The South American ‘Quest’ Novel (1992)

[Landfall 184 (1992)]

Wilson Harris, Joseph Conrad
& the South American ‘Quest’ Novel

The map of the savannahs was a dream. The names Brazil and Guyana were colonial conventions I had known from childhood. I clung to them now as to a curious necessary stone and footing, even in my dream, the ground I knew I must not relinquish. They were an actual stage, a presence, however mythical they seemed to the universal and the spiritual eye. They were as close to me as my ribs, the rivers and the flatland, the mountains and heartland I intimately saw. I could not help cherishing my symbolic map, and my bodily prejudice like a well-known room and house of superstition within which I dwelt. I saw this kingdom of man turned into a colony and battleground of spirit, a priceless tempting jewel I dreamed I possessed.(Harris, 1985, p.24)

Like Wilson Harris's narrator, for a long time - for almost five years in fact - I have been trying to map an imaginary country, the 'South America' of the European imagination (however mythical that region may seem 'to the universal and the spiritual eye'). It has been my contention, and one which I have sought to substantiate in discussions of a series of books ranging from Conrad's Nostromo (1904) to Darwin's Journal of Researches (1839) ((Ross, 1990), that a common sense of this generic landscape may be glimpsed in works otherwise divided by chronology, culture, and literary convention - a 'symbolic map' whose essential features are the same not because of each author's adherence to the actualities of the South American continent, but because of the continued presence in the European mind of a series of literary topoi conveniently summed up under such titles as 'El Dorado', 'The New World', 'The Gaucho', and 'Carnival'.

In support of this idea, I propose in this article to compare three novels - all set in South America, but culturally distinct in other respects - in order to interrogate the common traits they do exhibit. The three I have chosen are Dead Man Leading, by V. S. Pritchett (1937), Los pasos perdidos [The Lost Steps], by Alejo Carpentier (1953), and Palace of the Peacock, by Wilson Harris (1960). They are intended to stand for, respectively, contemporary British, Latin American, and West Indian traditions of the novel. I have already quoted from Palace of the Peacock. Here, in reverse order of precedence (to emphasize this disparity), are passages from the other two:

After sailing for a time through that secret channel, one began to feel the same thing that mountain-climbers feel, lost in the snow: the loss of the sense of verticality, a kind of disorientation, and a dizziness of the eyes. It was no longer possible to say which was tree and which reflection of tree. Was the light coming from above or below? Was the sky or the earth water? ... I was beginning to be afraid. Nothing menaced me. (Carpentier, 1980, p.145.)

And finally:

this land enclosed him in himself. He was not travelling as he had travelled in Greenland; he was travelling here in himself, paddling down the streams of his own life and nature, enclosed in the jungle of his own unknown or half-known thoughts and impulses. But present with him all the day, written on the walls of the trees in all their variegated detail, was his own life ramified, overgrown, dense and intricate and mysterious in its full tones, half tones and shades of consciousness. The forest itself was like the confusing, shapeless product of a torpid and bemused introspection. (Pritchett, 1984, pp.115-16).

All three novels deal with journeys into the South American interior (Palace of the Peacock is set in Guyana, Los pasos perdidos on the headwaters of the Orinoco, while V. S. Pritchett in Dead Man Leading specifies only the 'interior of Brazil').[1] All three make great play with the symbolic significance of river voyages (conforming in this, as in so many other respects, to their prototype, Conrad's Heart of Darkness (1899)); and, while the principal expeditionaries are men, they all in some way see their journeys as related to women with whom they are, or have been involved. Even taking passages at random, one can find a good deal of imagery which is common to two or more of the books (as we have seen in the references to 'Greenland' and 'mountain-climbers' in the quotations from Pritchett and Carpentier above). One might cite Pritchett's description of how 'the chaotic coast opened with the brilliant order of a peacock's tail, its momentous and gorged profusion' (Pritchett, 1984, p.51), which matches Wilson Harris's palace where 'The stars became peacocks' eyes, and the great tree of flesh and blood swirled into another stream that sparkled with divine feathers’ (Harris, 1985, p.112). There is also the use of Biblical language, especially portentous references to the days of Creation, common to Harris and Carpentier: 'It was the seventh day from Mariella. And the creation of the windows of the universe was finished' (Harris, 1985, p.111); 'the Living-Together of the Seventh Day had come to its end' (Carpentier, 1980, p.8).

I do not think that too great a stress should be placed on these coincidences of nomenclature, but there are respects in which such common features may be seen as less arbitrary. Let us examine more closely the three quotations above. They all appear to postulate, in some sense, the jungle landscape as an image of the self. In Harris, the identification is complete: 'The names Brazil and Guyana ... were as close to me as my ribs, the rivers and the flatland, the mountains and heartland I intimately saw' - despite being mere 'colonial conventions'. This equation of the physical and the spiritual is very much in accord with the nature of Harris's narrative, which details the journey of a crew of drowned men to the headwaters of a river in Guyana ('derived', says Harris himself, 'from an Amerindian root word which means "land of waters"' (1985, p.7)).

In Carpentier, on the other hand, the relativism - the intermingling of self and landscape - is only partial. The narrator has become confused by the sameness of the sights that surround him, which leads him to doubt the evidence of his senses, but he seems nevertheless confident that there is an answer to the question: 'Was the sky or the earth water?' Elsewhere he claims, 'I was living silence: a silence that came from so far off, compounded of so many silences, that a word dropped into it would have taken on the clangour of creation. Had I said anything, had I talked to myself, as I often do, I should have frightened myself' (Carpentier, 1980, p.99). Even here, though, he preserves a distinction between the self which is 'silence' and that which is capable of speech.

Finally, in the passage from Pritchett, the hallucinatory state of the principal protagonist, Harry Johnson, is shown by his close identification of himself with this 'jungle of his own unknown or half-known thoughts and impulses'. Probably this usage is the most explicable in terms of the conventional psychology of literary Realism.

To sum up, then, the three books which we are examining all belong to different literary traditions, and have a different sense of what is allowable or comprehensible in the field of the novel. Pritchett's, the earliest, is essentially a Naturalist text, which 'attempted' (as the author explains) 'a psychology of exploration' (Quoted in Paul Theroux's introduction to the 'Twentieth-century classics' edition (Pritchett, 1984, p.ix)). He therefore allows himself to express the characters' feelings about the land they are traversing without committing himself to any endorsement (or contradiction) of their views. Carpentier, similarly, equips his novel with a realistic framework and a single narrative point-of-view - thus confining his challenge to convention to the area of self-questioning or 'epistemology' characteristic of Modernism[2] (this despite his reputation as one of the founders of Latin American Magic Realism). Only Wilson Harris could be said to be writing as a fully-fledged Postmodernist - with the corresponding lack of an unequivocal basis in reality (it is unclear if any of his characters could be said to be alive at any point in the narrative, but one hesitates to commit oneself to the view that it is an entirely 'posthumous' book (like Juan Rulfo's Pedro Páramo (1955) or Charles Williams' All Hallows' Eve (1944)), since some of them succeed in dying again during the course of the journey). Hence, also, his 'ontological' questioning of the nature of the world (or worlds - or words) we inhabit.

Given the disparity of these traditions, it is remarkable how much the books which have resulted from them do have in common. We have already seen that all of them identify a 'self' with the landscape which that self is traversing. There are, however, at least two other topoi which they share.

  1. The first is that of the 'landscape as a woman':

    Through her lips the plants began to speak and describe their own powers. The forest had a ruler, a one-legged tutelary genius, and nothing that grew in the shade of the trees should be taken without payment ... I could not have said why this woman suddenly seemed to me so beautiful as she threw a handful of pungent herbs into the flames, which brought out her features in strong relief against the shadows. (Carpentier, 1980, pp.76-77)

    The unnamed narrator of Carpentier's novel is unable to say why Rosario, the earthy woman of the forest, through whom the plants 'began to speak and describe their own powers', should suddenly seem so attractive to him - but in the context of the novel, nothing could be clearer. As he explains it later to Ruth, his American wife, he initially took a mistress ('Mouche') because in her 'at least I had found a kind of youthful abandon, a gay shamelessness, with that touch of the animal which for me was indispensable to physical love' (Carpentier, 1980, p.222). Rosario, on the other hand, he depicts as 'an arcanum made flesh who had set her seal on me after trials whose secret must never be revealed, like those of the knightly orders' (Carpentier, 1980, p.223). Even to him this seems a little 'Wagnerian', but Ruth has her revenge by referring to his forest lover coldly as 'Your Atala' (Carpentier, 1980, p.224).

    Leaving aside the rather nauseating conceit of Carpentier's central character, we may note here the careful schematization of his three lovers. Ruth, the American, is an actress living in New York, the slave of a long-running Broadway hit, who accords him her favours regularly every seven days. Their life together, in other words, is all façade. Mouche, his French mistress, an astrologer by trade, is only exposed as inadequate by the realities of the forest journey - her Bohemianism, though all very well in New York, is a hollow sham by the standards of 'the interior'. This is symbolized by the insensitive way in which she makes homosexual advances to Rosario. Rosario herself, as we have heard, is the 'voice of the plants'; and the hero's final decision to leave her (in the belief that it will only be temporary, until he can provide himself with some of the trappings of civilization - such as books and paper), is the fatal error which exiles him from this vegetable paradise.

    In Dead Man Leading the three main characters, on an expedition into Brazil, are all in some way 'led' by their relationship to the same woman, Lucy Mommbrekke (there is something pleasing in the reflection that, while the Latin hero of Carpentier's novel enthralls three women one after another, in this British novel none of the men are sure of Lucy's continued affection - a gauge of the respective optimism of the two cultures?). Gilbert Phillips, the journalist, is her ex-lover; Charles Wright is her step-father, though he appears to have married her mother only in order to get closer to her; and Harry Johnson, her present lover, is driven to hallucination and madness by the thought that he might have made her pregnant, and thereby 'sullied' his own purity. Charles Wright speaks for them all:

    He too had his private unknown land. He had seen its face and its dress. He longed to be in its body. The talk of the missionary's country and the mystery of his disappearance was talk of a rival and an attempt to enhance her attraction (Pritchett, 1984, p.62).

    The 'missionary' in question is Harry Johnson's father, lost (like the real British explorer Colonel Fawcett) in the Brazilian jungle seventeen years before, the 'dead man' who leads them on. Charles too dies in pursuit of his 'unknown land', unaware perhaps of the suspect nature of his desire to be 'in its body'. In any case, in contradistinction to Conrad's Kurtz, the last word he utters is 'Lucy ...' (Pritchett, 1984, p.130).

    In Palace of the Peacock, Mariella, the mistress of the narrator's brother Donne, is (it seems) the one who ambushes and shoots him at the beginning of the book. The trip up the falls, to the mission where she has taken refuge, is the beginning of their quest into the unknown (defined as a certain number of days 'from Mariella' (Harris, 1985, p.111)). Wilson Harris's use of this motif is, however, a little more playful than that of his predecessors. Of one of the brothers' boat-crew, Cameron, he says:

    There was always the inevitable Woman (he had learned to capitalize his affairs) (Harris, 1985, p.40).

    - A pun signalling the confusion between language and essence so central to his concerns.

  2. Following on from the last point, the second topos shared by the three books might be summed up as 'language as the only definition of a world'. The sense in which this is meant is, however, slightly more contingent on the generic traditions of the various narratives.

    For example, in Carpentier's case, I have already quoted his central character's remarks about being 'living silence' - a comment which he supplements by claiming that 'A day will come when men will discover an alphabet in the eyes of chalcedonies, in the markings of the moth, and will learn in astonishment that every spotted snail has always been a poem' (Carpentier, 1980, p.190). In other words, landscape is a language in the sense that it will, some day, be able to be read - along with the true nature of men and animals. A fairly visionary prospect, but one which leaves the essential division between language and reality unchallenged.

    Wilson Harris, predictably, takes it a stage further when he describes (accurately, when one thinks about it) one of the daSilva twins as resembling old newsprint:

    His bones were splinters and points ... and his flesh was newspaper, drab, wet until the lines and markings had run fantastically together. His hair stood flat on his brow like ink ... He shook his head again but not a word blew from his lips. DaSilva stared at the apparition his brother presented as a man would stare at a reporter who had returned from the grave with no news whatsoever of a living return. (Harris, 1985, pp.95-96)

    Once again, the pun conceals a subtlety of intention. 'Reporter' is supposed to mean simply 'someone who has returned', but it also means 'one who fills the columns of newspapers'. It is hard to imagine a more telling image of the disintegration of a fictional character than this description of the processes of decay eroding the ink and paper of which he is 'composed'. The textuality of Harris's entire world - as in the first quotation above - is therefore in no more doubt than the existence of the 'dream' which is his 'symbolic map' of the savannahs.

    Pritchett too employs this motif in a very suggestive way. Harry Johnson and Gilbert Phillips are still pursuing the chimera of the lost missionary:

    Less and less they spoke and the words became shorter; their completest trust was in silence ... Normal speech, would have been alien and rich in betrayal. To suggest their normal world would have insinuated doubts, angers and irritations, would have made them separate. When they were together hacking their way, they merely swore. (Pritchett, 1980, p.170)

    Language is for them, then, a possible means of division. The only way in which they can avoid recognizing the deadly peril which they are in is by avoiding 'normal speech', with its residue of logical structures and syntactical demands.

One could continue by listing further common features - conscientious mimicry of 'native' voices; hard-drinking white men who have 'gone native'; the institutionalized paranoia brought about by isolation - but the risk would be that such features might equally well be found in a story by Somerset Maugham about Malaya, or in Conrad's masterly portrayal of the Belgian Congo (transferred, with little loss of force, to the Vietnam war in Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now (1978)). What, then, is specifically 'South American' about the themes and images I have listed?

Perhaps another look at Conrad may provide us with a wider perspective on this question. How, for instance, does his 'South America' (as described in Nostromo and 'Gaspar Ruiz' (1908)) differ from his 'Africa' (in Heart of Darkness and 'An Outpost of Progress' (1898)), or from the Malaysia of Almayer's Folly (1895), An Outcast of the Islands (1896), Lord Jim (1900), or Victory (1915)? Surely the only satisfactory answer is that these various landscapes, the dreamlike East Indies of 'Karain' or 'Tuan Jim' (conveyed in the lush, Pateresque prose of Conrad's first - and final - manners); the barbaric, raw, somehow prehistoric Africa of his Congo adventure; and the economic and social complexity of his 'Costaguana', differ not so much because each of them is associated with an entirely new set of themes and concerns, but because of their author's own conviction of an inherent difference. To illustrate what I mean, let us look at some of the ways in which he characterizes each region.

standing on the verandah of his new but already decaying house - that last failure of his life - he looked on the broad river. There was no tinge of gold on it this evening, for it had been swollen by the rains, and rolled an angry and muddy flood under his inattentive eyes, carrying small drift-wood and big dead logs, and whole uprooted trees with branches and foliage, amongst which the water swirled and roared angrily. (Conrad, 1955, p.249)

In this passage from his first novel, Almayer's Folly, Conrad attempts to persuade us that he is looking entirely through his protagonist's eyes. The reference to 'gold' is to the paragraph immediately above, where Almayer's interest in the 'glowing gold tinge' of the sunset is attributed to the fact that his 'thoughts were often busy with gold' (Conrad, 1955, p.249). The 'drift-wood and big dead logs', too, eventually attract his 'inattentive eyes' simply because of the possibility that one of them might drift 'in sight of Celebes, as far as Macassar, perhaps!' (Conrad, 1955, p.250) - in other words, to the scene of Almayer's fancied triumphs as a young clerk, before his exile to the 'Eastern River' of the book's title. It is in fact this subtitle, 'A Story of an Eastern River', which alerts us to the importance of such descriptive asides in the text. The river is, in an almost over-schematized way, the mirror of Almayer's dreams - as well, of course, as a representation of the 'drifting' and formlessness which Conrad intends his readers to detect in them. On the one hand Almayer sees the river bringing Dain, his Malay partner, back to him, with the gold which will permit him to return to Europe with his daughter Nina. On the other hand, Conrad implies in advance that its 'angry and muddy flood' can be bearing little good.

The contrast with another river scene, in Heart of Darkness, is significant:

We were wanderers on prehistoric earth, on an earth that wore the aspect of an unknown planet. We could have fancied ourselves the first of men taking possession of an accursed inheritance, to be subdued at the cost of profound anguish and of excessive toil. But suddenly, as we struggled round a bend, there would be a glimpse of rush walls, of peaked grass-roofs, a burst of yells, a whirl of black limbs, a mass of hands clapping, of feet stamping, of bodies swaying, of eyes rolling, under the droop of heavy and motionless foliage. The steamer toiled along slowly on the edge of a black and incomprehensible frenzy. The prehistoric man was cursing us, praying to us, welcoming us - who could tell? (Conrad, 1967, pp.95-96)

Here, speaking in the persona of his Ancient Mariner Marlow, Conrad tries to make us feel a temporal as well as physical sense of dislocation. Earlier in the story, on their little boat rocking in the Thames, Marlow told his audience that 'this also ... has been one of the dark places of the earth' (Conrad, 1967, p.48), and one of the purposes of his narrative is, surely, to demystify 'darkest Africa' - to point out the links between the 'city of whited sepulchres' where his Colonial Company is based, and the graveyards of rivets and 'indentured workers' on the coast where its pointless railroad is under construction. Kurtz is, in one sense, merely the logical conclusion of this process. As a corollary, though, he is a kind of question-mark placed at the borders of our entire civilization - with its road-maps, and steamers, and guns. There is little concrete description in the passage quoted above - a glimpse of 'rush walls, of peaked grass-roofs', a burst of 'yells', a whirl of 'black limbs', seen on 'the edge of a black and incomprehensible frenzy'. One might say, in fact, that the river has ceased to serve as the objective correlative of Almayer's dreams and folly, and has instead become 'as inscrutable' (and as unspecific) 'as Destiny' (Conrad, 1967, p.48). Almayer's East Indies are defined for him by the fact of not being Europe, but Marlow's Africa threatens to destroy the whole notion of stability implied by such a word.

Meanwhile, in Costaguana:

Men ploughed with wooden ploughs and yoked oxen, small on a boundless expanse, as if attacking immensity itself. The mounted figures of vaqueros galloped in the distance, and the great herds fed with all their horned heads one way, in one single wavering line as far as eye could reach across the broad potreros. A spreading cotton-wool tree shaded a thatched ranche by the road; the trudging files of burdened Indians, taking off their hats, would lift sad, mute eyes to the cavalcade raising the dust of the crumbling camino real made by the hands of their enslaved forefathers. And Mrs Gould, with each day's journey, seemed to come nearer to the soul of the land in the tremendous disclosure of this interior unaffected by the slight European veneer of the coast towns, a great land of plain and mountain and people, suffering and mute, waiting for the future in a pathetic immobility of patience. (Conrad, 1965, p.83)

The syntax of this passage from Nostromo appears to echo the interdependent levels of the society so carefully delineated in its text. We begin with men ploughing, 'small on a boundless expanse', with their teams of yoked oxen. Next we have the 'mounted figures of vaqueros', associated with the great herds feeding 'in one single wavering line as far as eye could reach over the broad potreros' (cattle-range). Finally, there are the 'trudging files of burdened' - and, it is implied, disinherited - Indians, lifting 'sad, mute eyes to the cavalcade'. Under scrutiny, though, the sentence structure reveals that this is merely the vision of the 'soul of the land' granted to Mrs Gould, wife of the owner of the San Tomé mine, by the 'tremendous disclosure of this interior'. The paragraph contains four sentences, the first three allegedly 'objective' description, given away by the syllogistic 'And Mrs Gould' at the beginning of the fourth. The 'spreading cotton-wool tree', also, sounds more like the view of an amateur water-colourist (which we know Mrs Gould to be) than that of a novelist concerned with regional accuracy. In form, then, the novel Nostromo is the sum of all the provisional descriptions and summations - whether Mrs Gould's, Charles Gould's, Dr Monygham's, Martin Decoud's, or the financier Holroyd's - of the country which is its setting. The burdened Indians, the ploughing peasants, and the galloping vaqueros presumably each have their own perception of the 'boundless expanse' they are trying to tame - as a road, a ploughed field, a cattle-range - but they are included here principally because they fit, simultaneously, Mrs Gould's sense of compassion and the picturesque.

So, Almayer's Folly is the tragedy of a dreamer who is unable to match his fantasies against the sordid reality of a failing business. But then, so is Heart of Darkness the tragedy of a dreamer (Kurtz) who is unable to match his fantasies against the sordid reality ... And the eponynous character Nostromo, too, is surely a dreamer who is unable to match his fantasies ... The subjects are at least similar, if not the same. What differs seems to be, first, the narrative point-of-view, and second, the exotic backdrop for each story.

If we now return to the first half of our analysis - the three topoi ('jungle landscape as an image of the self', 'landscape seen as a woman', and 'language as the only definition of a world') detected in our analysis of Pritchett, Carpentier, and Wilson - we can perhaps usefully apply them to the three Conradian landscapes under discussion. Certainly Almayer's river is an image of his self - the golden, or futile dreams he indulges in (depending on your point of view). Marlow's river, by contrast, questions the very notion of self - of coherent communication between the forces of Darkness and Light in an 'incomprehensible' world. Mrs Gould's 'boundless expanse', though, is a far more deliberate construct - it is complicated by being just one part of the mosaic of intertwining personal 'worlds' (each accreting steadily over the course of the narrative) which constitutes our picture of the state of Costaguana.[3]

Her 'South America', with its dusty peasants, its 'cotton-wool trees', and its 'pathetic immobility of patience' is, then, South America - a 'New World' in a constant state of revision and renewal - in its traditional (literary) sense. Just so Conrad's 'Africa' - the counter-Europe, the mocking 'heart of darkness' - is a piece of cultural iconography recognizable from the time of the Romans until now. His 'Malaysia' might be seen as more personal (he had, after all, spent more time there) - and yet the feeling of mourning, of overgrownness and desuetude, which pervades Almayer's Folly and its companions An Outcast of the Islands and The Rescue (1920) could surely be paralleled as easily in Kipling's 'Mandalay' ('Come you back, you British soldier; come you back to Mandalay!' (Kipling, 1969, p.418)), or in Somerset Maugham, or George Orwell (Burmese Days (1934)), or even Nevil Shute (A Town Like Alice (1949)), as in stories like 'Youth' and 'Karain'.

The topoi which we have isolated in Pritchett, Carpentier, and Wilson are therefore flawed not in themselves - all three could be found equally easily in the text of Nostromo (also, however, in Heart of Darkness and Almayer's Folly) - but in failing to take account of each writer's self-conscious manipulation of his setting. Or, rather, of the popular conception of that setting. Harris, Conrad, Pritchett, and Carpentier all know the kind of 'New World' effects - effects linked intimately to words like 'Cordillera', 'Amazon', and 'Pampas' - which they are expected to achieve within the generalized Western dream of South America; and internal complication and subversion proves, in each case, to be the most fruitful strategy for preventing any deleterious spilling over of that dream into real life.[4] Their narrative strategies are as different as the cultures they represent (Guyana, Poland, England, Cuba) - but are linked, nevertheless, by a common repertoire of fictional and iconographic artifice as old as the European literary tradition itself.

As Alejo Carpentier puts it, speaking of four of his characters:

The Adelantado, Montsalvaje, Marcos, Fray Pedro, are personages every traveller encounters in the great theatre of the jungle. They all represent a reality, as does the myth of El Dorado, which is nourished by the deposits of gold and precious stones. (Carpentier, 1980, p.252)

Or (perhaps more eloquently though less explicitly), Wilson Harris:

Look man, look outside again. Primitive. Every boundary line is a myth. No-man's land, understand? (Harris, 1985, p.22)

The common word here is 'myth', a convention of representation which takes on a paradoxical reality when its association in thought with a particular effect or locality has become inextricable. These 'myths' (whether defined according to the prescriptions of Roland Barthes, Northrop Frye, or Claude Lévi-Strauss) are the structural elements which link together our three novels of South America - and the frightening and 'primitive' outside which is given form by their comforting (and reactionary) certitudes is perhaps best summed up in the double meaning of this sentence from the Carpentier quotation above:

I was beginning to be afraid. Nothing menaced me. (Carpentier, 1980, p.145)

Carpentier's protagonist is saying that there was nothing to be afraid of - but he implies, also, that he was menaced by 'Nothing' itself. That absence, that void of meaning is precisely what our over-simplifying, familiarizing myths exist to fill. The question - Wilson Harris's question - is, need we see this alternative to 'Nothing' as a mere set of 'colonial conventions ... known from childhood', or can it be 'a priceless tempting jewel I dreamed I possessed'?

[Wilson Harris: Palace of the Peacock (1960)]


1. There is inevitably a little mystification about these identifications, in view of the fictional nature of each of the settings described. Carpentier never names the South American Republic in which the action of his story takes place, though he specifies Venezuela in the 'Note' which follows his narrative; Wilson's is a ghost-land which depends similarly on his own testimony to be equated with contemporary Guyana; while Pritchett shows few signs of local knowledge of South America at all.
2. My terminology here is borrowed from Brian McHale's Postmodernist Fiction (1987), where he defines the 'dominant' of Modernism as being 'epistemological. That is, modernist fiction deploys strategies which engage and foreground questions such as ... "How can I interpret this world of which I am a part? And what am I in it?"'. Postmodernism, on the other hand, he sees as predominantly 'ontological. That is, postmodernist fiction deploys strategies which engage and foreground questions like ... "Which world is this? What is to be done in it? Which of my selves is to do it?"'. (McHale, 1987, pp.9-10).
3. 'Women', too, are associated with the landscape in all three narratives: Nina, drawn between her native mother and European father, in Almayer's Folly; Kurtz's white and black 'betrotheds', based respectively in Brussels and the Congo, in Heart of Darkness; and the 'beautiful Antonia', who acts as the motive for Martin Decoud to engineer the secession of the Occidental province of Sulaco from Costaguana proper, in Nostromo. Only the last, however, could be said to serve as a model of the land in her own person. 'Language as the only definition of a world' is a rather more complex category. We have seen that our three descriptions inhabit different levels of perception - yet the direction of the language itself (attributed clearly to an authorial presence in Almayer's Folly, and to a first-person narrator in Heart of Darkness) is fully problematized, again, only in Nostromo.
4. See, for example, Conrad's remarks to his friend R. B. Cunninghame Graham on the 'Yankee Conquistadores' in Panama - the result of just such stereotyping of 'underdeveloped' Latin America. (Watts, 1969, p.149).

[V. S. Pritchett (1974)]

Works Cited:
  • Carpentier, Alejo. The Lost Steps. 1953. Trans. Harriet de Onìs. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1980.
  • Conrad, Joseph. Almayer’s Folly. In An Outcast of the Islands; Almayer’s Folly: A Story of an Eastern River. Collins Classics. London, Collins, 1955. 247-382.
  • Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness. In Youth: A Narrative; Heart of Darkness; The End of the Tether. Everyman's Library. London: Dent, 1967. 43-162.
  • Conrad, Joseph. Nostromo: A Tale of the Seaboard. 1904. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1965.
  • Harris, Wilson. Palace of the Peacock. 1960. In The Guyana Quartet. London, Faber: 1985. 15-117.
  • Kipling, Rudyard. Verse: Definitive Edition. 1940. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1969.
  • McHale, Brian. Postmodernist Fiction. New York and London, 1987.
  • Pritchett, V. S. Dead Man Leading. 1937. Introduction by Paul Theroux. Twentieth Century Classics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984.
  • Ross, John Mackenzie. An Elusive Identity: Versions of South America in English Literature from Aphra Behn to the Present Day. [Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation]. University of Edinburgh, 1990.
  • Watts, C. T. ed. Joseph Conrad's Letters to R. B. Cunninghame Graham. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969.


Landfall: A New Zealand Quarterly 184 (1992): 455-68
[Available at: Versions of South America (15/4/09)].

[4857 wds]

[Landfall 184 (1992)]

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