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Wilson Harris: Resurrection at Sorrow Hill

I continue to struggle with Wilson Harris. I can see that he is a fine writer but he really is a difficult read and difficult to get to grips with. While his novels do have plots, his language and imagery are all too often complex and impenetrable. This book is certainly a case in point. The setting is familiar – by the banks of the wild Guyanese rivers, at the edge of the jungle, with an assortment of mainly male characters who are often loners, sometimes undergoing a personal tragedy and, in many cases, approaching or even going beyond borderline insanity and with the female characters often being stand-ins for mythical creatures..

In this book, the names give us a clue even more than usual. The novel is located in Sorrow Hill, which we have seen before in Palace of the Peacock. (Sorrow Hill was a place of myth, in that every invention of truth deepened one’s apprehension of the gravity of truth.) Our first character is called Dr Daemon. He has just lost his pregnant wife, Ruth. She was in a boat at the confluence of three rivers. The boat capsized. Everyone managed to make it to shore, except for Ruth. Her body was never found. She will reappear in the book as a vengeful river goddess. They had been married just six weeks. His solace is astronomy. He has bought an expensive telescope to look at the stars but also to look for river goddesses. Much of this book is nominally written by Hope and merely edited by Harris, though the opening part is by Tiresias, Daemon’s grandmother. (Tiresias, in Greek mythology, was the blind prophet, who famously changed sex to become a woman for seven years.) Hope was eighty-three, mad (according to Tiresias) and having an affair with Butterfly, the wife of the particularly colourfully named Christopher De’Ath. Not only does he, as we shall see, have the death component in him, he also has the Christ component of his first name in him, as we are told. He works as a clock repairer.

De’Ath, of course, discovers his wife and her lover and shoots them both and kills them. But, as this is Harris, both of them are both still alive but also, as the title tells us, do die but resurrect, seven years later, after De’Ath has served his prison sentence. And this is where we get going. Hope’s book is the book of the asylum. Hope, after his resurrection, comes across the Asylum for the Greats, which has been set up by Dr. Daemon. It was a former prison and, indeed, was the prison where De’Ath served his seven year sentence, one year in each of the seven cells, now occupied by the inmates. Daemon admits Hope, not least because Hope is mentally disturbed and not surprisingly, after having been shot (shot as vividly, as if they were in an intimate battlefield in Ethiopia, or Rio, or Sarajevo, or Belfast…) We are then introduced to the other inmates over the course of the rest of the book.

The inmates all channel historical characters from the past, almost all from before the Conquest of Mexico. The first we meet is Monty. He had got into a fight with a crowd of drunken miners and someone had been stabbed. Monty was blamed, though he insisted that he was innocent. However, while he is Monty some days, on others, he is Montezuma, Emperor of the Aztecs. Len, the Brazilian, a former university physics and chemistry teacher, masterminded a bank robbery. He was dressed as a woman, so was not recognised. There was no reason to suspect him. Seven days after the robbery, he gave himself up. When asked why he gave himself up, he said he did it in order to remain a character in this book. His alter ego is Leonardo da Vinci (who died a year before Montezuma). Mark had had a breakdown and claimed he was a pagan god. He also claimed to be Karl Marx. He was addicted to riddles of exploitation. And then there is Nameless, who cries all night and who is a philosopher. (Has philosophy fallen asleep in the fiction we read? Yes, is Harris’ answer.) I am an astronomer-priest. I am science. I am a heretic, he proclaims. However, he also channels Giordano Bruno. The last two are Captain Diss, a former riverboat captain, and Archie, of whom little is known, except he calls himself Archangel.

What are we to make of this? It is a vision that Harris gives us, as he gives us a vision in all of his books. The old myths are important as are the borders between sanity and insanity, Most importantly, this remote corner of Guyana is doubtless a metaphor for the history of mankind, particularly its pre-Cortés history.That he is damning Western exploitation of the Americas, with Montezuma is clear. However, he is also showing us a picture of a form of hell, as he has done before, but, as always, it is a struggle to get there.

Publishing history

First published by Faber & Faber 1993