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.