The Stories of Paul Bowles
Americans have learned to cultivate almost anything on our soil. Nihilism, however, has never quite taken root. Our pop culture is too relentlessly optimistic to permit spiritual malcontents anything but the tiniest grotto of rebellion. As a result, American writers of a misanthropic bent, such as Patricia Highsmith or Ezra Pound, have looked elsewhere--Switzerland, Italy, England--to make their homes.
Such is the case with Paul Bowles, the American novelist, poet, and translator who died in 1999. At the prompting of Alice B. Toklas, Bowles journeyed to the North African country of Morocco in his late 20s. Although he returned to New York, Bowles would eventually journey back to Africa and never live anywhere else again.
To this day, it's difficult to think of Bowles without placing him in the context of an exotic and arid African milieu. His most famous work, the 1949 novel The Sheltering Sky, tells the story of two American drifters who wander out into the Sahara to experience the horror of their isolation from other people, as well as the isolation that welters inside them. One of the travelers dies, while the other, a woman, becomes enslaved to an Arab. Discovered years later, she cannot recognize her own name.
Although he went on to write poetry and other prose and to translate many books from Morocco's Mogrebhi tongue, the scaffolding of this first novel--the geographical dislocation, the existential crisis, and the awful physical punishment--became the basis for a great deal of Bowles's fiction. Indeed, reading the work collected in The Stories of Paul Bowles, recently issued on Ecco Press, one senses a palpable dread descending on the action as we await some new and horrid fate to befall Bowles's characters. A geologist wanders off into the desert only to have his tongue cut out. A man voyages to the South American jungle on a honeymoon just to abandon his lubricious wife snoring next to a drunken seaman. Snarling mongrel dogs prowl menacingly throughout this book.
Although many of these stories are less than ten pages in length, the manner in which Bowles dispatches his characters is agonizingly drawn out, never merciful. In "The Delicate Prey" (1950), two brothers and their nephew set out on a trading venture where they're lured into capture--and death--by a man of the Moungari tribe. The nephew survives long enough to realize that the rest of his life will be one of servitude and loneliness. "The next night he did not know where he was, did not feel the cold. The wind blew dust along the ground into his mouth."
Like William T. Vollmann, Bowles relishes the psychic disarray produced by foreign situations. In "A Distant Episode" (1947), a professor hires a guide to take him into the desert where he is cataloging variations of Mogrebhi. Leaving town, the academic notices with unease how friendly people are to the man, highlighting his own loneliness.
"Everyone knows you," said the Professor, to cut the silence between them.
"I wish everyone knew me," said the Professor, before he realized how infantile such a remark must sound.
Although Bowles once penned classical compositions and musicals and even wrote for the screen, his dialogue is pared down, epigrammatic. When characters finally do speak, they appear fatuous and self-involved, as in "The Hours After Noon" (1956), a grim little yarn about two pensioners who fancy that their quarters offer an oasis of civilization in a foreign country only to discover that danger lurks all around them.
In contrast to the sparseness of speech, Bowles's prose is lush with descriptions of strange, often unpleasant scents and foreign dialects. Each story duly notes the quality of light and the temperature of air. The following passage from "Midnight Mass" (1976) represents a typical report:
He arrived in Tangier at noon and went straight to the house. In the rain the outer courtyard was uninviting. Several dead banana plants had fallen over and been left to rot on the tile floor. Even as old Amina, seeing him from the kitchen door-way, waddled out into the rain to greet him, he was aware of the piles of empty crates, and of the frame of an ancient garden swing looming behind her.
In short doses, such passages weave a spell. There is a viscous quality to the writing, as if the author is intent on shackling us with the numbing weight of existence. When such pieces are read one on top of the other, however, the spell wears off, as Bowles's methods repeat themselves. Although this collection spans 47 years of work, one too many cold winds blows at the end of these stories. Too often, men and younger boys strike up a mercantile camaraderie. Just once, it would be nice to see someone reach an unlikely communion with another human being.
But Bowles is fierce in shunning comfort or sentimentality--just as he stubbornly refused to leave Tangier. And even though The Stories of Paul Bowles contains only a handful of truly great tales--sadly all bunched at the beginning of his career--it does clearly reveal why this powerful and unnerving artist will always be considered an import product.