Wilson Harris — into the interior

The Guyanese writer Wilson Harris, celebrating his ninety-fifth birthday in 2016, has lived far from his home country for many years — but Guyana’s landscape and history continue to haunt his magical imagination. James Ferguson explains how Harris’s novels bring together reality and dream

Illustration by Rohan Mitchell

By the time Guyana celebrated its independence in May 1966, its most famous author had already been away from the country for seven years. Wilson Harris had arrived in London in early 1959, aged thirty-eight, to forge a career as a full-time novelist. Apart from rare and brief visits, he has never returned to his native land, although he has lectured at universities and conferences across the world. His twenty-five novels have been published since 1960 by Faber in London, and in 2010 he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II. He had already taken British citizenship.

And yet, paradoxically, Guyana has formed the centre of Harris’s unique and complex fictional world. Its history and its landscapes fill the pages of almost all of his novels, from Palace of the Peacock (1960) to, more tangentially, The Ghost of Memory (2006), his most recent — and, he says, his last work. The sense of Guyana as a geological and geographical phenomenon — with its vast rivers, savannahs, and densely forested mountains — is pervasive throughout, as is that of its often violent and cruel history. This is a history marked by colonisation and resistance, by waves of migration and by a tenacious indigenous culture, by the intensively farmed plantations of the coastal area and the vast, mysterious interior. Onto this often primeval vision of Guyana, Harris draws patterns of symbolic and psychological complexity, asking questions about consciousness, memory, and fiction itself. According to Boyd Tonkin, literary editor of the UK Independent, “In Harris’s work, Amerindian mythology joins existentialism, ecology, epic narration that draws on Homer and Dante, and a visionary understanding of landscape and history. He takes fiction down hidden tributaries quite as lush and remote as any of the jungle backwaters that he evokes . . .”

Harris was born in the port town of New Amsterdam in British Guiana on 24 March, 1921, the son of a prosperous insurance salesman. His mixed heritage, observes the scholar A.J.M. Bundy, “reflects that of the Guyanese nation: English, Hindu Indian, Afro-Caribbean, and indigenous ancestors all contribute to Harris’s antecedents.” His father died when he was two, and he moved to Georgetown, where his mother remarried. Six years later, his stepfather vanished into the rainforest, never to be seen again. Harris later recalled, “My stepfather’s disappearance in that immense interior when I was a child was the beginning of an involvement with the enigma of quests and journeys through visible into invisible worlds that become themselves slowly visible to require further penetration into other invisible worlds without end or finality.”

At Queen’s College, Harris received a highly traditional and classical education, reading epic poetry and Greek tragedy, but his exceptional proficiency at maths led him to train as a hydrographic surveyor, and this in turn led him in a 1942 government expedition to the huge and forbidding wildernesses of the interior.

Exposure to Guyana’s remotest landscapes seemed to spark a poetic sensibility in the young Harris, which mixed classical myth with a visceral response to physical surroundings. In 2003, he told writer Fred D’Aguiar of “multitudinous forests I had never seen before, the whisper or sigh of a tree with a tone or rhythm I had never known, real (it seemed) and unreal footsteps in the shoe of a cracking branch, mysterious play in the rivers at nights, distant rain bringing the sound of approaching fire in the whispering leaves, horses’ hooves on water on rock . . .” There were “clues in ancient Homer” and in “the pre-Columbian god Quetzalcoatl,” but these were “museum pieces,” divorced from the new reality he experienced.

 

Harris spent much of the next seventeen years in the Guyana bush. When in Georgetown, he began writing poetry and contributing to the influential literary journal Kyk-Over-Al, but opportunities for authors were limited in British Guiana. London beckoned (as it did to such contemporaries as V.S. Naipaul and Samuel Selvon), and on a visit in 1954 he met the woman who would become his second wife. Five years later, he settled in London, doing menial work until, fortuitously, the manuscript of Palace of the Peacock was rescued from the Faber slush pile by editor Charles Monteith (who had done the same with William Golding’s Lord of the Flies a few years earlier).

Like some South American rewriting of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Palace of the Peacock takes the archetypal theme of the man-hunting expedition upriver as a way of exploring themes of colonial conquest and exploitation. But Harris’s narrative has none of the menacing concision of Conrad’s, as it quickly rejects any conventions of realism and takes the reader into a bewildering fictional world where shape-shifting characters are both living and dead, where the main protagonist Donne morphs into the hitherto separate narrator, and where dreams are indistinguishable from waking consciousness. There is little sense of resolution or an identifiable theme, but we are left with a feeling of redemption when Donne and his band of conquistadors are symbolically reconciled with the Amerindians they are pursuing in the Palace of the Peacock, a mysterious space where individual identities are fused into a collective unconscious.

 

If this sounds difficult, then it is. There is no getting away from the fact that Harris creates challenging fiction, with few reassuring concessions to conventional storytelling. Some critics have accused him of being wilfully obscure; more, however, have recognised an entirely original literary voice in which myth, Jungian psychology, and what Harris calls “quantum fiction” (i.e., multiple and conflicting perspectives) are deployed to create new boundaries. And within this experimental work, Guyana is very often present: The Far Journey of Oudin (1961) takes place in the rice plantations near the coast, while The Secret Ladder (1963) follows a land surveyor in the interior and a plan to build a dam that will flood land inhabited by the descendants of escaped slaves. More recently, Jonestown (1996) uses the dreadful mass suicide at Jim Jones’s People’s Temple as a metaphor for all genocides committed in the New World.

For most of his long and productive life, Wilson Harris has been thousands of miles away from his native Guyana. Yet the “land of many waters” has rarely been far from his imagination, constantly revisited for its awe-inspiring landscapes and tragic past. Guyana is recognisably Guyana in Harris’s work, but it is also something more than a country on the edge of South America. In Harris’s creative world, where fictional boundaries are as meaningless as those imposed by the imperialists of the past, it is a place of unlimited possibilities where dream and reality, past and present, myth and legend collide.