Palace of the Peacock by Wilson Harris
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Palace of the Peacock by Wilson Harris

4th November 2021

Faber Editions present
Palace of the Peacock
by Wilson Harris

Palace of the Peacock by Wilson Harris


'The Guyanese William Blake. Such poetic intensity.' - Angela Carter

Earlier this year Faber & Faber introduced Faber Editions an exciting new publishing list, to celebrate radical literary voices from history which speak not only to our present, but our future. This month sees the publication of Wilson Harris’s Palace of the Peacock, which was first published back in 1960, and chronicles a riverboat crew’s epic voyage into the rainforest. A modernist fever dream; prose poem; modern myth; elegy to victims of colonial conquest: Wilson Harris' masterpiece has defied definition for over sixty years, and is now reissued for a new generation of readers, along with a fascinating, personal introduction from celebrated author Jamaica Kincaid which you can read below
 



Foreword
by Jamaica Kincaid
 

It is true that in the almost seventeen years I spent growing up in Antigua – fourteen and a half of those years going to school – I was never given a book written by a person from that part of the world. Nor did I know that people, who looked more or less like me, had the same education that I had, even the same experiences, had written books in any of the many languages we spoke. In fact, I was led to believe that literature, that grand thing that began with Beowulf and Chaucer, and eventually Shakespeare, and onwards to Wordsworth and Coleridge and specks of others (a bit of Keats, a verse or two of somebody I can’t remember from the same period, but whom I am fully acquainted with now), was so great that there was not enough time to drill its importance into me.

          There was a moment – or some other measurement of time – when I decided to un-memorise ‘I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud’ because I felt, not knew, that I was paying homage to something that I had never seen and, life being what it was, I would never see. Daffodils do not like the climate near the equator. Life being wilfully indifferent to set principles of people (me) has made me realise that my quarrel with British imperialism must exclude Wordsworth from the use to which he was put without his agreement and also without the daffodils’ agreement, and so I have now planted just about twenty daffodils on a vast lawn, and when they are all in bloom, I try to recite ‘I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud’, that glorious ode to a spring flower that most of the people populating the world in which I lived would never see. But the fact is, when I was taught to memorise that poem and many others that praised such glories of the English landscape (we did not make a distinction for Scotland and Wales; it was all England to us), I did not know that there were people in my part of the thing called ‘the British Empire’ who had imaginations (what were/are those anyway?), who were able to – and in fact had – constructed through the imagination a world that is made up and at the same time made of the world that we in the English-speaking Caribbean experienced as real.

          Sometime early in my adventure as a writer, I met Derek Walcott. He was giving a reading at the New York Public Library, and I was one the many people in the audience. When our publisher introduced us, he was so kind and protective of me, probing delicately to know where in the world I came from, what I knew of my own origins and how I would get anywhere without such knowledge. He then sent me a book, a collection of short stories all by writers who came from our world. Every one of the stories was authored by a man. It wasn’t a statement meant to deter me; I could see that immediately, for not one of the authors was named V. S. Naipaul. I interpreted it, of course not consciously, as a signal to my potential inheritance, as almost all of them were respected but not well known. And then he said, ‘Have you read Wilson Harris?’ I didn’t have to answer or even know how to answer, but he turned away from me with, oh, I don’t know, perhaps disgust, but he wasn’t the kind of person who would make you feel diminished when he was regarding you.

          When I was a child (I designate that time to be until I was fifteen years of age), in the world in which I grew up and was educated, I knew of ‘literature’, that thing called literature, as comprising Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Wordsworth and his friends and acquaintances, a limited number of the Brontës, no Jane Austen that I can remember, Dickens, and then everything stopped with the abominable Kipling. I was a voracious reader, but when I encountered Kipling I suddenly had opinions. I stopped. But there was nothing at all wrong in introducing us to Chaucer and the rest, and nothing wrong in our committing it to memory and in worshipping things we would never see (daffodils or the White Cliffs of Dover), for those are all great in and of themselves and so worthy of moving the individual heart, wherever each individual heart originates. What was wrong – evil, even – was to let us think and deeply imbibe and embrace the idea that we had nothing to equal it, nothing to come near it, nothing to surpass it. Of course, there is no need to come near, or to equal, or to surpass; there is only the fact that our lives, imagined and real, existed and that we had among us extraordinary individuals, poets, historians, travellers of every kind, sitting at our gates, blind perhaps (or not), but all able to give us an account of our world in its many historical eras, whether it be in geological time or agreed-upon universal time.

          To encounter Palace of the Peacock, the first book/chapter of the four-part opus The Guyana Quartet, for the first time is an exhilarating experience and the exhilaration includes the despair of the reader (this reader, in any case) that she, having grown up with an overwhelming passion for books, a passion that sometimes culminated in betrayal (I used to steal books from the library) and tragedy (my mother once gathered up all my books, almost all of them stolen, and burned them on her stone heap), did not know of the existence of Wilson Harris and of the unique product of his imagination.

          This imagination belonged uniquely to him of course – but the ways in which he wielded it, deployed it, engaged with it, made visions real and reality visions were so special, the extravagance of it so breathtaking. The beneficiaries of that loathsome entity called the British Empire, now reduced to the brand ‘The Commonwealth’, as if it were a special scent meant to perfume foul air, seem unable to accept the deep evil it left behind. Mostly they cite the Law, as if every group of people who organise themselves into a unit of some sort would not know of such a thing. But in fact, the best of themselves that they threw at us, this curated bundle – as though it were something left over, a by-the-way kind of thing, a treasured relic that we would never really understand – was literature.

          Wilson Harris was born in British Guiana in 1921, making him two years younger than my own mother. I am now seventy-two years of age. Yet, I know him and his world as well as I know everything from which I came, but I also wonder how was he so knowing of everything (colonialism) and yet so able not to dismiss it but to gather from such a debacle the great virtue of Grace.

          In a deeply perceptive and brilliant analysis of his work by Joyce Adler, he prefaced her appreciation with an autobiographical introduction. He wrote:

"I knew that my father who had died when I was two was of mixed blood but I lost touch with his relatives, so that my family tree on his side remains obscure. The carven horse in his grave (so it seemed) of a trunk that my mother opened was threaded into Homer’s giant horse when I read the Odyssey as a child but it was also to be resurrected many years later and to be ridden by the character of Donne in my first published novel, Palace of the Peacock."

          The world of literature was not made up of hybrids and so neither was the world of recorded history. His imagination and his reality had one and the same constituency, and it was the conjunction: ‘and’ especially, and ‘but’, the two words that we are all taught, when writing in English, must never begin a sentence. But the genius of Harris, like Derek Walcott, his only true literary compatriot, is that the world, be it made up of words or anything else, is a series of continuations and the ‘but’ does not negate; it sets to one side a series of events that will be later picked up with an ‘and’.

          The writers who instinctively understand this are not mere writers; they are not prophets either, for that is not their purpose. Nor is their purpose even known to them, but they are rare and blessed and not always understood in their own time. For what is one to make of a writer who finds that the light as it is fading at sunset in the wilds of Essex, England, reminds him of the light in the forests (‘jungle’ is the word used when impenetrable nature occurs in the colonised world) of British Guiana?

          The region of the earth that is called the Caribbean, mainly as its borders geographically come to a pause on the waters of that sea, is now occupied by people mostly from Africa, who for the most part have been influenced by European people who don’t even like each other. But the one thing they do agree on is that they do not like the people from Africa whom they enslaved. These actions, so easy to put in a few words, are also easy to put in many words. The genius of Palace of the Peacock is exactly that: so few, so many, and yet the author is one, a singular being, a singular unique voice, saying many of the most important things. His name is Wilson Harris!

 



Wilson Harris

Sir Wilson Harris was a prize-winning novelist, poet, essayist, and lecturer. Born in 1921 in British Guiana, his father died when he was two and his stepfather disappeared into the rainforests in 1929. He began working as a government surveyor in 1942 and led expeditions into the Amazonian interior for almost 15 years. In 1959 he left for England to become a full-time writer. The following year, Faber published his debut novel, Palace of the Peacock, which became a landmark of Caribbean literature and the first of The Guyana Quartet. Over the course of his career, Faber published all 26 of Harris' novels, including The Carnival Trilogy, Jonestown, The Mask of the Beggar, and The Ghost of Memory. Harris was awarded numerous academic fellowships and honorary doctorates as well as being a Guggenheim Fellow. He twice won the Guyana Prize for Literature as well as a Lifetime Achievement Prize from the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards. Harris was knighted in 2010, and died in 2018 at the age of 96.

Jamaica Kincaid

Jamaica Kincaid was born in Antigua in 1949. In 1965 she left for America to work as an au pair before studying photography and launching her career as a legendary author, working as a staff writer at the New Yorker from 1974 to 1996. Her first book in 1983 was the story collection At The Bottom of the River, and her acclaimed novels include Annie John, Lucy, The Autobiography of My Mother, and Mr Potter. She has also written non-fiction, such as her chronicle of her brother's battle with AIDS, My Brother, as well as My Garden and Among Flowers. She is currently Professor of African and African American Studies at Harvard University.

 

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