Sunday, January 06, 2019

The Sheltering Sky (1949)

Let's start with Wikipedia, because it's so pithy: "a 1949 novel of post-colonial alienation and existential despair." That's really true, and not just because it involves Arabs from North Africa, like The Stranger by Albert Camus. Paul Bowles, however, is less inclined to illustrate an intellectual precept and more inclined to attempt to steal a part of your soul. The actual main character in The Sheltering Sky—we don't realize it's her until the person we thought it was (or I thought it was because I'm a man) suddenly takes ill and dies halfway along—is named Kit. I kept imagining her as Joan Didion—fragile, slightly hypochondriac, filled with elaborate dread, yet a very tough survivor. She and her husband Port are drifting about the region, transfixed by the Sahara Desert and the cultures clinging to it. Port has some kind of fetish for native prostitutes, which is kept vague. He stays out late. Kit resents it but she's also a loner by nature and appreciates the freedom that the distance in this obviously open relationship affords her. Assorted strange Europeans and other travelers flock about them and fly off again. No one is to be trusted exactly, but loyalty can be purchased. The Arabs are unfathomable. They are described in surface detail, and often their intentions can be gleaned, but they are opaque and mysterious. Bowles made them even more so by obfuscating Arabic words to the point where an internet search on them turns up commentary on his poor understanding of the language. The kindle dictionary and translator were useless as often as not. Still, the sense is often there from the context. This is an extremely dark journey, one that is shocking as events unfold. I love it for this strange power. In many ways The Sheltering Sky veers close to horror. By the way, for what it's worth, a 1998 note by Bowles confirms that all the action here takes place in Algeria, and not Morocco, with which Bowles is more generally associated. He also emphasizes that Kit was not based on his wife Jane, also a story writer of some reputation. The foreignness in The Sheltering Sky is intense and palpable. Bowles's writing is elegant, finicky, and precise (if often wrong on the Arabic). This novel is great and unforgettable.

In case it's not at the library.

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