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Caribbean Beat Magazine

In the rain forest of the mind

The Palace of the Peacock, Wilson Harris’s deeply poetic exploration of the soul of Guyana, may not be easy reading, but it’s well worth the effort. James Ferguson explains

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Few places on earth are as remote or mysterious as Guyana’s interior. While the capital Georgetown and the other main settlements cling to a thin coastal strip, the bulk of the country stretches back for hundreds of miles, endless savannahs merging into the vast Amazon rain forest and river system. An area of awe-inspiring proportions and spectacular landscapes, it was this inaccessible territory that inspired Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s vision of the “Lost World”.

Ever since Europeans set foot in this part of South America, they have been appalled and intrigued by what they found. Huge rivers, dense jungle and ferocious fauna all gave rise to a mythic image of an untamed wilderness. A stubborn and irrational belief also took root that something of infinite value must lie beyond the forbidding mountains of the Guiana Shield, the huge cliff-edged massifs that rise into the clouds.

Sir Walter Raleigh did much to popularise this belief in his Discoverie of the Large, Rich and Bewtiful Empire of Guiana, which was something of a best-seller at the end of the 16th century. Raleigh was infected by gold-fever and was convinced that Guiana (as it was then known) was overflowing with it. It was also virgin territory, “a country that hath yet her maidenhead”, as the hapless — and eventually headless — explorer pointed out.

Thanks to Raleigh and others of his ilk, the legend of El Dorado evolved. Not a place, but in fact a man, El Dorado (The Golden One) was reputed to be the king of a fabulously wealthy realm somewhere in the jungle. There, it was reputed, he was covered entirely in gold dust, washing the powder off in ceremonial bathing sessions in a holy lake. This fantasy was too much for generations of adventurers to resist, and many an expedition was mounted to track down this golden king and his fortune. Needless to say, the mirage remained a mirage, and few of the explorers returned to tell their tale, falling victim to starvation, malaria or some other jungle hazard.

The other main losers in this fruitless quest were Guyana’s native Amerindians, who probably egged on the treasure-seekers with their own tall stories, if only to get rid of them. But that was easier said than done, and the indigenous Guyanese — encompassing nine main peoples — were soon at the sharp end of European colonisation. Gradually the gold-fever wore off, but the Europeans had by now arrived for good and Guyana became yet another plantation economy. The Amerindians continued to be exploited and neglected in equal measure, their lands taken from them and their centuries-old societies disrupted.

This El Dorado syndrome exists to the present day, as Guyana seeks economic salvation through gold-mining and logging, while the Amerindians are still at the margins of society. The interior remains a largely unknown and forbidding entity, but one that offers the alluring prospect of rich pickings.

 

It is against this background — historical and modern — that Wilson Harris’s unforgettable novel of self-destruction and self-discovery unfolds. Harris was born in Guyana in 1921 and worked as a government surveyor, before moving to Britain as a full-time writer and lecturer in 1959. His feeling for the Guyanese landscape is hence based on direct personal experience, but also on a highly imaginative reconstruction of places and their meanings. In Palace of the Peacock, like many others of his fictional works, Guyana is invested with a symbolic significance that goes beyond the merely descriptive.

It has to be said that Harris has a reputation for being a “difficult” writer. This short novel, first published in London in 1960, is hardly an easy read, but it is by no means impossible and rewards the reader’s efforts with a vivid and, at times, unsettling poetic experience. The important thing is to abandon your normal expectations about fiction and story-telling and to enter into Harris’s particular imaginative world.

The novel begins with a relatively recognisable situation and theme; a crew of men are about to travel upriver into the interior, in search of some unspecified El Dorado. Donne, their leader, is an authoritarian and yet charismatic personality, cruel towards the Amerindians he has apparently enslaved, and yet conscious of his own brutality. The story is at first told by a first-person narrator, who, it transpires, is Donne’s brother.

So far, so good. But then we learn that the men who make up this eccentric crew of conquistadors have precisely the same names and identities as an earlier group of adventurers who perished in the same reckless enterprise: “The odd fact existed of course that their living names matched the names of a famous dead crew that had sunk in the rapids and been drowned to a man. But this in no way interfered with their life-like appearance and spirit and energy.”

If the living and the dead are seemingly interchangeable, then so too are the present and the past. For Donne and his men belong to no particular period, but are timeless and wilfully anachronistic, mixing Elizabethan names and attitudes with outboard motors and contemporary slang. More than that, they represent the racial and cultural diversity of modern-day Guyana, itself a mix of European, African, Indian and indigenous blood.

As the nightmare journey into Guyana’s heart of darkness progresses, individual crew members disappear or die. We know only that the rapacious Donne is driven by his desire to track down “the folk”, the Amerindians who seem to have fled upriver to escape his autocratic regime. But then the journey takes on a purpose and logic of its own, as the distinction between waking and dreaming becomes increasingly blurred. After one crew member, Carroll, drowns in a sort of symbolic sacrifice, an eerie music leads the remaining crew members to a vast waterfall with strange stairs built into its side. It is in the process of climbing these stairs that the now-blind Donne undergoes a profound revelation:

 

It was the unflinching clarity with which he looked into himself and saw that all his life he had loved no one but himself. He focused his blind eye with all penitent might on this pinpoint star and reflection as one looking into the void of oneself upon the far greater love and self-protection that have made the universe.

 

Blindness and vision, emptiness and fulfilment: the thematic opposites that run through the novel are finally resolved in the mystical palace of the peacock. The narrator ends his tale: “Each of us now held at last in his arms what he had been for ever seeking and what he had eternally possessed.” The conflicts between oppressor and oppressed, love and hatred, the quest and the goal, are laid to rest.

There is no single “explanation” of The Palace of the Peacock, no glib conclusion. Instead, we can only guess at some hidden meaning, tantalisingly out of reach. But what emerges clearly and unambiguously from this dense and multifaceted piece of writing is Harris’s distinctively poetic voice. His ability to shock through unexpected images and inventive juxtapositions remains as powerful today as 40 years ago, while this novel stands as a testament to the impact of landscape and myth on the human imagination.

 

James Ferguson is the author of The Traveller’s Literary Companion to the Caribbean (In Print/Passport Books/Ian Randle Publishers)