Wilson Harris: The Guyana Quartet


The latest addition to my website is Wilson HarrisThe Guyana Quartet. This consists of four relatively short novels, all set in the Guyana jungle, and it is generally considered Harris’ masterpiece. The first novel, Palace of the Peacock, is, in my view the best and tells of the journey of a motley crew of men, working for a hard and cruel man called Donne. Donne’s native workforce has run away because of his cruelty and Donne and his men set off to get them, on a journey that it is not too dissimilar to Herzog’s Aguirre, Wrath of God. The story is narrated by Donne’s unnamed brother, who lives in something of a dream world. The further away the crew get from civilisation, the stranger they and the environment becomes

The second book, The Far Journey of Oudin, starts with the dead Oudin wondering why he is dead and then tells us of events up to his death. He had worked for the devious Ram, who had hired him out to Mohammed, a man who, with his brothers, had conspired against his father and his half-brother, to gain their father’s inheritance but had to pay a bitter price for it. In the second half of the book, Oudin will meet Beti and will half-abduct her. The pair will set out on a mythical journey through the wilderness.

The third book, The Whole Armour, is a simpler novel. Magda, the best whore in the area, asks one of her clients Abram, to shelter her son Cristo, who has killed a man and is wanted by the police. When Abram disappear, Magda fears the worst, but it seems he has been killed by a tiger. When Magda and Cristo find the body, Magda persuades Cristo to take Abram’s clothes and then reports Criato as dead. In the second half of the book, Sharon, the woman whom Cristo and his victim had fought, is now with Mattias but he is killed by Peet, her father, and Sharon, on learning that Cristo is alive, gets back with him. However, the police are onto him.

The final book, The Secret Ladder, is the most straightforward, but only in comparison to the other three. Russell Fenwick is a surveyor and is surveying the area by the Canje region, with a view to improving the water flow in the area, as the water is becoming brackish. However, what he and his crew are doing, is likely to flood the land, to the detriment of the locals, most of whom are descendants of escaped slaves, who look to Old Poseidon as a leader. Fenwick has to deal with a crew who do not always behave and who argue with one another, as well as Poseidon and his farmers, who start sabotaging the surveying activities.

While the earlier books are clearly superior, though perhaps less straightforward, relying extensively on metaphor and poetic image, the whole quartet is a fine work and deserves to be better known. Harris gives us a wonderful picture of the Guyana jungle and the often strange people who live in and around it and the account of their lives and struggles is a superb piece of writing. It is in print in the UK and US.

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