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Habeas Blogus

Book reviews, more for my memory than anything else.

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Location: Austin, Texas, United States

Thursday, August 17, 2006

The Sheltering Sky, by Paul Bowles

Started 7/30, Finished 8/12

Boy, would it ever be easy to read this and toss it out of your mind. These people wander in the desert, do nothing, learn nothing, and then it ends. That's what terrifies you in the first 20 pages. You think you've stumbled across a lesser account of idiots from Stein's génération perdue, drinking their way across sand instead of Old Europe. Then you start to feel a bit uneasy, like maybe there's something deeper going on (just like in all those other Lost Generation stories...). By the end you're practically terrified, of the desert, but more importantly, of what we as Americans have become. And this was 60 years ago.

I want to cover three separate aspects of this book, and I'll say right now that I'm not thinking much about authorial intent. I have very little idea what Bowles' attitude was toward the topics I'm going to discuss. From the speculation I've come across, I wouldn't like it if I knew it. So, I'm going to evaluate this purely based on what I'm able to gleam from the manuscript.

The Sheltering Sky opens a lot like Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises, where a small group of American expats are throwing their money around a foreign culture in an attempt to numb the pain of their existence. Port and Kit Moresby, a couple whose marriage has been as barren as the Sahara for years, embark on an expedition throughout northern Africa. With fellow expat Tunner in tow, they start in Algeria and move ever inward across the desert, ending up in a central Sudanese village. As their journey takes them into less and less "civilized" areas, into the chaos of a life out of control, their adventure follows the pattern of their lifeless marriage. Hijinks are self-abusive, ugly, and very very American.

Through recent world events, as well as my own curiousity about the history of Western colonialization in the past 4 centuries, I've begun to notice a trend. No doubt it's one that's been around as long as races have attempted to integrate, but it's a relatively new concept to me. So bear with me if what I'm describing is repeated in some 9th grade socialogy textbook. The trend is this: Misunderstanding a culture is the first step toward destroying it. Simple enough. White people enter a world with brown people who speak a foreign language. They don't have running water. Instantly the white people get the idea that the brown people need their lives "improved". Within a few years, half the population of brown people is either enslaved or in prison. The majority of the other half is serving the oppressors, losing their language to the foreign tongue, losing their houses to the foreign rich people, and losing their culture to trousers, chamber music, and pétanque. Yeah, I'm looking at you, France. Don't sit there all innocent-looking. You were arguably the worst. Don't worry: now we've taken the honors. You're welcome.

How does that relate? The Arabs in this book are landscape. Purely 2-dimensional walking stereotypes. Now, many have criticized Bowles harshly for this, but I choose to believe it was not what it appears at face value. What comes across to me is not Bowles' attitude, but his characters'. Their observations and trite speculations about the intellectual capacity of any given "native" ends up painting and solidifying an ugly portrait of those making the observations--the Arabs themselves are only landscape in these self-indulgent peoples' lives. They're there to be put up with, not dealt with as human beings. At one point one of the (French) colonial governors suggests locking them all up and leaving them to starve, so he can get some real civilized people in there. It's 1948 in the book, so we're only a few years from Moroccan and Algerian independence, but this state of mind serves to describe the French attitude for the previous 100 years, and shows just how seductive it is for other whites to cast these people aside like grains of sand. It turns your stomach, because it just wasn't all that long ago.

Kit and Port aren't following the archetypal patterns of the road novel. They're not searching for redemption... they're seeking oblivion. Their lives in New York's intellegentsia were meaningless, so they try to find places where they're guaranteed to feel superior to the locals. This starts in Algeria, where little by little they realize they're being had by the populace. They move inward. Again, they find themselves shrinking in comparison to the landscape. Their dollars become meaningless. Their excellent French can't save them because nobody speaks it. Along with a fleeting superiority comes a glimpse into the savage and perilous world that they can no longer control because they cannot buy it. Once it becomes impossible for them to retain their superior airs, they succomb to oblivion: alcohol, sexual temptation, disease, and insanity. In the end they are consumed by their inability to look beyond themselves into the world they are so bent on conquering.

The last thing I want to address is the part that gave me the most trouble in trying to deal with authorial intent. It also involves some spoilers, so be warned. It's the final section of the novel, where Kit willfully becomes an object for men to pass around. Bowles states it just as plainly in the Preface to the book. When she is first raped, she ends up in love with the rapist. I had a BIG problem with this when I first came across it, but that's only because I had to stop reading right at that moment. I thought, "typical, the male point of view where rape is just pleasure with an unpleasant beginning". I almost didn't want to finish. But then I got to thinking more and more about it (as I assume was the intent). Kit is finding her own oblivion, her "zero", trying to master her death in order to forget her insignificant and wasted life. The brief marriage, escaping to freedom in order to... what, exactly? One reviewer explained it as "a noose plaited from strands of nymphomania and insanity". I don't like the word nymphomania here, partly because the term itself has been disavowed (so we can forgive the guy writing in 1949), but mostly because it's not compulsive from her end. She is no longer in control of anything in her life, having been taken as a slave during the vulnerable period when her mind was destroyed by her husband's death.

I'm not going to say she, or Port, get the ending they deserve, because nobody deserves to die just for the crime of selfishness. I'm going to say they get the ending they desire, because their comfortable lives, the comfortable and unchallenged lives of most Americans, have given nothing to the world compared to their potential. They're empty in soul, so they can have no other ending but make their bodies match.

Anyway, that's what I thought when I was reading it. Like I said, Bowles seems to have been quite cagey in life. It's hard to find out, between all that has been written about him and his work, just how deep his intentions were. What we're left with is a text that can at worst be described as a great travellogue (before the unpleasantness begins), and at best a comment on colonialism of the past 400 years. That's quite a range of interpretations, eh?

Interesting.

Book #21 will be The Sportswriter, by Richard Ford.

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1 Comments:

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