Toward the Reading of Wilson Harris

By Cribb, Timothy J. | The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Summer 1997 | Go to article overview

Toward the Reading of Wilson Harris

Cribb, Timothy J., The Review of Contemporary Fiction

This essay sketches an approach to the nature of narrative in Wilson Harris's writing. I have chosen a passage ending book 2 of Palace of the Peacock, running between pages 26 and 31 of the one-volume edition of The Guyana Quartet (Faber and Faber, 1985). The text is identical with that on pages 24 to 31 of the single volume paperback edition first published in 1968. My choice is guided by the fact that in this passage the ordinary narrative of events is readily ascertainable; yet even so, a reader is likely to feel a degree of uncertainty. In Harris's later works that degree is much increased. By attending to the sources of the uncertainty here, one can obtain some guidelines for reading the later writing.

But first for the relative certainties. Tutored by four centuries of narrative tradition from Sir Walter Raleigh to Sir William Golding, a Western reader immediately recognizes the situation as a typical moment in a narrative of exploration: the portage of an expedition's boat and equipment around rapids on a venture to the interior. This recognition is itself instructive for reading later Harris, since typical situations derived from traditions, whether of exploration or domesticity, still function beneath the surface. The reader is thus well advised to read quickly, without preconceptions, trusting the text to trigger recognitions which, once realized, lend orientation for a much slower rereading. Anyone who has had the experience of reading Finnegans Wake or parts of Ulysses will know how to do this.

Orientation, however, is precisely not what the writing seeks to impart. Compare the passage chosen with three other moments of fear within the tradition of novels of exploration: Robinson Crusoe's discovery of the footprint on his island, Conrad's Marlow, perturbed by an eerie cry coming out of the mist in Heart of Darkness, or Forster's Mrs. Moore in the Marabar Caves in A Passage to India. After his initial panic, Crusoe analyzes the event in the light of reason, recovers self-control, and sets about extending that control over the new situation. Marlow, situated within Conrad's play of irony as he is, nonetheless preserves his stoic calm, which is instrumental to the operational success of his mission, however hollow the success. Forster's Mrs. Moore, after peering into her own heart of darkness, emerges to find that the experience of the echo gathers force within her, draining life of meaning, leaving her in an irritably posthumous state, playing patience, waiting for actual death. These three moments mark the stages of a traditional movement from confidence through crisis to exhaustion. The moment of fear is like a test, which all in varying ways survive. Were they to have failed the test, the story line would not have been able to continue and that is what makes them the heroes of their stories.

Harris's narrator is both the heir of this heroic tradition and a departure from it, and as such is closest to Mrs. Moore. One index of this is gender, normatively masculine in the tradition of exploration. Here, at the beginning of the passage, the male crew toil to thrust the prow of their boat deeper into the interior; by the end, the narrator has succumbed to his irrational panic and is explicitly unmanned.

Of itself this might make him no more than an anti-hero, coming late in the tradition, as in Graham Greene. But Harris's writing goes beyond this. With Defoe, Conrad, and Forster, the moment of fear is something that is overcome or, at the least, known and hence completed; the narrative can proceed through it and out the other side. The temporal horizon of the narration is concealed from the reader so that the events have the immediacy of experience, but this is really only a rhetorical device to achieve a reality effect, and the narrative is driving toward its horizon all the time. That is what keeps us reading.

Harris takes up the capacity of the first-person narration to immerse the reader in the immediacy of experience, but instead of leading the reader out the other side, leaving a completed incident behind, he lets it hang in the air in a curious state of undetermined suspense. …

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