Paul Bowles Short Fiction Analysis

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2733

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.

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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.

“The Echo”

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 affair begins. Racky’s hopelessness and corruption are the disturbing by-products of a society gone haywire. The seduction proves easy and even appears “natural” to Norton, who feels that nothing drastic has happened. His description is so understated as to be disturbing. Readers are reminded that in Bowles’s world, corruption is insidious and pervasive.

“At Paso Rojo”

Bowles is fascinated by what happens to people when their civilized notions are suddenly disturbed by some encounter with primitive people or a foreboding landscape. In the story “At Paso Rojo,” first appearing in The Delicate Prey, and Other Stories, the drama is played out in the psychological terrain of sexual repression and maladjustment. The story is set in Central America. It concerns the visit of two sisters, both middle-aged spinsters, to the ranch of their brother following the death of their mother. One of the sisters, Chalia, disturbed and vulnerable after the loss of her mother, begins behaving oddly. There seems little doubt that the brutal landscape has some bearing on her crack-up. After a ride in the country, Chalia finds herself alone with one of the ranch hands, a young and virile mestizo. She makes advances but is rejected. Chalia exacts revenge by stealing money from her brother and then giving the money to the mestizo. Later, Chalia encounters the drunk boy on the road and pushes him over a small cliff. When he is found, still a bit drunk and with a large amount of money in his pocket, the theft is revealed. Chalia denies having given him the money, and the ranch hand is dismissed. This unpredictable eruption of violent, even sadistic, behavior in a normally “civilized” character is fascinating to Bowles. Again and again in his fiction, the characters fall prey to violent urges that they do not understand. Ultimately, these urges lead to a masochistic desire for annihilation.

“The Delicate Prey”

One of Bowles’s most acclaimed stories is “The Delicate Prey,” a stunning story of three Arab merchants who undertake a perilous journey across remote regions of the Sahara desert. Several days into the journey, the three merchants encounter a solitary traveler. Although wary, they allow the stranger to travel with them since he is alone and not of the barbaric nomadic group known as the Reguiba (the same bunch that captured the professor in “A Distant Episode”). The stranger claims to be a good shot and promises to supply the traveling party with gazelle meat. A few days later, the stranger goes off to shoot gazelles. Upon hearing gun shots, the elder merchant, hoping to join in the shooting, pursues the stranger. After more shots, a second merchant departs in pursuit, leaving the youngest of the party alone. Eventually, the stranger returns alone, and the boy is easily captured. The stranger mutilates, rapes, and murders the boy, all without the slightest compunction. The stranger later arrives at a trading town and tries to sell the merchants’ leather, a type of leather that is unique to the merchants’ band. Thus he is discovered, and some travelers from the merchants’ town capture him and bury him in the sand of the desert, leaving only his head exposed.

“The Delicate Prey” is a demanding story. Bowles insists that readers look inside themselves and account for the cruelty that they find there. There is nothing noble about the characters, and certainly the story presents the reader with a world devoid of altruism. A first encounter with the story produces a feeling of strangeness and terror. To examine it more closely, however, is to uncover something familiar and haunting in this simple tale. The reader knows what is going to happen and yet is still horrified. The retribution exacted in the story’s conclusion is severe and grotesque, and yet, in a strange way, gratifying. Bowles wants to direct readers’ attention to the darkness present not only in their gratuitously violent actions but also in their sense of justice. The queasiness they experience is in part attributable to the fact that they recognize the ineluctable pattern of the action. The characters are not monsters. They are acting, if anything, all too humanly.

“Tapiama”

A predominant theme in Bowles’s stories is the encounter of spiritually bankrupt Americans with alien cultures. In the story “Tapiama,” which first appeared in The Time of Friendship, this theme is amply articulated. It is a story that reminds the reader of Samuel Beckett or Jean-Paul Sartre. Nothing seems to happen in the story, certainly nothing like the shocking events upon which Bowles’s stories so often turn. Still, an unnerving suspense is created by the constant threat of such an event. In the end, though the conclusion is shadowy and uncertain, “Tapiama” is a story that resonates with revelation.

In the story, an American photographer in a Latin American country goes for a midnight walk along the beach. He is puzzled by a light on the water and, upon hailing it, is asked by a boatman if he wishes to go to Tapiama. It is all quite mysterious to him, yet he agrees to go on the boat. He has no idea why he goes. This is a typical moment in a Bowles story: The protagonist seems to suffer a sudden loss of will, a Westernized version of accidie. He recognizes the absurdity of it all, yet he feels compelled to let events run their course: He will not assert himself. The boat arrives in Tapiama, which appears to be a factory town run by a sugar concern. The protagonist drifts into a seedy bar. He is accosted by a prostitute and by a belligerent gendarme. Ants crawl on the beams, a dead snake hangs from the rafters, and a monkey dances. In this bizarre setting, the American gets drunk on the local brew. When he finally manages to escape, the effort exhausts him, and he lies in the bottom of a boat, content to drift where the current takes him. Finally, the boat is discovered by some men who begin poling it upriver into the jungle and some unknown fate.

The theme of “Tapiama”—and, in fact, of many of Bowles’s stories—is neatly captured in the closing pages. The American, drunk and nearly unconscious, hears the sound of a bird calling from the jungle. When he imitates the call, the strangers in the boat with him explode with laughter. This is a bird, they explain to him, that tries to sit in the nests of other birds and fights with them until it is driven off. Its call means “Nobody wants me.” This is the condition of the photographer and all Bowles’s Westerners. Slumming their way through other cultures, they fight and are driven off by the “natives.” Nobody likes them, and indeed there is little to like. Their homelessness is indicative of their spiritual emptiness.

Too Far from Home

Another alienated American appears in Too Far from Home, set in the Niger River Valley, a Bowles novella which appeared in the collection Too Far from Home: The Selected Writings (1993). Anita, fleeing New York City and a painful divorce, arrives in North Africa to live with her brother Tom, an artist who revels in exotic desert landscapes. From the moment she arrives, Anita feels out of place in the vast, hot, African spaces, and she takes out her tensions on Tom and the household staff. She is particularly uncomfortable with Sekou, a local chieftain who acts as head of the household.

One morning, Tom asks Anita to purchase film from his friend Mme Massot, the French woman who owns the camera shop in the nearby village. Tom sends Sekou to act as Anita’s guide. On the way, two young Americans on a motorcycle collide with Sekou, wounding him in the leg. Incensed, Anita shouts dire warnings at the motorcyclists. A few days later, Anita, walking amid the high dunes, discovers the Americans, their motorcycle wrecked, their bodies splattered with blood. She assumes they are dead and leaves the scene, telling no one. Soon after, she has nightmares about consuming a headless man’s flesh, a dream she claims Sekou has willed upon her.

Just before she leaves Africa, Anita hears that the motorcyclists did not die from their injuries; they perished from exposure. Therefore, she may have been able to save their lives if she had reported the accident. She also learns that Sekou claims she cursed the motorcyclists when she screamed abuse at them, thus causing their death through magic. Sekou believes that his leg will not improve until Anita withdraws her curse and forgives the young men. He has dreamed of visiting her in her sleep to beg her to forgive the young men, but she has always refused. Anita, hearing this tale, forgives them out loud before Sekou, who approves. The next morning, when Anita leaves the Niger River, she feels healed and realizes she will miss the North African landscape, the adobe village, and most of all Sekou.

While this story possesses many key Bowles motifs, its conclusion possesses an ambivalence out of character for the usually uncompromisingly grim author. Like The Sheltering Sky, Too Far from Home portrays a dysfunctional artistic couple in a foreign country, although in this story they are brother and sister. Still, there are unconscious incestuous connections between Tom and Anita, who often act like a married couple. Anita even becomes jealous of Mme Massot’s interest in Tom and his artwork. Also, Too Far from Home contains spiritually empty Westerners in an alien landscape, as well as sudden and brutal violence. However, while Anita’s failure to understand the Niger River realm and its culture result in her passionately violent curse and the tragic death of two young men, the curse and Sekou’s forgiveness lead Anita to reconcile with North Africa, its people, and her emotional being.

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