BOOK REVIEW / A triumphant journey for madmen: 'Resurrection at Sorrow Hill' - Wilson Harris: Faber, 14.99

EVER SINCE the appearance of his first novel, Palace of the Peacock, in 1960, Wilson Harris, born in Guyana but long resident in London, has been acknowledged as a true original. Philosophy, criticism and fiction may seem unlikely occupations for a qualified land surveyor, but work expeditions into the awesome rainforest of the Guianas in the 1940s and '50s provided inspiration for many of his novels, including the latest, Resurrection at Sorrow Hill, and the newly reissued The Carnival Trilogy (Faber pounds 9.99).

Like all his fiction, they are products of profound relationships with Guyana's Amazonian landscape and with ancient Amerindian and European myths, the classics and Continental philosophy. The trilogy comprises Carnival (1985), The Infinite Rehearsal (1987) and The Four Banks of the River of Space (1990), novels linked by metaphors borrowed from theatre, traditional carnival itself and literary mythology. The characters make Odyssean voyages through time and space, witnessing and re-enacting the calamitous history of mankind, sometimes assuming sacrificial roles in an attempt to save modern civilisation from self-destruction.

Resurrection at Sorrow Hill is a deceptively neat packaging of similar concerns. Sorrow Hill, mankind's own Calvary, is located at the dangerous confluence of three mighty Guyanan rivers, where the pregnant wife of Dr Daemon, one of the main characters, tragically drowns. But there is resurrection too. The main character, Hope, comes to life after being shot by D'eath, the jealous husband of his lover, Butterfly. And even D'eath (a name which, apart from the obvious significance, also echoes such common Guyanese surnames as D'Aguiar and D'Andrade) has a redeeming alter ego: his given name is Christopher.

The most powerful dimension of the novel, however, is in the theatre run by Daemon as therapy for the inmates of his asylum, a metaphorical device for delving into the past and commenting on the tragic state of modern man's existence. After one of his narrow escapes from D'eath, Hope suffers a nervous breakdown and, recuperating in the asylum, takes part in Daemon's theatre. The inmates don masks representing characters from history or myth by whom they claim to be possessed. Through their impersonations, these 'dead' figures are resurrected, so uniting - and illuminating - past and present.

Some of these resurrections provide astonishingly potent indictments of imperialistic crimes against the New World and of modern violence, poverty and materialism. Socrates, for example, remarks that 'the hemlock on my lips was the beginning of a long, drawn-out, unfinished process of civilisation. Civilisation would begin to consume the humiliations it had cooked and inflicted on the weak and the powerless.'

The wrongs committed against Montezuma and the plunder of the Americas by Cortez and the conquistadors are linked through the spirit and art of Leonardo da Vinci to European Renaissance politics. Also resurrected is Daemon's drowned wife, Ruth, who arrives like an avenging angel, claiming to be 'an Egyptian . . . an African . . . a slave in the eighteenth century . . . the mistress of Gravesande . . . commander of the ruined Dutch fort'.

Like Dante travelling through the Inferno, Harris uses his own powerful devices to take us through past and present hells, unearthing spectres of poverty and famine, of a child whose face was 'knuckled, it was veiled bone, it was taut flesh. It was a portrait of living hunger. It was a portrait such as one may come upon in Africa, or India, or South America, or Yugoslavia. Here lay the ghost technology that Leonardo sought.'

Harris is known for his complex narrative strategies, but in this novel there is little that is inaccessible. The story is first narrated by Daemon's grandmother, a reincarnation of Tiresias, the androgynous old seer of Greek legend, then by a conventionally omniscient voice, then through the contents of the 'Dream Book' Hope writes while in the asylum. Harris often seems to be suggesting that it is madness to expect survival in the face of wars, genocide and the haunting legacy of the past, yet Hope's book, written from the experience of death, dream, the unconscious and even hell - a journey only madmen would have undertaken - does triumph in the end: 'The impossible is possible despite all that is happening, is to happen, has happened. Time is not an absolute. In the absurdity of the imagination lies a truth that may liberate us.'

Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

    Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

    But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
    Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

    Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

    Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
    Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

    Britain's 24-hour culture

    With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
    Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

    The addictive nature of Diplomacy

    Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
    Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

    Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

    Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
    8 best children's clocks

    Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

    Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
    Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

    Who is Oliver Bonas?

    It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

    60 years of Scalextric

    Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones