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Wilson Harris. The Mask of the Beggar.

Faber & Faber, 2003. 172 pp. 16.99 [pounds sterling].

The Mask of the Beggar, Wilson Harris's twenty-fourth novel, can be read as a recapitulation of what he has been voicing (in that peculiarly personal rhythm of his prose) in all of his work, immersing the reader in dimensions of time and space that are dreamlike, unsettling, and yet profoundly real. A summation of his ideas and obsessions, the new novel contains passages germane to Harris's enduring fascination with Amerindian myths and his belief in "visionary Time" and statements defining the peculiar aesthetics of his art with its cross-cultural references. Harris states in a prefatory note that "The Mask of the Beggar is based on the disguise Odysseus adopts on returning to his kingdom in Ithaca" and that "Well-nigh forgotten, ancient pre-Columbian imageries are explored"--a declaration of his method in all of his work and an important key to understanding any of it. Harris's great achievement has been that he created, then sustained in his entire work, a singular form, a prose with unfamiliar stresses and curious juxtapositions of ancient and modern images, making the reader hear the heartbeat of the Guyanese interior, which is his image for the eternal soul of the universe.

The world witnessed by Harris has many dimensions. A seemingly serene landscape is alive with past presences; long-forgotten mythic symbols burst out of the land that seems suddenly fissured by the internal pressure of its own particular history; it is a world in which even the fossils are murmuring a Jungian message. There are no named characters, except what Harris calls "solid ghosts," in The Mask of the Beggar; the narrator in the first four chapters is the statue of a sculptor's mother, and in the remaining three the sculptor himself; the "solid ghosts" include Odysseus, Lazarus, Montezuma, Cortes, and the symbolically important mythological figure of Quetzalcoatl. What is narrated is not a story--unless it is the story of the human race--but rather a discussion of ideas related to the imaginative content of all of Harris's work. There is no plot or action, only intellectual design that advances the ideas; where the earlier novels painted vivid landscapes of the Americas, The Mask of the Beggar barely contains a sketch.

From the very first sentence of the prefatory note--"In The Mask of the Beggar a nameless artist seeks mutualities between cultures"--to long statements in the final chapter, Harris expresses his ideas directly rather than, as in much of his previous work, expecting the reader to engage in literary archeology. In this sense The Mask of the Beggar is his most personal novel, and the nameless artist is perhaps named Wilson Harris; some twenty pages from the end, the sculptor-narrator declares in emphatic italics, "I am largely an intuitive writer," and proceeds to recite a credo that, coming in the final pages of his last novel, functions as a retrospective elucidation of all of Wilson Harris's work.
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Author:Ghose, Zulfikar
Publication:The Review of Contemporary Fiction
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 2004
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