Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3677
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 at the airport. It is painfully obvious that the desert and its inhabitants have stolen away her mind and soul and that she will live out her life in a place she hates.
Let It Come Down
First published: 1952
Type of work: Novel
A dark tale of an antiheroic expatriate’s descent into corruption, theft, and murder.
Let It Come Down greatly reinforced Bowles’s reputation as a consummate “writer’s writer,” a craftsman who could capture the ambiguity, tenor, and dangerous fascination of developing foreign countries. This novel, his second, has as its setting Tangier, Morocco, prior to its loss of International Zone status in the early 1950’s. Like many locales featured in Bowles’s novels and stories, Tangier appears dirty, divided (into a slovenly native sector and a prosperous Western one), and sinister as a haven for drug addicts and smugglers. The physical division mirrors a political, economic, cultural, and spiritual division, for the city represents not only Moorish Morocco but also the whole Muslim culture of Africa. Its streets wind sinuously, like intricate designs in the mosaics of the sultan’s palace, and the city echoes to the sounds of distant calls to prayer from minarets.
To Bowles, Muslim Tangier has a mysterious presence lacking in the Christian part of town; in a sense, it defies Western understanding. The isolation of people seems, to outsiders, more intense than it is in the cities of the West, and death hovers closer. The smells of Tangier are a violent assault: a mixture of garbage, urine, open-air meat and vegetable stands, and the perfume from exotic plants. Bowles’s old Tangier, a city behind walls, retains the imprint of past conquerors, both Phoenician and Arab. Europeans have also left an impression upon the city, bringing with them what the author sees as a dangerous materialism represented by seedy, neon-lit night spots, big cars, and drunken, raucous public conduct. To Bowles, this new Tangier has a soullessness about it, its bourgeois comforts partially protecting Westerners from thoughts of death and destruction.
Let It Come Down tells the story of Nelson Dyar, a former New York City bank clerk. A self-acknowledged loser, misfit, and victim, Dyar spends the first half of the novel trying to lay claim to a beautiful, illiterate peasant girl, the prostitute Hadija. Hadija, however, is also pursued by another American expatriate living in Tangier, Eunice Goode, a lesbian who (like Dyar) has enough money to get by without doing much work. Goode (her surname as much an intended pun as Dyar’s) is furious over Dyar’s “interference” in her life; she intends to possess Hadija totally and make her a kind of slave. She plans to involve Dyar with a known Soviet agent, Madame Jouvenon—and the plan works. Goode suggests to Jouvenon that she enlist Dyar’s services, as he, as an American living in Tangier, is bound to have contacts valuable to Soviet spymasters. Jouvenon, convinced, easily manages to convince the bankrupt Dyar to betray his country by offering him regular paychecks in exchange for information.
Goode calls the American Legation of Tangier and informs them of Dyar’s perfidy. No immediate steps are taken to apprehend him, and events keep him from being apprehended by the legation. Then, in an interesting twist of plot, Dyar’s sometime employer, Wilcox, wants Dyar to exchange some currency for him on the black market. Sensing an opportunity to elude the Soviet spies who now employ him as well as a chance to be (temporarily, at least) rich, the larcenous Dyar joins with a young Morrocan, Thami, a thoroughly dissipated ne’er-do-well whose hashish habit frequently takes him away from his neglected wife and abused children. Thami spirits Dyar away in a leaky boat, and Thami’s partner leaves them on a narrow strip of deserted beach below high cliffs, a locale not far from Thami’s home village and his ancestral cottage, perched on a cliff above the sea.
When the ravenous Thami goes after food in his old village, the equally ravenous Dyar, out of boredom, takes up Thami’s hashish pipe. Drugged and in a dream, he then wanders away from the house on the cliff. At the nearest town, Dyar accidentally meets Thami. Thami appears not to blame Dyar for stealing his pipe and its contents, so together they go back to the abandoned house on the cliff. After both take up heavy hashish smoking, Dyar, driven by unknown demons, accidentally (or possibly intentionally, Bowles does not make it clear which) kills Thami by sticking a nail in his ear as he sleeps and pounding the nail into his skull with a hammer stolen in the village.
Morning arrives, and Dyar, dazed and somewhat disconcerted rather than overwhelmed by guilt, attempts to move the corpse so that curious villagers will not find it, only to be interrupted by the unexpected arrival of a nymphomaniacal former lover from Tangier—Daisy, the Marquesa de Valverde. She is horrified after discovering the corpse of Thami and, leaving Dyar to fend for himself, returns to Tangier. The novel ends as rain comes down. Dyar, standing in the ruined patio of the deserted house, confronts his imminent death from starvation or angry villagers.
In his characteristically meticulous way, Bowles has created yet another of his visions of a Western exile bereft of purpose or morality who is destroyed in the cruel desert of North Africa. Yet Bowles does not want his characters—in this case, Dyar—to elicit reader sympathy, for there is nothing with which to sympathize. Instead, Bowles wants his readers to see their own baseness and spiritual vacuity mirrored in the plight of the characters.
Dyar loses himself in the surreal chaos of Tangier; it is his choice to do so. A pathetically inert figure, he acknowledges the fathomless emptiness of his existence, finding solace in alcohol, hashish, and fly-by-night affairs. Dyar is at once victim (of drugs, of his own stupidity and lack of insight, of circumstances) and victimizer. He victimizes young Hadija as if he were a predator and she were prey, yet finds himself the prey of another of Tangier’s predators, the man-hungry Daisy. Dyar is victimized by Wilcox, whose promises of an easy life in Tangier turn out to be as meaningless as anything else he tells his “friend.” Yet Dyar entices Thami to help him escape Tangier with Wilcox’s money by pandering to his greed and then, accidentally or intentionally, kills him. Though Dyar has a chance to show internal fortitude by turning down the offer to spy for the Soviets, he forfeits it. He lives solely for himself, with no regard for the needs or feelings of others, and in this he is a typical Bowles character.
Nothing is resolved in Let It Come Down; Bowles permits no satisfying, neat conclusion. The reader is left with ambiguity and questions as well as a sense of dread. Bowles leaves a character living in a universe that neither wants him nor needs him. The earth is, in Bowles’s radical estimation, much like the claustrophobic place depicted by French poet Charles Baudelaire, who envisioned earth as having a gigantic, smothering pan cover above it, sealing in humankind. To speak of plot, then, is difficult, because, as Bowles might say, “Everything happens, yet nothing happens.” His people do not have meaningful experiences that somehow lead to a catharsis. Instead, they lurch from accident to accident. Things happen to people, in a dislocated way, but nothing connected to purpose can occur in this limbo of defeat.
“The Delicate Prey”
First published: 1950 (collected in The Delicate Prey, and Other Stories, 1950)
Type of work: Short story
Hideous deaths come to a young desert traveler and the tribesman who kills him.
Bowles’s most celebrated short story is a brutal, ironic tale of fatal misjudgment, of deceit, of appalling cruelty, and of the destruction of a destroyer. Nature, in the form of the Sahara Desert, is as much a protagonist as is young Driss, the tale’s victim.
“The Delicate Prey” revolves around three members of the Filala tribe, two brothers and Driss, the son of their sister, who make a fateful journey to the desert town of Tessalit. Driss is a young, virile man who enjoys the brothels of the town in which he resides. His uncles decide to take a short route to Tessalit through country that comes perilously close to the dreaded Reguibat warriors, a bloody-minded group of land pirates known for their horrible murders of those traveling through their domain.
On the journey, the three meet a lone camel rider who becomes their guide. No one seems to suspect the man except Driss, who questions his motives in serving as their guide. Driss remains quiet about his fears. The man identifies himself as a Moungari, a man from a supposedly peaceful, well-respected place. On a pretext of going hunting for gazelle, the Moungari lures one brother, then the next, to their deaths, shooting each in turn. Imagining the distant shots to be harbingers of a feast to come, Driss meanwhile drifts off to sleep. He awakens in horror when he finally realizes what the earlier shots signified. He sets off toward distant Tessalit, only to stumble across the camp of the Moungari and his friends.
As he hails them, they shoot him in the arm; as he tries to rise and shoot his enemies, he is suddenly pushed to the ground. The Moungari ties his hands, binds his feet, then, to Driss’s horror—and the reader’s—castrates him and makes a deep incision in his stomach, in which he places the testicles. Driss is then raped and, after a time, his throat is cut.
The rapacious Moungari makes the mistake of taking the wares he has stolen to Tessalit, where he is apprehended by French authorities, then handed over to the Filali merchants for punishment. They bind him, drink all of his water, giving him none, then take him to the desert, where they place him, bound, into a pit from which only his head emerges. One day later, the head, maddened by the heat, is portrayed as singing.
In this dark story, Bowles captures both the bleak hostility of the Sahara and the even more bleak nature of humans, creatures given to heinous deeds done in the spirit of celebration. The Sahara may be a killer, but it kills without malice. The Moungari and the Filali, on the other hand, are deliberate in their cold, astonishing acts of cruelty—true monsters from a desolate land.
The Time of Friendship
First published: 1967
Type of work: Novella
A platonic friendship between a North African boy and a middle-aged European woman ends as war approaches.
The Time of Friendship is a marked departure for Bowles, for instead of his usual bleak assessment of human nature, readers are given a glowing tale of mutual respect and love between two very different people. The story ends without betrayal, cruelty, or death. Yet death does hover just beyond the story’s horizon as the two main characters, Fraulein Windling and her platonic love, the young desert dweller, Slimane (Arabic for Solomon), enjoy time together.
One winter, this middle-aged Swiss woman and this Muslim youth form a mutual attachment. She enjoys his rapt attention to her stories, and he enjoys hearing her tell them. When she, a devout Christian, indirectly challenges his Muslim assumptions about Jesus Christ, he reacts without anger; instead, he tells her an apocryphal story about Jesus, a man he regards as a Muslim prophet. Sensing her young protégé’s religious nature and wanting to set him straight about Christ’s true identity, she lovingly creates a crèche scene, carving Mary and baby Jesus, wise men, and shepherds from native clay, creating a floor from chicken feathers, and decorating the scene with candies from Switzerland.
While Fraulein Windling’s back is turned, however, her friend inadvertently beheads the camels and other figures while trying to get at the candy. Deftly, subtly, Bowles uses the devastated manger scene as an omen of the future. War is coming: The French occupiers of the area are engaged in battle against local patriots, a lopsided conflict in which the heavily armed French are almost certain to prevail. When Fraulein Windling leaves her North African friend behind as a result of her forced repatriation home to Europe, she leaves with real grief in her heart, for she realizes that when she returns—if she ever will—he may be dead, a victim of the conflict. Thus, the last meeting is a sad one. Unspoken feelings speak the loudest as the two try to make conversation. As the train moves, she impulsively kisses Slimane’s forehead and, by so doing, offers him evidence of her love.
In this story, Bowles’s ability to convey stifled emotion and lost hopes with an astonishing economy of words is on full display; character and situation are carefully delineated. The Time of Friendship reverberates with loss but also with a kind of wild joy as two people share moments of intimacy and understanding.
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