[Many thanks to Veerle Poupeye for bringing this item to our attention.] In “A palace on stilts: Guyanese novelist Wilson Harris returns to life in Trinidad & Tobago’s Carnival” (Global Voices) Andre Bagoo writes, “Harris died in 2018, but his legacy lives on.” His article is a profoundly poetic and moving tribute to both Wilson Harris and the beauty of playing mas.
The great poet and novelist Wilson Harris died exactly one year ago. Or did he? Like one of his characters, Harris has come back. He has returned in the form of a band of moko jumbies — a motley crew of painted spirits striding high above us on wooden stilts, roaming the concrete jungle of Port of Spain, haunting Trinidad’s Carnival.
This is “Palace of the Peacock”, a mas[querade] by Alan Vaughan’s Moko Sõmõkow band, based on Harris’ dense, beautiful and wildly ambitious novel of the same name. Watching the moko jumbies leave their mas camp at Erthig Road, Belmont, the mood of Harris’ novel is palpable. Just as the book’s band of crusaders embark on an epic quest, these masqueraders set out for the wide green expanse of parkland at the centre of the city, the Queen’s Park Savannah.
Why a novel? Why bring a “mas” based on a book? And a book by an author with a style as dense as Wilson Harris’?
Why? Because this is a book that teaches us to levitate.
Everywhere in Harris’ book, we are asked to look up. At the sky, at the sun, at swinging gates, at trees, birds, waterfalls, stars, comets, at dangling nooses, up ladders, and even at houses built on stilts. So, too, do we now look up to these mokos.
But as is typical of Harris, nothing is one thing or another. What is dead is also alive; what is up is also down: “The whispering trees spin their leaves to a sudden fall wherein the ground seemed to grow lighter in my mind and to move to meet them in the air” (“Palace of the Peacock”, p. 28).
The book’s plot has been the subject of endless critical debate. Ostensibly, a band of adventurers are on a quest, journeying through the rainforests of Guyana to find Mariella, a fabled woman, a symbol, maybe a Helen, a patriarchal fantasy figure who turns everything upside down.
Yet “every boundary line is a myth,” (22) the character called Donne warns. We are in the landscape of the mind, a “chaos of sensation” (24), a “masquerade of appearances” (13). To make sense of the words of “Palace of the Peacock” we have to cut through it diagonally or else we drown.
Harris’ surreal book is not prose. It is a book-length poem; a rich pelau in which the twins of past and present are blurred, as the Mayans might blur them. People appear, each a “character-mask” (8), each both dead and alive. Says the narrator: “I dreamt I awoke with one dead seeing eye and one living closed eye.” Dreaming and awake, traveling yet not moving. Slowly, the novel reveals its secret. Its subject emerges, like the star-studded peacock that gives the book its title, at the very end, making it plain we have been reading a self-portrait in the form of a written mas.
Here is a book that challenges the idea of the novel, turning it into a Carnival of the soul. It seeks now, through this band of moko jumbies, a new audience. And it finds it. [. . .]
Moko jumbies might look to the past, but this band’s inhabiting of Harris’ novel opens up fresh possibilities. It’s a perfect marriage between one imaginative world and another; a kind of meta-fiction or cosplay in the extreme. And what a procession it all amounts to! [. . .]