mirroring the feelings of the boatmen on the furious, foaming river in Palace of the Peacock, readers begin to feel wary of Harris’s beautiful but impetuous prose. Harris is a novelist who must be read slowly and attentively.

Critics, whether antipathetic or sympathetic, are almost universally agreed that Wilson Harris is one of the most important West Indian writers because of his ambition to create a new consciousness for the people of Guyana. In doing this, he has set an example for authors of other former European colonies around the world, especially those of the Caribbean region and Africa. Some critics consider him to be one of the most important writers of the twentieth century because of his leading role in the emerging cultural, intellectual, and political influence of the Third World.