Book buzz (Jan/Feb 2004)

Wilson Harris takes on art, the universe, and everything; a biography of Rastafarian pioneer Leonard Howell; Curdella Forbes tells a simple story; Little Lion learns a lesson; plus West Indian writers talk about their art

  • Little Lion Goes to School
  • Songs of Silence
  • Original Dread. Illustration by Marlon Griffith
  • The Mask of the Beggar

Opened imagination

The Mask of the Beggar Wilson Harris (Faber, ISBN 0-571-21774-5)

Wilson Harris must know he is a writer more argued over than actually read. Perhaps that’s why he begins his 24th novel with a short note to his readers. In The Mask of the Beggar, he tells us, “a nameless artist seeks mutualities between cultures.” He explains that his story “is based on the disguise Odysseus adopts on returning to his kingdom in Ithaca.” So far so good. But a few paragraphs down things start to get tricky. “Intuition continues to help but needs to surrender partially at times to unexpected variations . . . The artist is dumbfounded when he meets someone in the Street . . . who is an exact living copy of a sculpture in his studio . . . this is part of his Dream in meeting real people: that they have come to life from neglected resources in the closed Imaginations of the world . . .”

The novel doesn’t start for another five pages, and when it does, it shuffles on with great determination for nearly 200 more, shifting backwards and forwards across centuries and continents, dragging Trotsky and Montezuma, Van Gogh and Goethe, Christ and Oscar Wilde to the fictional city of Harbourtown. A profusion of capitalised nouns and a prose style that hurts the mind’s ears suggest translation direct from the German. This reader is dumbfounded, and intuition is no help.

Harris is either a genius or a madman. I suspect his readers are evenly divided on the question, but those who incline to the latter view keep quiet about it, while those who take the former call him the Caribbean Joyce. I myself prefer to hedge my bets: surely Harris is madman and genius at once. Like a lunatic’s ravings, his writing is inscrutable, absurd, yet shot through with phrases of visionary clarity and unpredictable poetry. The Mask of the Beggar can’t be read in the conventional sense; or at least I find it utterly unreadable. But let it fall open at random, and sentences like these shimmer off the page: “Time lapses. Centuries are still. They are a Moment or a Picture of a bell that has no voice.”

The Mask of the Beggar is a sort of ars poetica, a meditation on the origin and nature of art, and the conscious and unconscious impulses that sustain it. Disturbing, infuriating, yet somehow also moving, “in unfathomable yet partially fathomable ways”, it summarises the principles behind the 83-year-old Harris’s monumental career. That it mystifies more than it explains is surely deliberate.

Nicholas Laughlin

“Writing is not easy to talk about”

I don’t know about those who talk about writing in the dark, who write without knowing where the writing is going . . . without a structure you have no boundaries, you lack control, you find it difficult to measure the proportion of space you allocate to this or that idea, you feel the story run away from you and you become terribly unsure of the writing.

— Earl Lovelace

I set out to write because I wanted to tell stories about people. Yet people exist within a particular social and cultural milieu. In order to tell their stories I have to talk about what and where they are coming from, about the impact of race or class or religion on their lives. I think critics don’t understand this process of writing; critics feel that writers start off with these large concepts. Maybe some writers do, but I never have.

— Olive Senior

I think the most basic social responsibility of the poet is to try and be true to his or her talent . . . I know that politics matters and I know also that for some writers it is primary. It is not my primary preoccupation. I’m most interested, I think, in trying to catch the subtleties, the contradictions, the ambiguities of particular moments of experience.

— Mervyn Morris

You know the process of writing is not easy to talk about, which is one of the reasons people end up writing lots and lots of poems about it. One begins to be almost embarrassed because one is starting to talk in the area of not quite formed beliefs about what is sacred.

— Jane King

In Self-Portraits, writer and scholar Funso Aiyejina collects interviews with 12 contemporary West Indian writers and critics, originally published in the Trinidad and Tobago Review between 1995 and 2001, providing a partial survey of the current state of English-speaking Caribbean letters. (University of the West Indies School of Continuing Studies, ISBN 976-620-182-X)


Original dread

The First Rasta: Leonard Howell and the Rise of Rastafarianism

Helene Lee (Lawrence Hill Books, ISBN 1-55652-466-8)

Whispering voices and fleeting glimpses of a hidden past on a rubble-strewn hillside: a terrifying yet inspiring blend of positive and negative, melding unspoken treachery, political and religious insurrection, divine intervention, and enlightenment of the downtrodden and oppressed. Acclaimed French journalist Helene Lee goes behind the myth of the jolly dreadlocks and the big spliff to trace the convoluted origins of the Rastafarian movement, and the troubling contradictions of its visionary founder, Leonard Percival Howell. What she finds is fascinating and disturbing in equal parts, as Howell’s journey — from street preacher and asylum inmate to figurehead of a self-sufficient commune eventually destroyed by police brutality — leaves a twisting trail of illegitimate children and broken promises. Written with careful verve, The First Rasta reads like a novel — fitting for the story of such a fantastic figure.

David Katz


A simple story

Songs of Silence Curdella Forbes (Heinemann, 0435-989-57X)

Once there was a girl.

(There are, to be sure, many girls; not just in Jamaica or the Caribbean, but all over the world. I believe reliable statisticians can provide evidence to support this claim.)

She lived in a small village . . .

(As opposed to all the other girls who live in cities or communes or igloos or orphanages. The village, while it makes a nice picturesque background, is not deeply important. What matters is that she was alive and young and female.)

. . . with relatives, friends, enemies, and teachers . . .

(Sometimes, as tends to happen everywhere, not just rural Jamaica, these categories overlap, causing significant distress all round. Our heroine attempts to remove herself from the endless awkwardness of social interactions by devoting herself to the observation of ants.)

. . . and things were simple.

(But of course, they never are. Everyone — but especially young girls — has a very short lease on simplicity of lifestyle. But when you are very little, it’s easier just to take your mother’s word as gospel and not complicate matters by asking questions that will be ignored anyway. And how could anything be simple in a world so full of relatives, friends, enemies, teachers, spirits, death, a body that is mutating with you still in it, etc?)

And then she began to grow up.

(And saw that things were not, in fact had never been, simple. That everyone — but especially young girls — and especially young silent girls — has a very short lease on simplicity of lifestyle.)

The end.

Anu Lakhan


What do you know

So you think you’re an expert on the Caribbean? Pop quiz:

1. What is the modern name of Santiago de la Vega?

2. What is an Antigua black?

3. Who were “the Spin Twins”?

4. What, in meteorological terms, is “the Doctor”?

5. What country gave us the tune known as Yellow Bird?


Don’t know any of the answers? You’re clearly a tourist. Got two or three of them? Not bad, but you’re not going to win any prizes. Answered all five? Checked the answers on page 94? All correct? Then you’re ready for The Ultimate Caribbean Quiz Book, compiled by John Gilmore (Macmillan Caribbean, ISBN 0-333-97599-5), a trivia-laden, “hmm”-inducing, and unexpectedly addictive selection of questions covering the whole region, its geography, history, culture, and prominent eccentricities. Try it out on the office know-it-all, or the smarty-pants next door.


Hear me roar

Little Lion Goes to School

Kellie Magnus, illustrated by Michael Robinson (Media Magic, ISBN 0-9744211-0-3)

“Come, Little Lion, this is your time. Just be yourself and you’ll be fine.” Not very reassuring words for young Zachariah Zion, a.k.a. Little Lion, the endearing hero of Little Lion Goes to School, a children’s storybook by Caribbean Beat contributor Kellie Magnus. It’s his first day at a new school — “a new beginning”, says his beloved Papa; “with a good education, you can be anything” — but Little Lion feels out of place in his old clothes, and the other children make fun of his dreadlocks. “No one there looks like me,” he complains. “They talk all day about their toys, and there aren’t any Rasta boys.” Worst of all, this week his class is doing show and tell. The other children proudly show off their fancy possessions; Little Lion has nothing of the kind. But Papa won’t let him give into his fears and stay home. “Just remember what you have inside,” he says. “Be a lion. Show them your pride.”

Sure enough, Little Lion discovers that staying true to himself he can be anything he wants. Told in jaunty verse, and charmingly illustrated by Michael Robinson, Little Lion Goes to School brings a distinctly Caribbean twist to a classic story of self-discovery, and young readers will be eager for the next installment in the planned Little Lion series.

Philip Sander


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