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Wilson Harris: The Guyana Quartet

Wilson Harris has a reputation for being difficult. One critic said you had to read him and then read him again to understand what was going on. It is said that he writes almost exclusively in metaphors. The blurb on the back of my copy of this book says, referring to the second book (but it could apply to all of them), less a novel than a poetic experience. In short, Harris is not a particularly easy read but, if you make the effort, he is a very rewarding read. Yes, he uses metaphor and no, he certainly is not a straightforward realist novelist. Many of his works are set in the jungles of Guyana, giving the whole story a strange edge which may remind you of the brilliant Herzog film Aguirre, der Zorn Gottes (Aguirre, the Wrath of God). In Palace of the Peacock, Donne, a tyrannical man, sets off up river with a group of companions and gradually, as they penetrate the jungle, they find themselves not just remote from the civilisation they know but they discover that their minds find it difficult to cope with this strange environment. They quarrel. People die. It is not a success. The book differs in many ways from Aguirre but the similarities are there. (I wonder if Herzog read this book? It was not translated into German till 1988, sixteen years after Herzog’s film, but he certainly could speak English.) This Quartet is generally agreed to be his masterpiece. Though in print in both the UK and the USA, it is sadly not all that well known.

The story is told by an unnamed narrator. He is the brother of Donne. The narrator is a dreamer. Indeed, his dreams and reality tend to merge on more than one occasion. Dreams will feature in all four novels. Donne is the opposite, a practical but ruthless man. We see him at the beginning, whipping Mariella, his mistress, but she is also the person after whom the estate is named and therefore a sort of lynch-pin for Donne and his men. We learn that, because of his cruelty, the people who work for him have fled into the jungle. He is determined to go after them with the aid of his men. His men are indeed a motley crew. The eldest is Schomburg, a man of German origin but with some Arawak blood, who recalls Robert Hermann Schomburgk, who explored and wrote about British Guiana. The Da Silva twins are of Portuguese origin. Cameron is of Scottish origin, though he also has African blood in him. He is also distantly related to Schomburg. Jennings and Wishrop are English and Vigilance, the lookout man, is a native. Several of them have a past. Both Jennings and Wishrop have managed to convince people that they are dead (Jennings, has done it with his wife and children). The group sets out but, as in Aguirre, the further they get from civilisation, the stranger things become. Unlike in Aguirre, they are not attacked by the native population nor threatened by dangerous animals. But, like Aguirre, they fall out and fight. One by one they die, often mysteriously. The narrator continues to see them well after they have died.

But this is a poetical novel, where plot is there but not the key factor. It is the dreams of the narrator, the effect of the jungle on the men and their relationships that make it. Their often harrowing journey is superbly told, rich in description and metaphor. Indeed, the reader does not always know if the description of the journey, as told by the distinctly unreliable narrator, is an actual description or his febrile imagination and dreaming. While not an easy read, it is a superb book

The Far Journey of Oudin

This novel starts with Oudin seemingly waking from a dream but, as we soon learn, he is actually dead and he cannot really believe it. The rest of the novel is about the events prior to his death and focuses on his wife, Beti, and his employer, Ram. Ram likes to make money but, some years back, he needed someone to help him do so and when Oudin turned up (an accomplice and a submissive cornerstone), Ram had found his man. Oudin’s first job was to steal Mohammed’s unbranded cattle and brand them with Ram’s brand. At that time, Mohammed was well-off but his attempts to become richer, with the aid of his brothers, foundered, not least because he was a drunk and not very competent. He tried to run a bus company, mortgaging his land to buy it. But when he overfilled the coach and drove it while drunk, the police caught him and he lost his licence and had to pay a heavy fine. To pay the fine he had to borrow money from Ram and had been in Ram’s clutches since. Mohammed and his brother are waiting for their father to die, in order to inherit. The father is ill in hospital. However, the brothers fear that he has left his money to their half-brother, a mentally handicapped boy, son of the father’s outside woman and they hatch a plan to get the money at the expense of the brother. Meanwhile, Ram is getting richer. It was true, Ram was the devil.God knows how he had extended his grip far and wide. Many a strong, independent, man had grown into his victim, losing lock, stock and barrel over the years. As in Palace of the Peacock, several of the main characters die off, generally in bizarre accidents.

When Oudin appears on the scene, Ram lends him out to Mohammed, though, of course, with ulterior motives. Oudin has meanwhile discovered Beti, a cousin of Mohammed, who is living with him. This relationship becomes the second part of the novel, as Oudin abducts Beti, though she is not entirely unwilling. They set out on a mythical journey, meeting a John the Baptist figure on the way, and start a new life together. Not surprisingly, the chapter is called Second Birth, not least because Beti is pregnant with Oudin’s child. We have learned at the very beginning that there is some contract between Ram and Odin, as Ram is eager to obtain it from Beti, after Oudin’s death, but we do not learn what it is about till much later. However, much of this part is about Oudin and Beti’s second birth, a new life in the wilderness and a chance for both of them to become the independent people that they were not in the first part of the book.

This novel is far more complex than the previous one, with several sub-plots, a richer array of characters and a complete change of pace in the second half. Nevertheless, it still remains a poetical novel, particularly as regards the mythical journey of Oudin and Beti, it is still very much a Guyana jungle novel and, as in the Palace of the Peacock, death still stalks the land.

The Whole Armour

This novel is less poetical and simpler than the previous two but still not a bad novel, though not as good as the first two. We start with Abram, an old man who lives alone in an area by the Pomeroon River. He likes his drink and likes visiting the local prostitute, Magda (the toughest and best whore in the district). Magda has a son Cristo, who has got into trouble with the law. This time he has killed a man, apparently in a fight over a local woman, Sharon. Magda asks Abram to hide him till Cristo’s uncle comes with a schooner to take him away. Abram is initially very much opposed, even when Magda offers him free sex but eventually agrees. However, the schoonered uncle fails to appear and both men are restless. Cristo, in particular, wants to get away, not least because he believes that he has been framed and that he killed the man in self-defence. When Abram seems to have disappeared from his cabin, Magda thinks that Cristo has killed him but they soon see bloody tracks, which they follow, finding Abram’s mangled body, clearly killed by a tiger that has been spotted in the area. Magda has Cristo swap clothes with the dead Abram and then informs the police that Cristo has been killed by a tiger, while the very much alive Cristo flees into the jungle. The police are sceptical but, because of a shortage of manpower, take Magda at her word.

As in the previous book, the book then changes scene somewhat as we meet Sharon. She is now with Mattias. However, Mattias gets into a fight with Peet, Sharon’s father, and is killed. However, Magda tells Sharon that Cristo is still alive and the couple meet up. With Sharon now pregnant, the couple have to flee. The image of the tiger does pervade the novel and, at times, it seems that the various men, Cristo in particular, assume the role of a tiger. Cristo’s name, of course, invokes Christ and this is borne out not just in his presumed innocence but also in the markings on his body, though these are actually caused by a bunch of Caribs whom he meets on his flight and who, taking him for one of their own, involve him in one of their ceremonies. However, it seems likely that Cristo will have to pay the price as Christ did.

The Secret Ladder

The final novel is even simpler. Russell Fenwick is a surveyor and he is leading a team of men to the Canje River area to regulate the flow of water to the area. However, he meets opposition from the local poor farmers, mainly descendants of former slaves, with their charismatic leader, Old Poseidon, who will see their farmlands flooded by Fenwick’s work. Fenwick is a technician and sees things in technical terms, namely that regulating the flow of the river will be beneficial for the community as a whole. However, he is not averse to a bit of diplomacy, if that will help. Apart from Old Poseidon, most of the characters are Fenwick’s motley crew of men. Jordan is his cook but also his assistant, a close-fisted, crafty man, not liked by the crew. Jordan is all in favour of being tough both with the crew when they do not carry out their duty and also with Old Poseidon and the farmers. As with Donne’s crew in Palace of the Peacock, there are all types in Fenwick’s crew. There is one man of Chinese origin – Chiung. Weng is an Amerindian, while Perez is of Portuguese origin. Bryant, who will play a key role later on and is an admirer of Old Poseidon, is African, while Stoll is a mulatto and Van Brock black. Complaints start at the beginning. Weng has gone off hunting when he should be on watch. Perez, from the day shift, complains he cannot get any sleep at night as the others are noisily playing poker. Fenwick seems to have difficulty keeping them all under control. Perez has brought his wife over, a woman who is clearly mistreated by her husband, and she lives in Old Poseidon’s hut.

Jordan warns Fenwick of impending trouble and he is right. Soon, their work is sabotaged. The situation with Catalena, Perez’s wife, gets worse, as she seems to be being abused and claims that Perez uses her as a stake at the gambling table with the winner (or winners) having the right to have sex with her. However, when Fenwick fires Perez, the crew are angry, feeling that Catalena is a whore and deserves what she gets. When Chiung is brutally attacked while on night watch, wearing Fenwick’s coat, things take a turn for the worse. The book clearly is meant to have biblical connotations, culminating in the final paragraph which we are informed is the seventh day.

While, as in the all the four novels, people die unexpectedly, there is conflict between the different groups, the jungle assumes an at times mythical importance and what linear plot there is, tends to fizzle out somewhat, this novel is certainly more plot-driven than the other three and because of that or, maybe, despite that, seems the least interesting of the three.

This quartet of novels is not as well known as it should be. Yes, it is not an easy read and for those who prefer a simple plot, it might not be ideal. But it is a very fine piece of work, particularly, the first novel, Palace of the Peacock and deserves to be better known.

Publishing history

First published by Faber & Faber

Palace of the Peacock 1960
The Far Journey of Oudin 1961
The Whole Armour 1962
The Secret Ladder 1963