The Mask of the Beggar by Wilson Harris

An artist's dream of night and day
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The Independent Culture

Wilson Harris's first novel, Palace of the Peacock, in 1960, opens with a gunshot, in what many consider the most original and challenging fiction from a Caribbean writer. His newest enterprise, The Mask of the Beggar, closes with a gunshot, and may be read as that first novel in reverse. While the form recalls the first book, the content contends with a life in letters. The bullet is a self-conscious gesture that bookends Harris's panoply of novels and essays.

The story works in Socratic question-and-answer way, interrupted by sequences of action which occasion further reflection. The central figure, an artist, dwells on his childhood encounter with a beggar, recalled initially by his mother. From this thread he weaves his story, and theory, of how an artist is born and how art works. The mother of the artist turns out to be as much a part of the production of his studio as the many presences from history, including Trotsky and Van Gogh, invoked by his art.

Harris chooses a conventional setting: Harbourtown, in a fictional "gateway" South American country (read Guyana). This technique reminds us of his fevered engagement with a world we recognise, but which he insists should be viewed differently.

In a passage about the passing of time during the making of art, Harris writes that "Day danced into a long visit. Painted dancing weeks, months, even years on a rare canvas of Sky. Time seemed more than Time, less than Time, in my holed eyes that looked across distances into visible and invisible stars. Day was Night, Night was Day in my holed eyes."

In order to achieve the reversal of the last sentence, Harris begins four earlier sentences with the day presented as a character, omitting the definite article. He continues by skewering the sense of time with that verb "danced". This flavours the day and throws it into the realm of the psychological. We cannot help wondering about the mind of the narrator, and what he wishes us to think about time.

The activity of painting imbues time with this dream-like quality. The artist extends time and suspends it as he works on canvas that is so real for him that it replaces the things it is meant to represent. Art, for this artist, is more than representation. It is origination: the generation of new insights and the covering of vast distances from a conventional starting-point.

The artist emerges as more than a storyteller. The Tiresias figure - with both genders in one body, therefore an imagination able to generate both - and the snake-bird concept of Quetzalcoatl from Mayan myth make the artist a creator or god. From his note at the beginning of this brilliant novel, it is clear that Harris's artistic remit includes a challenge to the homogeneity of globalisation, what he calls "a dominant code". He calls for a return to cross-cultural diversity not just between and within cultures, but in the novels which ought to engage with these realities.

The reviewer's latest novel is 'Bethany Bettany' (Chatto & Windus)

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