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Book Review: The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles

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We learn lessons from many different places. I, for one, learned the desert is a harsh, dangerous terrain by watching the Patrick Swayze movie Steel Dawn. Sure, I had an inkling beforehand, how could I not? It’s really dry and has few inhabitants. Fair enough.

But it took the sight of Swayze dancing filmic ballet to the sound of Brian May’s soundtrack to really concretise what were hitherto merely fleeting thoughts. Nomadic existence coupled with mullet: is there a more profound statement on the terror lurking behind each and every dune of the sandy ocean?

I doubt there is. I doubt even more that I could have been better prepared for Paul Bowles’ excursion into the wilds of North Africa. Swayze laid a foundation into which Bowles placed his opus, The Sheltering Sky.

A travelogue of sorts, The Sheltering Sky follows an American couple (Kit and Port) as they travel around North Africa, moving from one obscure settlement to another. Accompanying them is Port’s buddy, Tunner, a rather dull fellow, indecisive and weak, who Kit generally dislikes. The story focuses on the couple as they try to cope with both the foreign environment and each other. Neurotic and inclined to over-think seemingly trivial events, they become distanced, bifurcated by a hostile landscape brimming with the new and the inexperienced. They stand as lone figures on a sheet of sun-draped earth, links severed by the coarse wind, irrecoverably isolated with only the deepening darkness of the desert lying ahead of them.

Paul Bowles in many ways straddles the line between the Lost Generation and the Beat Generation. Ousting himself from the United States at an early age, he spent most of his life outside the country, primarily residing in Tangier. Over the 50s he became friendly with various expatiate poets and artists, ones frequently glazed with the label of Beat – Bill Burroughs being one notable visitor to his Tangier abode.

Yet, at least as far as The Sheltering Sky is concerned, a more accurate point of reference is that of Albert Camus. The meditations on the nature of the human and the sufferings of existence that fill The Outsider, typical of a Camus preoccupied with the individual ripped from the claws of religion and set down in front of a potential freedom, paint stark pictures of persons lost and exiled as they endeavour to function in the world.

Kit and Port are wayfarers in a sea of alienation, cut apart from each other, unable to bond with others except by the most tenuous of threads. The barren terrain of the desert perfectly allegorises the existential condition: the subject stripped of all social clothing forced to endure the elements of the world. Characters, failing to connect with the other, retreat into their own solitude – a solitude both geographical and mental. The fixity of Kit and Port’s marriage becomes as eroded as the sand upon which they tread. Locals are momentary decorations on their aimless journey, mere objects to colour the scene.

The land is an abyss of dejection and physical torment, the bearer of disease and wanton disfigurement. Port’s illness, which emerges some halfway through the novel, spawns as if from nowhere, its sudden darkness swallowing him whole – the illness of isolation transfigured into a ravaging of the body. Kit’s descent into a cauldron of instability and tears also traces a progression from mental pain to physical pain. Kit and Port assume "an existence of exile from the world."

What is worse: to be locked off from the mind of the other, or to be treated insignificantly by the world you never chose to be a part of? Both emerge as a double whammy of estrangement for our two protagonists. The gulf between the thought and what is said is repeatedly used to show the discord between the interior self and the surface, and generates even more distance between one character and another. Dialogue scenes are marked by these snippets of interior reflection where Kit, say, will think what she wants to say to Port, but will then say something else, a banal mask for what she really thinks. The subject is concealed from the other, like Swayze enshrouded in his nomadic ways in Steel Dawn.

The web of social relations and the furtive eyes of the other may be off-limits, but the physical world of spaces and smells remains similarly a fount of despair. The desert assumes the form of another character, given body by long, winding descriptions flowing ruthlessly in and out of chapters. The desert is the site for loss; it takes and does not give, spiralling its prey further and further into its heart of darkness.

Bowles' novel – as if the foregoing synopsis isn’t clear enough – is a bleak picture of people lost in the world. It can be quite harrowing at times, plummeting characters to terrifying depths, especially as the narrative reaches a climax. These later events work to such brilliant effect because by that time one has already become enraptured by the antics of the pair, of the curios of their minds, of their robust adventuring.

To go alongside the diegetic estrangement – the clawing remoteness separating Kit and Port – there is an odd reader estrangement prompted by the amount of foreign tongues not translated into English: the fragments of French, Arabic, and countless other local dialects spoken throughout the book. This and the subtle use of ambiguity make an alien world for the reader also.

There are some moments of humour over the course of the novel, such as when Kit and Port attempt to ditch Tunner, but on the whole The Sheltering Sky is a dark tale. Here, the snapshot is sepia-tinged with edges frayed by loss. Bowles' best known work is a wonderful creation in the vein of existential fiction; a joy to read and think about.

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About Aaron Fleming

  • http://philobiblon.co.uk Natalie Bennett

    This article has been selected for syndication to Boston.com. Nice work!

  • http://www.themidnightcafe.org Mat Brewster

    Nicely done Sir Fleming. I have not read the book, but saw the film version when I was but a young teen. Can’t say I remember much of that either save for a scene involving some cunnilingus and the man stating it was the perfect place to be because he could hear nothing because of the ladies thighs.

    Or some such thing. I can’t remember the quote exact because I was but a lad and there were naked thighs to look at.