Margin: 

Exploring Modern Magical Realism

B O O K   R E V I E W
TILTING THE FIELD OF CIVILIZATION
w i l s o n   h a r r i s   p i t c h e s   f o r   a   " t r u e "   c a r i b b e a n   h i s t o r y

BY TAMARA KAYE SELLMAN

HISTORY, FABLE & MYTH: In the Caribbean and Guianas
Wilson Harris
© 1995
Calaloux Publications
$14.95 saddle-stitched paperback

CONTEMPORARY GUYANESE author and Guyana Prize nominee Deryck Bernard, in an interview with Kim Lucas for Guyana: Land of Six Peoples, said that the country "is not famous because of its politicians, it is famous because of its great writers. There is something in Guyana that helps people to narrate, that helps people to articulate."

Wilson Harris may be the most revered of all Guyanese authors for his ability to narrate the diverse imaginative landscapes of this Caribbean polyculture. In 2003, Harris earned a Lifetime Achievement Award for Guyanese literature and, as the author of 21 books, including the prize-winning The Guyana Quartet, and twice-winner of the Guyana Prize, his work has been described as equal parts brilliant and opaque. Many consider Harris a certifiable genius.

His History, Fable & Myth: In the Caribbean and Guianas may be a dense read, but it is also a passionate and thoughtful commentary on mythology and fabulism as aids in reconstructing a true Caribbean identity through imaginative history, shared story and memory. It may be the single-best university guide for graduate students of Caribbean studies; undoubtedly, it's also a useful book for charting the cultural necessity of magical realism as narrative vehicle.

Harris, in his famous effort to (re)create a philosophy of history that speaks most accurately to the Caribbean identity, gave a series of lectures that have since become standard reading on the subject. His book's chapters (I. History, Fable & Myth in the Caribbean and Guianas; II. The American Legacy; and III. Continuity and Discontinuity) are transcriptions of lectures Harris gave as part of the 1970 Mittleholzer series. The Mittleholzer Lectures were named after writer Edgar Mittleholzer, who was among the first of Guyanese emigrants in England to fuel the important Caribbean literary movement of the '40s and '50s.

In the introduction to the book, Amerindian poet A.J. Seymour writes: "...Wilson Harris points to significant vestiges of the subconscious imagination of Caribbean man, in spite of his apparent historylessness, which the lecturer feels have figurative meaning and will act as part and parcel of the arts of the imagination." In essence, Harris believes that the Caribbean reality is not wholly objective or historically accurate, but should be part of a creative identity represented by such things as dance, metaphor and ritual. In his first lecture, Harris makes an unequivocal statement which resides at the heart of his arguments for an artistic rendering of cultural memory:

"I want to make as clear as I can that a cleavage exists in my opinion between the historical convention in the Caribbean and Guianas and the arts of the imagination. I believe a philosophy of history may well lie buried in the arts of the imagination. Needless to say I have no racial biases, and whether my emphasis falls on limbo or vodun, on Carib bush-baby omens, on Arawak zemi, on Latin, English inheritances—in fact within and beyond these emphases—my concern is with epic strategems available to Caribbean man in the dilemmas of history which surround him."

Harris's own work as a magical realist (especially in Palace of the Peacock) supports his theory that realism, through the endless export of new ideas to the Caribbean from around the world, "becomes, in itself, a dead-end and the need begins to dawn for a drama of consciousness..." and that the "true capacity of marginal and disadvantaged cultures resides in their genius to tilt the field of civilization so that one may visualize boundaries of persuasion in new and unsuspected lights to release a different apprehendion of reality, the language of reality, a different reading of the texts of reality."

Trinidadian academician, Selwyn R. Cudjoe, in the book's foreword, rightly points out: "Because [Harris] was the first to say so many important things about postcolonial reality, we must have the courage, the capacity, and the humility to read him carefully."

History, Fable & Myth: In the Caribbean and Guianas is a slim volume, and fairly new to American readers. You may have to place a special order and wait a couple of months to get this book, if you aren't already connected to a university source, but it's worth the wait for anyone who wants to examine the mysteries of Caribbean identity.

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