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Wilson Harris. The Mask of the Beggar.

Wilson Harris. The Mask of the Beggar. London. Faber. 2003. xii + 172 pages. 16.99. [pounds sterling] ISBN 0-571-21774-5

WILSON HARRIS'S concern in The Mask of the Beggar--the culmination of his work--is for the release of prisoners: these may be politically marginalized and voiceless populations, societies confined by economic structures over which they have no control, the Spirit in the chains of materialism, the mind entrapped by conventions, or consciousness itself in the cell of language.

The artist who takes on this task of liberation is inspired by an experience in his childhood related, as is the first half of the book, by his mother. Her son comes home one day having seen a beggar in a residential district of Harbourtown, a South American colonial port not unlike Georgetown, Guyana. The fissured face of the beggar appears to him in his plate of rice and vegetables, a mask that the boy refuses to consume, which he associates with the story of the returned Odysseus and with his own father who disappeared in the forests of the interior.

This fragment from Harris's autobiography is the seed of a drama in which the artist's creations are revealed as the world that creates him. The mirroring involved in endowing the living sculpture of the mother with independent consciousness in dialogue with the artist, who later takes on the narrative, complemented by an unmediated authorial voice, stresses the nature of art itself. The book cites aspects of the work of Van Gogh, Wilde, and Goethe in investigating the roots of consciousness and the relationship between art and reality. Seldom have readers been privileged to see the processes of art with such clarity.

Harris recognizes that conventional language restricts perceptions within frames determined by culture, time, and categorization. His fiction, by contrast, brings cultural differences into creative juxtaposition; he rejects a linearity of time that is merely a "report of what we already know" in favor of a philosophical stone capable of compressing and transforming time; consciousness-centered conceptions of reality give way to multidimensional "quantum variations" revealing how the fabric of the mind and the landscape of geology, organic life, and human interaction relate in astonishing, frightening ways. Consciousness, he suggests, tamed by societies into cold, dead basalt, results from an eruption of universal living magma that can only be appreciated by art.

Harris's novel-writing employs alchemical epistemological principles of emulation, analogy, sympathy, and signature, foreign to Western materialist rationalism. Instead of abstracts, his frequently capitalized nominatives are bundles of association used in intuitive flow, punctuated by counterintuitive shocks and flashes of essayistic analysis. At the heart of his fiction is a pre-Columbian conception of zero, the fertile void that allows a universe to be seen in a grain of rice.

This is not "light" reading. Harris stresses the "gravity" of art in a culture mistrustful of serious themes. It is worth overcoming such prejudice. Reading The Mask of the Beggar is as baffling and rewarding as listening to a late Beethoven string quartet.

Michael Mitchell

University of Warwick
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Author:Mitchell, Michael
Publication:World Literature Today
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Oct 1, 2003
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