A British decoration recognizing the work of a genius in fiction

So far the public response to the announcement has been congratulatory expressions of delight and celebration at the tribute being paid to a great novelist and critical theorist.  It brings into focus deserving public recognition for the work generated by an imagination and intellect always considered brilliant and extraordinary but also unusual and controversial.  It brings to mind the similar recognition by the United Kingdom of other writers out of the former empire, Sir Vidia Naipaul and Sir Salman Rushdie.  The award of the Nobel Prize to Naipaul unlocked a Pandora’s box of all his past transgressions, his sins against the Caribbean and the Third World consciousness along with the several claims of his unworthiness. The British knighthood of Rushdie rekindled the diminishing flickering flames of the Fatwah, reawakened Islamic resentment, provoked accusations of undiplomatic disregard by the UK and a controversial statement by a Pakistani parliamentarian.

Those controversial responses have not yet been mounting against Harris’s decoration.  Yet from time to time they have surfaced with comments about the difficulties that so many readers have in trying to understand his writing, claims about the resulting smallness of his readership, limiting him to the academic elite who can appreciate his work.  In Guyana it has come from disgruntled local writers who feel Harris and some of his colleagues unjustly enjoy the favours of those who influence recognition and rewards; that Harris’s work is “gimmicky” and fraudulent, receiving praise only from his cronies in a clique and from those clueless admirers of the king’s new clothes.

Indeed, Harris’s work has been so original and boldly unconventional that it has been regarded as suspect by a few sceptics accustomed to the untroubled sameness of twentieth century novels in English.

However, despite that reputation of being a ‘difficult’ writer, he is highly respected by the world literary academy as a fiction writer, critic and intellectual of the highest quality.  This element of ‘difficulty’ has been qualified and appropriately elucidated by critic Michael Gilkes who used the term “maverick” to describe it, explaining it as being closely linked to the artist’s vision and consciousness influenced by the inner spirit of the awesome Guyanese interior.  Poet and critic Mark McWatt lends support to this in his analyses of the deep and perpetual presence of the rainforests, the interior landscape and the spirituality that they have left in Harris’s consciousness. He has been superlatively celebrated in Europe, England and North America.  In terms of the critical acclaim showered upon a West Indian writer he is surpassed only by Nobel Laureates Walcott and Naipaul.  In Britain he is held in the same high esteem as an English writer as Naipaul is, or David Dabydeen or Caryl Phillips.  This national decoration is an indication of this high regard and signifies recognition of the impact of his work and its contribution to English letters.  It is the highest honour bestowed upon members of the Commonwealth and has a significance that is larger than the knighthood itself.

The evidence to support this would have been seen on and around the time of Harris’s eightieth birthday.  In Europe and England there were large major conferences in his honour and focused on his work, such as that held at the University of Warwick in 2003.  So wide has been the interest in his work that it has generated a virtual critical industry, given the various studies, centres of research and publications that have developed out of this interest.  Collections of critical and theoretical work done by Harris and collections of criticism around his fiction mushroomed like a fashion from Hena Maes-Jelinek in Aarhus, Denmark to universities in Texas visited by Harris.

The significance of this latest honour bestowed upon Harris is equally relevant to his place, contribution and impact upon English literature itself.  British critic Kathleen Reine made perhaps the most startling comment of all arising from her appraisal of this impact and influence.  She wrote that the English novel had been static for 100 years before Harris’s writing introduced something new, original and important which began to change the style.  Surely Harris was one of those who not only advanced the cause of West Indian literature in England, but fashioned the metamorphosis of “something new and strange” in literature in English in that country and around the world.  He was a part of those writers in Britain from the former colonies in India, Africa and the Caribbean who were responsible for the rise of post-colonial literature; it is a movement to which Naipaul, and Rushdie in particular who was also recently knighted, have been extremely important.

Neither has Wilson Harris been without honour in his own country.  He has been twice recognised by the Guyana Prize for Literature.  He was the winner of the first Prize for Fiction in 1987 with his novel Carnival and was presented with the Guyana Prize Special Award for 2002 for his critical and theoretical work.  The Annual West Indian Literature Conference hosted by the University of Guyana in 2009 was partly dedicated to Harris and Edgar Mittelholzer’s 100th anniversary.

Harris started his professional life as a scientist and set out to map the forests and rivers of Guyana as a hydrological surveyor, and 17 years spent measuring and discovering the Guyanese interior has served him as a writer throughout his career.  He started writing as a poet with work published in Kyk-Over-Al between the 1940s and ’50s, and published Eternity to Season in 1953 with the creation of a dramatic play.  But it was after his journey to London in 1959 that his work as a novelist had its historic take-off with the publication of Palace of the Peacock in 1960.

An extremely important series of preoccupations was launched during the next four years when three other books, The Whole Armour, The Secret Ladder and The Far Journey of Oudin were added to Palace to make up The Guyana Quartet.  Some 25 years later he was in the middle of his second important group of fiction, this time his “fictional biographies” with a range of universal, historical and environmental concerns.  This was The Carnival Trilogy starting with Carnival in 1985 and continuing with The Infinite Rehearsal (1987) and The Four Banks of the River of Space (1990).  There were several other kinds of adventures, explorations and concerns in the prolific output of novels in between which included works set in Mexico, Scotland and London.  His most recent output has included The Dark Jester and Mask of the Beggar.

Occasionally during the past 15 years or so there have been repeated speculation and actual (leaked) reports about Harris being among the nominees for the Nobel Prize, accompanied by all kinds of speculative explanations about why he didn’t or would not get it.  That itself is a tribute because it means he has at least been regarded as a serious contender by those in the upper echelons of academia in the United Kingdom.  At any rate, this latest British decoration is another deserving recognition of the work of a genius in fiction, criticism and theory; of an outstanding and extraordinary career marked by its bold originality and freshness, so new and radical that it shocked a literary world that had been becoming too settled and complacent.

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