Guyana's most famous writer turns 80 today

Stabroek News
March 24, 2001

Wilson Harris, Guyana's most famous writer, is 80 today. He lives with his wife in Essex, England.

Wilson Harris attended Queen's College. From 1942 until 1958 he was a government surveyor, and he used his intimate knowledge of the savannahs and rain forests to create the settings for his fiction. In 1959 he moved to London. He first wrote poetry, which is collected in Fetish (1951) and The Well and the Land (1952). He then wrote and abandoned several manuscripts before publishing The Guyana Quartet, composed of Palace of the Peacock (1960), The Far Journey of Oudin (1961), The Whole Armour (1962) and The Secret Ladder (1963).

Harris' novels are full of ambiguous metaphors, puns, symbols with changing meanings, and the confusions of memory, imagination, dream, and reality. His characters reflect humanity's wholeness; an archetypal figure such as Ulysses, for example, belongs not to a single culture but to all. Harris' many novels include a trio set in London (Da Silva da Silva's Cultivated Wilderness, 1977; The Tree of the Sun, 1978; The Angel at the Gate, 1982) and another trilogy comprising Carnival (1985), The Infinite Rehearsal (1987), and The Four Banks of the River of Space (1990). He has also written short stories and essays.

David Lichtenstein of Brown University writes: "Harris's writing style has forced itself into many an academic debate, the subject of much controversy for its departure from accepted norms of style. By literally infusing his writing with his common themes of transcendence of fixed cultural, historical, or psychological boundaries, Harris has created a fascinating, challenging, and yet at times completely alienating body of work. Guyana's rich interior and history of conquest which has brought diversity (though divided along lines of oppressor and victim) consistently forms the backdrop for his heavily metaphoric writing. Ultimately, Harris seeks to provide a new Caribbean vision in which existing borders separating black and white, colonizer and colonized, even past and present, give way to a new community based on the wealth of heterogeneity".

Wilson Harris

There is a highbrow party game, best played after several drinks, in which each player names a literary masterpiece which he ought to have read but hasn't.

The usual suspects are James Joyce's Ulysses and Marcel Proust's In Search of Lost Time, both having bulk and convoluted prose on their side, but if this game were ever to develop a pound-for-pound category, Wilson Harris' Palace of the Peacock would be a shoo-in. Since its publication in 1960, Palace has been cherished by insiders but has defeated thousands of general readers who wanted to see for themselves why Harris may be remembered as the most important Caribbean writer of our time. Harris was born in British Guiana on 24 March 1921. He was educated at Queen's College and worked as a government surveyor before emigrating to England in 1959. His job took him on many expeditions to the interior during which he realised the inadequacy of the conventional descriptions of this landscape. His sense of its unmapped and possibly unmappable qualities drove him to devise new ways of talking about the land: prose music which fused different epochs, races and narratives.

This intuitive approach wanted to record the "density, depth and transparency" of the land; its complex, shifting impressions and meanings. Harris abandoned a fixed time scheme and other realist conventions because of their association with imperialist description, which he believed had suppressed the history, the "otherness" of Caribbean peoples. He treats concepts like "culture" and "personality" as categories we use to prevent the strangeness of reality from overwhelming us. They are partial constructs in themselves and must be played against each other if we are to restore the life which they suppress in order to serve their descriptive functions. If this sounds a bit too abstract, you need only to think a little more carefully about what you see when you look at the night sky.

The constellation of Orion the Hunter has shoulders which are 70 light years away from each other, its knees may be a thousand light years apart. One or more of these stars may have ceased to exist a long time before you "see" it on a given night. Yet we put these stars together in a pattern, we flatten vast quantities of space and time into a mappable domain.

We change the sky's subjunctives to indicatives. Harris' fiction works the other way around. He takes landscapes, people, situations and stories and shows the lost dimensions in them, the realities which our 'realist' conventions have eliminated or hidden. The result, is a literature that resembles the traditional novel about as much as quantum theory resembles the physics we learn in school.

Mythology is another important aspect of his work. The psychologist C.G. Jung, tried to parse the world's mythologies for archetypal tropes, such as death and resurrection or the magical change of beasts into princes, hags to damsels and lead into gold. Jung believed the recurrence of these patterns suggested a "collective unconscious" which local myths tapped into, and varied. Harris' work uses these variations (both European and Amerindian) to create connections between the 'partial' systems that produce them. The Carnival Trilogy, for example, reworks Dante's Divine Comedy, Goethe's Faust and Homer's Odyssey, often showing their limitations, but also using them to open the lives of the characters to deeper resonances.

This doesn't make for easy reading, but you don't have to be a professor to 'get' Wilson Harris. Visit the interior or spend a few days on the Essequibo. Think about how hard it is to explain what these things mean, how this land has shaped our consciousness. Then read the work of a solitary genius who has explored this question brilliantly for forty years.