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Wilson Harris: The Eye of the Scarecrow

This novel reminds me very much of Palace of the Peacock. We have a journey into the Guyanese jungle to find a lost city, a larger than life woman, dreams where the boundary between dream and reality is uncertain and strange events where we are not quite sure what is happening. As with all of his novels, this one is less plot-based, though there is a sort of a plot, but more based on images, which merge and are often unsettling and equally often unclear. Harris is not an easy read.

The unnamed narrator is living in the UK – Edinburgh and Scotland – in 1964 though reminiscing about his early life in Guyana (or British Guiana, as it then was), looking back to his childhood in the 1920s and his adventure in 1948. His memories, however, are not straightforward. We get, for example, the memory of a blind hearse (a hearse which has no glass windows so you cannot see the coffin, used for poor people), which is seemingly normal but our narrator knows, in a way no-one else does, that the hearse was probably empty. He also sees the Governor-General, a man who is dying, ride by on his horse and sees him already as a ghost. The book is full of these sort of strange images – of ghostly apparitions, of strange dreams – which make the whole story somewhat Gothic but wonderfully rich in imagery.

Our narrator has a friend call L. L. is an orphan. Our narrator has lost both his father and stepfather in a mysterious way in the jungle. Did the step-father kill his father? How and where did he die? And how is this linked to L.’s father? L. visits the narrator’s house (from his orphanage) and the two play together. One day, the narrator wonders how deep the canal is and pushes L. into it to find out. Fortunately, it is not very deep and L. is only wet, not hurt, and, nobly, says he fell in by accident. But here and elsewhere L., and not just with his name, remains a nebulous figure.

A key event that the narrator does recall is the big strike that takes place in 1948, a precursor of the movement for independence but also an indication of the poverty of the people. He sees this further when he goes with his grandfather to collect the rents from the tenement building his grandfather owns. Only one family pays the rent, the others, out of work and broke, cannot pay and the grandfather generously lets them delay payment.

But the main action of the novel is the journey to the lost city. L. has become an engineer and he is to lead an expedition to find Raven’s Head, a lost city, a legendary four-gated city but one which some investors plan to develop. L. remarks on the engineering work of his predecessor, the narrator’s stepfather, who, like the narrator’s father, may well have lost his life in Raven’s Head. However, he loses track, not least because the magnetic rocks distort the compass reading. As a result, they consult a woman called Hebra (though she was also known as Raven’s Head, as she came from there). She is larger than life and also physically large. Our narrator sees her as a woman (sexually), L. does not but they still quarrel over her.

The expedition gets murkier and murkier. They do find the city but with difficulty and it is in an inhospitable area. What happens there is not clear. Did L. attack the narrator, leaving him for dead, as may have happened to his father? He is arrested for it but later released. Or did he save him, managing to get help? Or did the narrator save L’.s life. It is all left ambiguous. Hebra was killed but by whom? By the scarecrow, a strange beggar-like figure, who does confess to the killing? Or someone else? As the narrator says in 1964, in a letter to L. Language is one’s medium of the vision of consciousness and goes onto to explain how we use language to try and make sense, not always successfully, of what we sense. As with his other books, this is a difficult read, though not without its rewards, in the rich imagery he uses, but it is not difficult to see why Harris is little read today.

Publishing history

First published by Faber & Faber 1965