Wilson Harris has, like a disconcertingly large proportion of the Caribbean's finest writers, spent most of his adult life in Britain. In 1970 he made a rare return to his native Guyana, to a writers' and artists' conference. His fellow-novelist Andrew Salkey was told that the Guyanese government's cynical thinking was: "Wilson's been invited to give these lectures, but we're quite sure that nobody will understand them. Anyway, he can't say he hasn't been duly honoured".
That seems pretty much to sum up attitudes to Harris in his native region ever since: minimally and dutifully honoured, but found incomprehensible and therefore vaguely resented by most even of the tiny minority who have read or heard him. The situation is little better in Britain. To call him a cult figure would overstate his profile. He is now 85. The Ghost of Memory is his 25th work of fiction and will, he says, be his last. All, since Palace of the Peacock in 1960, have been published by Faber.
Like so much of Harris's earlier work, Ghost is not a novel so much as a meditative, mystical, quasi-philosophical prose-poem. A few of Harris's books have told stories, though even in these plot is hardly the point. One or two - notably Jonestown, in 1996, inspired by a mass suicide of cultists in the Guyanese forests - have even centred on, or taken off from, real incidents.
There is the faintest hint of that here, since the narrator says he has been shot mistakenly as a terrorist, perhaps a Brazilian. But he has fallen, wounded, into a painting, and most of the "action" consists of fragmented, metaphysical conversations with other figures on the canvas and with visitors to the gallery where it hangs. It all operates on the borderline between dream and the waking world, between life and death.
Ghost defies even the least conventional expectations about genre, and might best be labelled in the tradition of William Blake or WB Yeats, as "a vision": an attempt to explore the language of the unconscious. Blake and Yeats are among Harris's tutelary spirits - but so are multiple other visionary, utopian precursors, not only poets and painters, but also the myth-makers of the Americas' native peoples. The Arawaks of the Caribbean feature centrally. So does Christopher Columbus. Except that this Columbus says he isn't the real thing: "Just a change of name. It means a lot to me".
Puzzled? Maybe, one can understand why the circle of Harris's admirers is so sadly small. Yet those few who have persisted find the rewards enormous. One of Harris's recurrent images is that of "swimming on dry land", and his prose sometimes feels almost as hard as that - but also, almost as miraculous. Come on in, the water's lovely.
Stephen Howe is professor of the history of colonialism at Bristol UniversityReuse content