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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.'