Though widespread acclaim eluded Bowles, his impact upon contemporary fiction has been a lasting one and a significant one. More than any other American writer, he introduced existentialist concepts to American fiction. His main themes are those of existentialist fiction: the isolated self, the impossibility of meaningful communication between people, and the terrifying void beyond this world which can drive people insane.
Bowles’s writing concerns, for the most part, people of frail identity searching for something to relieve the intense monotony that comes from being caught up in the self. These ennui-ridden searchers come to developing countries to have something to do, somewhere to go, even if they do not find meaning in this flight from familiarity.
The professor of “A Distant Episode,” for example, a linguist with all the cultural sophistication and pride of the educated Westerner, wants to do a language survey in Morocco. What he finds is not what he seeks. Captured by wild, cruel Reguibat tribesmen, his tongue is cut out, and he is further mutilated so he can be sold as a comic curiosity piece. In order to survive, he soon learns to do what his captors say. Finally, however, a French soldier, thinking him a mad religious character, tries to shoot him. The story closes with him running toward the desert sun and certain death; the professor’s personality disintegrates in the Sahara.
So, too, the personality of Kit Moresby of The Sheltering Sky falls apart under the harshness of imprisonment, and she adopts a new identity: helpless Arab concubine. Like Kit’s, her husband’s identity is destroyed by the filth, misery, and horrifying isolation he finds in the town of El Ga’a. Dying of typhus, he is completely alone: The natives of El Ga’a do not care whether he lives or dies because he is an outsider and a Nazarine (Christian). In his final moments he forgets who he was and turns into something without past or future.
Certainly, Bowles’s characters talk to one another, but real communication is lacking. Their talk is fragmented, superficial, transitory. People in Bowles’s stories do not say what they mean because they do not know anything important about themselves or the wider world around them. It is not that they do not wish to communicate but that words fail them, leaving them locked in anguish.
Cruelly projected behind the merciless white sky of Bowles’s stories is the void. This meaninglessness he envisions hides just behind the “sheltering sky” and terrifies those who are aware enough to sense its presence. It is the same void that haunts the fiction of existentialist writers Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Samuel Beckett. The void is mirrored on earth by Bowles’s terrible jungles and deserts, the places most hostile to human beings, with their cliffs, bad weather, and deadly creatures: scorpions, vipers, and poisonous lizards. The meaningless quality of the void is also found in the labyrinthine streets of the villages and towns of North Africa and Central and South America, where boredom and terror breed.
The flight of Bowles’s characters from this void brings them no rewards, no respite—only frustration and a sense of futility, fragility, and absurdity. The only exception seems to be Fraulein Windling of The Time of Friendship, whose strong Christian beliefs give her an inner sense of purpose and integrity missing in most of Bowles’s drifters. Bowles’s people are never satisfied, and this dissatisfaction leads them to dissipation, crime, and death. The sterility within them grows until it overtakes them. They try to amuse themselves as they drift downward toward death, never connecting with others, never understanding how special life really is.
The Sheltering Sky
First published: 1949
Type of work: Novel
An American couple’s travels in North Africa lead to the husband’s death from typhus and the wife’s sexual enslavement by a wealthy African.
The Sheltering Sky, arguably Bowles’s best work, has as its setting his terrible yet hauntingly lovely depiction of the Sahara Desert. The chief protagonist could be said to be like the desert itself: an aloof, indomitable, compelling, disorienting, killer landscape—a killer waiting for new victims. All is mystery, despite the clarifying sunlight. A kind of anarchy reigns in the chaotic towns on the desert’s periphery, and the farther one travels from coastal cities, the more anarchic and mysterious things become for Bowles’s dissolute, bored characters.
Into this strange part of the world Bowles introduces his Americans, Port and Katherine (Kit) Moresby, a young husband and wife from New York, wandering aimlessly, supported by considerable funds. Port, whom Kit likes to insist is a writer, actually is no such thing: He really does nothing with his life.
Cynical and jaundiced by fruitless years spent in the United States, Port begins his African sojourn at the Café d’Eckmühl-Noiseux in a town somewhere close to the coast of Morocco.
Kit, his intelligent, attractive wife, is not quite as dissatisfied with life as is he, for she has lingering expectations of some kind of life illumination to come from this exile of theirs. She is alert to the people she encounters; her lively interest in her surroundings counters her husband’s boredom, yet she also struggles to find meaning in her life and sometimes falls into a bored silence.
A fellow American simply called Tunner meets the Moresbys, then attempts to befriend them. He turns traitor to his new “friend,” Port, when he seduces Kit on a train ride to the interior. Like Port and Kit, Tunner is a drifter drawn to North Africa by restless yearnings not quite identifiable. Also entering the picture are the Lyles, a bizarre couple supposedly composed of a mother and her spineless son who, it is found out, sleep together (whether they are incestuous is not stated). The boy, Eric, is a liar, a cheat, and a thief, and his mother is a loud-mouthed, obscene, overly aggressive woman, proud of herself to the point of narcissism.
The Lyles, however, serve only as distractions. The main focus of the novel is upon the contest of wills between Port and Kit, a contest which results first in Kit’s committing adultery with Tunner, then later in her leaving Port’s deathbed in order to rediscover personal freedom as well as escape his dying from typhus in an ugly, dirty hotel room. Port, though one to proclaim his insularity and self-sufficiency, relies to a marked degree on Kit for companionship. Any strength in their relationship comes from them finding themselves stranded in a strange land, one that is both intriguing and hateful.
Death, often veiled in the United States, here stalks the streets openly and conspicuously. Among stinking hotel patios and filthy, disease-bearing alleyways disguised as city streets, Port and Kit come to a temporary understanding. Yet, when temptation comes (in the banal form of Tunner), their self-serving relationship begins to fall apart; when Port is felled by the typhus, it is in ruins. Kit, having cuckolded her husband, deserts him completely, heading for the high desert outside of El Ga’a. Here, with the great blank sky surrounding her, she wanders lost and alone in the desert, realizing that death will surely come if no one rescues her.
Rescuers do appear: an old man and a young man, riding across the wastes on camels on the caravan route. The young, virile man, Belqassim, who has twenty-two wives and many servants, gives her a ride in exchange for sexual favors, their lovemaking taking place first in the evening after a long ride, then by day. Slowly but surely, Kit loses her mental bearings, bewitched by sand and distance; she comes to depend upon her “benefactors” despite the fact that they see her as no more than an exotic white slave. She realizes that her part of their unspoken bargain is to be an unprotesting concubine, paid in gold bracelets and big rings for her services.
Taken, disguised as a boy, into Belqassim’s house, Kit is installed as a mistress (unbeknown to his wives, who accept this “young man” as a pathetic case shown kindness by their husband). Kit, depressed over her servitude and her sexual humiliation, plans a daring escape, which is foiled by Belqassim; he beats her to the point where she begins to lose her mind. Crazed and desperate, she tries again, and she succeeds in escaping. She makes her way to a French outpost, where she is placed in touch with the American legation.
Delivered against her will out of North Africa, she flies to an unnamed Western country—possibly France—and once again is surrounded by the wave of violent noise that is the hallmark of the West. Her mind distraught and her personality severely altered by the trials she endured abroad, she irritates the legation official sent to pick her up...
(The entire section is 3677 words.)