Paul Bowles is best placed in a category by himself. Though his work is tangentially related to that of other writers—the southern gothic of William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor, the sexual primitivism of D. H. Lawrence, and the neocolonial meditations of Graham Greene and E. M. Forster, all of which suggest themselves as influences—Bowles occupies a unique place in literature. No other writer has produced a body of work that so consistently rejects the culture that has given birth to it. The intensity with which Bowles and his principal characters spurn the Western world and all it stands for distinguishes his stories even from other literature of exile.
Bowles’s work has received only scattered critical acclaim. Perhaps because he lived most of his life in Morocco and because most of his work is set outside the United States, he remains outside the American literary scene and has not been the focus of considerable critical attention. Nevertheless, Bowles has been acclaimed by important writers, such as Gore Vidal and Tennessee Williams. Bowles’s affinity for the grotesque and lurid has led some reviewers to dismiss his work as gratuitously violent. Indeed, the pessimism and nihilism that dominate his stories can be overwhelming. Beneath the surface violence, however, the reader finds a consistent, thoughtful, and chilling vision of life.
His clear style presents readers with a very real world, yet the reality readers so palpably experience in reading Bowles is ultimately a hallucination. His stories concentrate on the ambiguity of human morality. Order is only superficial in this world; readers sense its inevitable dissolution at every turn. The jungle and the desert reside within every human situation, and the rationality with which readers attempt to suppress them proves to be their greatest self-delusion.
Bowles’s stories are generally set in exotic locations, North Africa and Latin America being his favorite landscapes. Physical setting is crucial in his work. It is more than backdrop; often it becomes a modulating force, regulating and tempering the characters who wander into its domain. These characters are often visiting Westerners, who—spiritually empty themselves—come with a superficial craving for new experiences. Beneath the surface, however, these lost ciphers have no truly purposeful quest. They are merely fleeing the vacuity of their Western world; they seek nothing except escape.
Many of Bowles’s stories have no Western characters at all. Even then, the alienation inherent in the landscape is evident and, indeed, prominent. No facile primitivism surfaces in Bowles’s world. The non-Westerners are not noble savages; they are isolated and displaced persons as well, brutalized by the landscape and compelled to see into the heart of darkness beating there. This is the world Bowles explores. It is a brutal world, both nightmarish and stark in its features. Bowles’s style matches the landscape: He writes without adornment or prettiness. This clear and honest style is not without grace, but it is the grace of the desert about which he so often writes, a grace many find too austere.
“A Distant Episode”
One of Bowles’s first stories, and one of his finest, is the macabre “A Distant Episode,” which first appeared in The Delicate Prey, and Other Stories. Several writers and critics, including Williams, hailed this as one of the finest American short stories. A nameless American professor of linguistics visits a small town in the Sahara, where he tries to strike up a conversation with a surly waiter. The waiter reluctantly promises to help the professor purchase some boxes made from camel udders. They walk by moonlight through a dangerous part of town, encountering corpses and wild dogs, until the waiter abandons the professor on a cliff. The hostile nomadic group that makes the boxes is encamped somewhere beneath the cliff, and despite all foreboding, the professor descends to find them. There, he is robbed and beaten. In the morning, the nomads cut out his tongue and depart into the desert. The professor lives among them for months; dressed in a rattling suit of smashed tin cans, he is brought out as a sort of clown and made to entertain the community. “A Distant Episode” is the quintessential Bowles story. All his principal themes are starkly set forth in the account of the professor’s transformation from curiosity-seeker to curiosity. Something takes hold of him in this foreign setting, something over which he has no control, and the civilized veneer of the Westerner is easily wiped away. Significantly, the linguist loses his tongue, and thus the apparent gratuitousness of the violence becomes psychologically telling. He loses not only his tongue but also his mind and spirit.
Another early story, “The Echo,” also from The Delicate Prey, and Other Stories, extends Bowles’s obsession with inhospitable landscapes. Aileen, a college-age woman from the United States, has come to live with her expatriate mother in Colombia. The mother lives in an impressive house perched near a cliff with a woman named Prue. Prue is an artist, quite masculine in both appearance and attitude, who seems to be the lover of Aileen’s mother. The antagonism between lover and daughter builds to the point that Aileen’s mother asks Aileen to leave. On the day of Aileen’s departure, in a final encounter, Prue taunts Aileen until the girl explodes and viciously attacks her. In this story, the daughter’s estrangement from her mother is reflected in the alien landscape, so that it is the place itself that first prompts Aileen’s primal scream and then literally echoes it from the black walls of the gorge. Once again, Bowles’s character is stripped of her superficial civility and forced to confront the dark stranger within.
“Pages from Cold Point”
Mr. Norton, in the story “Pages from Cold Point,” is the Bowles character which most embodies the extremity of Western nihilism. A clever, if blighted, cynic, Norton undertakes the journey so typical of Bowles’s characters—the journey from civilization (in this case, civilization at its most refined: the university campus) to a primitive land in the Third World where Western certainties have a way of dissolving. Norton leaves the university after the death of his wife (her name, Hope, is significant) and goes to a tropical island with his teenage son, Racky. Bit by bit, Norton learns that the attention his son is paying to the young boys of the island town has stirred up trouble. Shockingly, in the scene when father confronts son, an incestuous...
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