I HAD NO idea on the day I walked up George Street to visit Growling Tiger that the first national calypso monarch would provide a fascinating insight into the work of the late, great Guyanese writer Wilson Harris’s work.
Tiger, already quite feeble in 1986, had a brilliant mind. That balmy morning when I visited him after completing my deadline, he wanted to talk about musician Pelham Goddard, who had been defending himself against critics claiming certain musical motifs in The Hammer, co-written with David Rudder, originated in a calypso from the 30s.
Tiger excitedly explained he would often hear old musical motifs emerge in new songs. “This unrecorded music would have been impossible for current singers to hear,” he said. Tiger claimed old music unexplainably resurfaced generation after generation, ensuring an unbreakable chain of musical history.
Years later, I would discover an explanation for what had appeared to be Tiger’s quirky comments in a story from Harris who died on March 8, at the age of 96.Harris often told stories of his expeditions as a land surveyor into the jungles of Guyana. In “Psychic Realism, Mythic Realism, Grotesque Realism…” from Magical Realism Theory, History, Community, edited by Lois Parkinson Zamora and Wendy B Faris, Harris wrote about one journey deep into the interior of Guyana.
“Gauging the Potaro River for hydroelectric power about a mile from the Tumatumari Rapids, an anchor gripped the bed of the stream and could not be dislodged. Two years later, the event repeated itself in exactly the same spot, but this time the situation was more desperate, and the man ordered to sever the anchor rope was so frightened that he could not manage to do so. They hooked two anchors, one that had been lost two years before.”
Harris noted how everyone on the ship had felt the same anxiety: an eerie presence, which linked them to a macabre past.
“It is impossible to describe the kind of energy that rushed out of that constellation of images,” Harris wrote. “I felt as if a canvas around my head was crowded with phantoms and figures. I had forgotten some of my own antecedents – the Amerindian/Arawak ones – but now their faces were on the canvas.”
The past and present became inexplicably entwined.
“One could see them in the long march into the twentieth century of pre-Columbian mists of time. One could also sense the lost expeditions, the people who had gone down in this South American river.”
Harris felt everyone on his expedition had experienced an ancient ambush in that very same spot.
“One could sense a whole range of things, all sorts of faces – angelic, terrifying, daemonic – all sorts of contrasting faces, all sorts of figures. There was a sudden eruption of consciousness, and what is fantastic is that it all came out of a constellation of two ordinary objects, two anchors,” he wrote.
Here was the essence of Harris’s theory of fossil memories: memories are passed down just like genes. Both connect us to the past. This is how, Growling Tiger had explained, that musical roots got passed down through generations.
Harris used this concept of fossil memories to develop “an architecture of consciousness” beginning with Palace of the Peacock. Fossil memories explain why time blends seamlessly in Harris’s novels, and why readers must suspend any traditional sense of time to understand Harris’s work.
Without that concept, readers become hopelessly lost in Harris’s world of magical realism, which barely crosses over into the realm of traditional reality.
Tiger instinctively knew that sense of time which Harris articulated in his essays and used in his novels. Wilson’s death fills me with immeasurable sadness because outside of academic circles, the Caribbean never really discovered Harris’s genius as a writer who allowed readers to reinvent a past that transcended slavery and colonialism. With Harris, the past could be reimagined so that the Caribbean could reimagine its history.
Harris’s Palace of the Peacock, published in 1960, pre-dates Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude by seven years, making it an early, important work of Latin American/Caribbean magical realism, particularly in its establishment of how time should be treated.
Fossil memories, as Tiger and Harris pointed out, are what truly connect us to our past while providing a sense of presence. It is the essence of who we are, but it is an identity we are yet to discover.