re: The Mask of the Beggar (Faber & Faber, 2003)
Wilson Harris' 24th novel reads like (and is) an epic-length prose poem, divided into seven cantos and a proem. An essay on evil, without resorting to accusations or fear. Although his narrators ( "a nameless artist" and his mother) continually give in to their dread.
The setting is reminiscent of the Guyana of his Jonestown (1996) but with fewer ghosts. This time, the apparitions speak through flesh and clay, paint, ink and stone. Where do I start? With the past year that I've spent reading the book, taking extended breaks from its quilted prose, its dialectical approach to autobiography. The story of the self told through the "fictional" South American city of Harbourtown. When I read its streets I think of Georgetown (which I've never been to), Caracas, Mexico City and stray corners of Ybor City.
God bless the epigraphs. Harris uses them to signal his allegiance to verse, that curse, that corpse. Nathaniel Mackey and Paul Celan (translated by Michael Mitchell) wear gloom on page xii, since "Death not gotten over" cannot be dissolved. Celan's questions ("Which sky's blue? The one above? Below?") lead to amnesia, to the mother's opening sentence: "I have never forgotten the day my son came home with indescribable emotion and colour on his face and in his eyes."
The boy-artist (soon to be transformed by quantum time into a young man and, further, into a contemporary of Harris) has seen "The face of the Beggar at the corner of West Street." It comes from the West, the book, the poem, the epic turns Derek Walcott alluded to and broke open in Omeros. There should be no doubt that this break is purposeful and continuous. Harris, like Walcott, takes Homer as a contemporary, just as decrepit as the rest of us, beautiful and wise while still in thrall to disintegration's draft. Thus the poet's mask (the beggar's ragged attire) shines in our own XXI century South American metropolis: crime-ridden, overcrowded, utterly antipoetic.
I read the cantos alongside my own obsession with disintegration, dictatorship and repetition. So, I concur with Harris when he indicts our foolish endless returns to revolutionary hero-worship, whether in Leninist-Stalinist Russia or present day Latin America. He doesn't have to name Venezuela for its tragedy to be present in these magnificent pages. After all, what else can postmodern/globalized revolution do but export its diseased wares? (Coming soon to a theater-city near you...)
Harris uncovers the false promises of that childish specter, revolutionary grandeur, and counters against it (alongside it, outside its orbit) a revisionary, quantum-tinged, hopeless (the beggar is always wordless and semi-invisible) and intuitive singing. That song can do nothing to prevent the disasters of dictatorship after dictatorship. And yet...
"To be intuitive and counter-intuitive is to pursue something as dream that we bring to a predictable or a logical end and then to change and find the end we have reached continues unpredictably. There is no end. And that is greater than the terror which suffuses the Child's eyes when he arrives on the watershed. He arrives and yet he knows no one can place him absolutely." (76)
Harris attempts to dissolve absolute fixations on power and revolutionary delusions of "liberation." And the book, of course, must be read through a personal lens, as long as one accepts that even that Self must disintegrate and let go of its obsessive fight against gangsterism and the specter of endless war. Cortez and Quetzalcoatl battle it out for one body, one city...and let's burn the libraries while we're at it.
But, we've managed to salvage this one book. Its ash-covered pages still bound with verse. Death metal, hardcore, fuck your heroes and bless the dictators to air. Still verse, still silence.