THE DISLOCATED IMAGE

In other words, in this novel and in Heart­land which follows, Harris has come to a point where the vision of consciousness can no longer be reflected by a totally involuntary ground of relation­ships in the fiction. The character begins to become aware. Russell Fenwick who is symbolically occupied in gauging the black upper reaches of the Canje river has a shattering confrontation with Posei­don:

“Fenwick adjusted his eyes. He could no longer evade a reality that had always escaped him. The strangest figure he had ever seen had appeared in the opening of the bush, dressed in a flannel vest, flapping ragged fins of trousers on his legs. Fenwick could not help fastening his eyes greedily upon him as if he saw down a bottomless gauge and river of reflection. He did not trust his own eyes like a curious fisher­man. playing for time, unable to accept his own catch, trying to strip from the creature who stood before him — the spirit with which he himself had involuntarily invested it. Poseidon addressed Fenwick at last. His mouth moved and made frames which did not correspond to the words he actually uttered. It was like the tragic lips of an actor, moving but soundless as a picture, galvanized into comical association with a foreign dubbing and tongue which uttered a mechanical version and translation out of accord with the visible features of original expression.

[The Secret Ladder pp. 23—24]

It is out of the shock of this experience that Fenwick’s dilemma arises, “the conviction of a dual net of ancient spirit and helplessness — divine pride and human fallibility.” This is Fenwick’s intimation of immortality. Harris’ Poseidon is Wordsworth’s immortal infant. The drama of consciousness in this novel is tactfully located in the character. The main point to be made in connection with this is that Harris can only take such a step after the obliterating effects of the earlier novels in the Quartet.

The second point relates the imperfect “I” narrator of Palace of the Peacock to Fenwick, a centre of con­sciousness in The Secret Ladder. This is really a way of emphasizing what has already been said about the development represented by the last segment of the Quartet. We cannot follow the imperfect “I” narrator because he is not presented as a solid discrete character. We can follow Fenwick because he is a solid discrete character in the process of being broken down, metamorphosed. The point is obvious, but it is a way of insisting upon the unity as well as the progressive development in the Quartet.

The unity of the Guiana Quartet is a unity achieved both structurally (in the way the focuses described operate within each novel and throughout the Quartet) and thematically. Harris frees his characters from all temporal and material restrictions and suffuses them with a unity and coherent identity on a plane of involuntary relationships where we are constantly aware of one thing crumbling into another.

The opening of the brilliant chapter 7 of Palace of the Peacock must be the umbrella illustration of this process, and a demonstration of the point it has been convenient to ignore till now, that though there is a predominant focus in each novel, all the focuses operate in varying degrees in all of the novels. The crew is pursuing their journey beyond Mariella. The American Indian woman in their midst has achieved a kind of Byzantine detachment and miracle:

“We set out in the rising sun as soon as the mist had vanished. We had in our midst a new member sitting crumpled-looking, like a curious ball, old and wrinkled. Her long black hair — with the faintest glimmer of silvery grey — hung in two plaits down to her waist.  Her small eyes winked and blinked a little. It was an emotionless face. The stiff, brooding materially and expression of youth had vanished, and now — in old age, there remained no sign of former feeling.

[Palace of the Peacock p. 71]

But as the vessel (the chosen vessel) enters the grip of the straits of memory, a curious metamorphosis takes place. In this fluid process, it is difficult to say whether it is the river which becomes woman or the woman, river, seeking to embrace the crew:

“Tiny embroideries resembling the handwork on the Arawak woman’s kerchief and the wrinkles on her brow, turned to incredible and fast soundless breakers of foam. Her crumpled bosom and river grew agitated with desire, bottling and shaking every fear and inhibition and outcry. The ruffles in the water were her dress rolling and rising to embrace the crew. [Palace of the Pea­cock p. 73]

The metamorphosis proceeds further. The woman-river becomes majestic and young and attractive and embracing. The crew, the river, and the woman become one in a moment which includes past and present and future:

“This sudden insolence of soul rose and caught them from the powder of her eyes, and the age of her smile and the dust in her hair all flowing back upon them with silent streaming majesty and subnormal youth and in a wave of freedom and strength. Earth­quake and volcanic water appear to seize them and stop their ears, dashing the scales only from their eyes. They saw the naked unequivocal flowing peril and beauty and soul of the pursuer and pursued all to­gether”.

[Palace of the Peacock p. 73]

All this takes place in a flashing moment in the journey where, on a literal level, the boat has drifted into a dangerous rapid. But the instant awareness is the vision of consciousness which Harris’ fiction deals in, what we mean when we say that we are flooded by the consciousness of the essential meaning, the substance of all such journey in the past.

But Harris strips his characters of all material and temporal restrictions, obliterates every “dead” relationship and preconception, as a step in a mystical process. And the difficulty this seems to raise must be faced. We have seen how the apotheosis of Palace of the Peacock is never repeated. Harris’ implicit re­cognition that there will be no novels in heaven forces him to concentrate on an area of conflict and tension which is at a remove from dogma, and which the reader can inhabit. The question of belief is neatly dodged.

For all the seeming unreality of detail, the experiences in the drama of consciousness are human and credible and disturbing enough to secure our involvement. The tremendous agitation in these novels (recorded in the yoking of words with their opposite and in the gnarled and twisted syntax over which we mentally trip) is directed towards a shaking of the foundations of our being and conventional preconcep­tions. The explosive images evoked by the language (in metaphor, simile and expressive event and action dislocate themselves from their superficial meanings and help to establish a perspective of depth and range, a visionary scale for measuring different kinds of reality. Disturbance, and vision.

The art of Harris’ fiction lies in this: though the development is towards something ultimately mystical, a matter of faith, the author involves the reader in a credible earth-shaking drama of con­sciousness.