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Wilson Harris: Heartland

This novel is the follow up to the Guyana Quartet. It features three characters from that Quartet – Da Silva from Palace of the Peacock, Kaiser from The Far Journey of Oudin and, possibly, the Mariella character, now called Petra, from Palace of the Peacock. The main character is Zechariah Stevenson. His father, also called Zechariah, had had a successful mining business but it had gone bankrupt when its accountant, a Brazilian called Camacho, had disappeared with a large sum of money. Young Stevenson was implicated, as he had been having an affair with Camacho’s wife, who also disappeared, to Stevenson’s chagrin. Stevenson’s father’s body had been found downriver and this tragedy had saved Stevenson from further investigation, though he insists he knew nothing about the fraud. Stevenson was now a watchman on a wood grant by the Kamaria Falls.

The government has created a portage around the very dangerous falls and requires people to use it, as there had been a lot of deaths. Stevenson works with Kaiser, who has a house at the base of the falls and whose job is to bring cargo up the river the various men working around the area, primarily pork-knockers, i.e. gold diggers. Kaiser had been a successful landowner and teacher before but has lost everything in a fire. He warns Stevenson to keep an eye out for Da Silva, a pork-knocker who looks like death itself. Stevenson had never heard of Da Silva. Kaiser has concealed some supplies for Da Silva.

However, as we can expect from a Harris novel, albeit a short one as this is, strange things are going to happen. We see this almost at once, as Stevenson gets lost in the jungle almost straightaway, though does manage to extricate himself. The native population is described as Legendary hunted creatures they all were and their legend was an extraordinary malaise, the imitative dance of beast and fish or fowl, the inspired flight of the shaman seeking god, the incredible convolvular gyration of secret bodies with fins or feathers on their heads, ending and beginning again the proliferate dance and vegetative process of life. Da Silva arrives but finds his supplies have disappeared and he goes to find Kaiser to find out what has happened. When Stevenson’s dinghy disappears – did it drift away, while he was dozing or did someone steal it? – Stevenson has set out to Kaiser’s place to try and find it. En route, he sees what seems like a body caught in the rocks. It turns out to be Da Silva. Was he murdered and, if so, by whom? When he gets to Kaiser’s place, Kaiser is not there, but an Amerindian woman is there and she is clearly pregnant. She calls herself Petra but she seems to be the Mariella of Palace of the Peacock. Stevenson wonders if Kaiser is the father but we later that Donne from Palace of the Peacock is and, as a result, she has been driven away from her tribe. Petra seems to have some supplies that look suspiciously like Da Silva’s. Stevenson breaks into Kaiser’s house to allow Petra to lie down there and helps her give birth but she soon disappears with her baby and Stevenson is left wondering where to go.

As we might expect from a Harris novel, the plot is not really what this novel is about. It is about Stevenson’s guilt, both at his father’s death and his relationship with Camacho’s wife. Indeed his current job is some sort of penance. It is also about a favourite theme of Harris, namely the all-encompassing power and mystery of the jungle and its inhabitants. Da Silva is killed, Petra and her baby disappear and Kaiser is nowhere to be found. Stevenson himself is lost and, as we learn in a postscript, is more lost than we had thought. Ultimately, man can try and tame it but he will not succeed.

Publishing history

First published by Faber & Faber 1964