Authors: Paul Bowles
American novelist and short-story writer, poet, translator, classical music composer, and filmscorer Paul Bowles has lived as an expatriate for more than 40 years in the North African nation of Morocco, a country that reaches into the vast and inhospitable Sahara Desert. The desert is itself a character in
The Sheltering Sky
, the most famous of Bowles’ books, which is about three young Americans of the postwar generation who go on a walkabout into Northern Africa’s own arid heart of darkness. In the process, the veneer of their lives is peeled back under the author’s psychological inquiry.
Each man’s destiny is personal only insofar as it may happen to resemble what is already in his memory
He awoke, opened his eyes. The room meant very little to him; he was too deeply immersed in the nonbeing from which he had just come. If he had not the energy to ascertain his position in time and space, he also lacked the desire. He was somewhere, he had come back through vast regions from nowhere; there was the certitude of an infinite sadness at the core of his consciousness, but the sadness was reassuring, because it alone was familiar. He needed no further consolation. In utter comfort, utter relaxation he lay absolutely still for a while, and then sank back into one of the light momentary sleeps that occur after a long, profound one. Suddenly he opened his eyes again and looked at the watch on his wrist. It was purely a reflex action, for when he saw the time he was only confused. He sat up, gazed around the tawdry room, put his hand to his forehead, and sighing deeply, fell back onto the bed. But now he was awake; in another few seconds he knew where he was, he knew that the time was late afternoon, and that he had been sleeping since lunch. In the next room he could hear his wife stepping about in her mules on the smooth tile floor, and this sound now comforted him, since he had reached another level of consciousness where the mere certitude of being alive was not sufficient. But how difficult it was to accept the high, narrow room with its beamed ceiling, the huge apathetic designs stenciled in indifferent colors around the walls, the closed window of red and orange glass. He yawned: there was no air in the room. Later he would climb down from the high bed and fling the window open, and at that moment he would remember his dream. For although he could not recall a detail of it, he knew he had dreamed. On the other side of the window there would be air, the roofs, the town, the sea. The evening wind would cool his face as he stood looking, and at that moment the dream would be there. Now he only could lie as he was, breathing slowly, almost ready to fall asleep again, paralyzed in the airless room, not waiting for twilight but staying as he was until it should come.
On the terrace of the Café d’Eckmühl-Noiseux a few Arabs sat drinking mineral water; only their fezzes of varying shades of red distinguished them from the rest of the population of the port. Their European clothes were worn and gray; it would have been hard to tell what the cut of any garment had been originally. The nearly naked shoeshine boys squatted on their boxes looking down at the pavement, without the energy to wave away the flies that crawled over their faces. Inside the café the air was cooler but without movement, and it smelled of stale wine and urine.
At the table in the darkest corner sat three Americans: two young men and a girl. They conversed quietly, and in the manner of people who have all the time in the world for everything. One of the men, the thin one with a slightly wry, distraught face, was folding up some large multicolored maps he had spread out on the table a moment ago. His wife watched the meticulous movements he made with amusement and exasperation; maps bored her, and he was always consulting them. Even during the short periods when their lives were stationary, which had been few enough since their marriage twelve years ago, he had only to see a map to begin studying it passionately, and then, often as not, he would begin to plan some new, impossible trip which sometimes eventually became a reality. He did not think of himself as a tourist; he was a traveler. The difference is partly one of time, he would explain. Whereas the tourist generally hurries back home at the end of a few weeks or months, the traveler, belonging no more to one place than to the next, moves slowly, over periods of years, from one part of the earth to another. Indeed, he would have found it difficult to tell, among the many places he had lived, precisely where it was he had felt most at home. Before the war it had been Europe and the Near East, during the war the West Indies and South America. And she had accompanied him without reiterating her complaints too often or too bitterly.
At this point they had crossed the Atlantic for the first time since 1939, with a great deal of luggage and the intention of keeping as far as possible from the places which had been touched by the war. For, as he claimed, another important difference between tourist and traveler is that the former accepts his own civilization without question; not so the traveler, who compares it with the others, and rejects those elements he finds not to his liking. And the war was one facet of the mechanized age he wanted to forget.
In New York they had found that North Africa was one of the few places they could get boat passage to. From his earlier visits, made during his student days in Paris and Madrid, it seemed a likely place to spend a year or so; in any case it was near Spain and Italy, and they could always cross over if it failed to work out. Their little freighter had spewed them out from its comfortable maw the day before onto the hot docks, sweating and scowling with anxiety, where for a long time no one had paid them the slightest attention. As he stood there in the burning sun, he had been tempted to go back aboard and see about taking passage for the continuing voyage to Istanbul, but it would have been difficult to do without losing face, since it was he who had cajoled them into coming to North Africa. So he had cast a matter-of-fact glance up and down the dock, made a few reasonably unflattering remarks about the place, and let it go at that, silently resolving to start inland as quickly as possible.
The other man at the table, when he was not talking, kept whistling aimless little tunes under his breath. He was a few years younger, of sturdier build, and astonishingly handsome, as the girl often told him, in his late Paramount way. Usually there was very little expression of any sort to be found on his smooth face, but the features were formed in such a manner that in repose they suggested a general bland contentment.
They stared out into the street’s dusty afternoon glare.
“The war has certainly left its mark here.” Small, with blonde hair and an olive complexion, she was saved from prettiness by the intensity of her gaze. Once one had seen her eyes, the rest of the face grew vague, and when one tried to recall her image afterwards, only the piercing, questioning violence of the wide eyes remained.
“Well, naturally. There were troops passing through for a year or more.”
“It seems as though there might be some place in the world they could have left alone,” said the girl. This was to please her husband, because she regretted having felt annoyed with him about the maps a moment ago. Recognizing the gesture, but not understanding why she was making it, he paid no attention to it.
The other man laughed patronizingly, and he joined in. “For your special benefit, I suppose?” said her husband.
“For us. You know you hate the whole thing as much as I do.”
“What whole thing?” he demanded defensively. “If you mean this colorless mess here that calls itself a town, yes. But I’d still a damned sight rather be here than back in the United States.”
She hastened to agree. “Oh, of course. But I didn’t mean this place or any other particular place. I meant the whole horrible thing that happens after every war, everywhere.”
“Come, Kit,” said the other man. “You don’t remember any other war.”
She paid him no attention. “The people of each country get more like the people of every other country. They have no character, no beauty, no ideals, no culture—nothing, nothing.”
Her husband reached over and patted her hand. “You’re right. You’re right,” he said smiling. “Everything’s getting gray, and it’ll be grayer. But some places’ll withstand the malady longer than you think. You’ll see, in the Sahara here . . .”
Across the street a radio was sending forth the hysterical screams of a coloratura soprano. Kit shivered. “Let’s hurry up and get there,” she said. “Maybe we could escape that.”
They listened fascinated as the aria, drawing to a close, made the orthodox preparations for the inevitable high final note.
Presently Kit said: “Now that that’s over, I’ve got to have another bottle of Oulmes.”
“My God, more of that gas? You’ll take off.”
“I know, Tunner,” she said, “but I can’t get my mind off water. It doesn’t matter what I look at, it makes me thirsty. For once I feel as if I could get on the wagon and stay there. I can’t drink in the heat.”
“Another Pernod?” said Tunner to Port.
Kit frowned. “If it were real Pernod—”
“It’s not bad,” said Tunner, as the waiter set a bottle of mineral water on the table.
“Ce n’est pas du vrai Pernod?”
“Si, si, c’est du Pernod,”
said the waiter.
“Let’s have another setup,” Port said. He stared at his glass dully. No one spoke as the waiter moved away. The soprano began another aria.
“She’s off!” cried Tunner. The din of a street car and its bell passing across the terrace outside, drowned the music for a moment. Beneath the awning they had a glimpse of the open vehicle in the sunshine as it rocked past. It was crowded with people in tattered clothes.
Port said: “I had a strange dream yesterday. I’ve been trying to remember it, and just this minute I did.”
“No!” cried Kit with force. “Dreams are so dull! Please!”
“You don’t want to hear it!” he laughed. “But I’m going to tell it to you
.” The last was said with a certain ferocity which on the surface appeared feigned, but as Kit looked at him she felt that on the contrary he actually was dissimulating the violence he felt. She did not say the withering things that were on the tip of her tongue.
“I’ll be quick about it,” he smiled. “I know you’re doing me a favor by listening, but I can’t remember it just thinking about it. It was daytime and I was on a train that kept putting on speed. I thought to myself. ‘We’re going to plough into a big bed with the sheets all in mountains.’”
Tunner said archly: “Consult Madame La Hiff’s
Gypsy Dream Dictionary
“Shut up. And I was thinking that if I wanted to, I could live over again—start at the beginning and come right on up to the present, having exactly the same life, down to the smallest detail.”
Kit closed her eyes unhappily.
“What’s the matter?” he demanded.
“I think it’s extremely thoughtless and egotistical of you to insist this way when you know how boring it is for us.”
“But I’m enjoying it so much.” He beamed. “And I’ll bet Tunner wants to hear it, anyway. Don’t you?”
Tunner smiled. “Dreams are my cup of tea. I know my La Hiff by heart.”
Kit opened one eye and looked at him. The drinks arrived.
“So I said to myself, ‘No! No!’ I couldn’t face the idea of all those God—awful fears and pains again,
. And then for no reason I looked out the window at the trees and heard myself say: ‘Yes!’ Because I knew I’d be willing to go through the whole thing again just to smell the spring the way it used to smell when I was a kid. But then I realized it was too late, because while I’d been thinking ‘No!’ I’d reached up and snapped off my incisors as if they’d been made of plaster. The train had stopped and I held my teeth in my hand, and I started to sob. You know those terrible dream sobs that shake you like an earthquake?”
Clumsily Kit rose from the table and walked to a door marked
. She was crying.
“Let her go,” said Port to Tunner, whose face showed concern. “She’s worn out. The heat gets her down.”
He sat up in bed reading, wearing only a pair of shorts. The door between their two rooms was open, and so were the windows. Over the town and harbor a lighthouse played its beam in a wide, slow circle, and above the desultory traffic an insistent electric bell shrilled without respite.
“Is that the movie next door?” called Kit.
“Must be,” he said absently, still reading.
“I wonder what they’re showing.”
“What?” He laid down his book. “Don’t tell me you’re interested in going!”
“No.” She sounded doubtful. “I just wondered.”
“I’ll tell you what it is. It’s a film in Arabic called
ée for Rent
. That’s what it says under the title.”
She wandered into the room, thoughtfully smoking a cigarette, and walked about in a circle for a minute or so. He looked up.
“What is it?” he asked.
“Nothing.” She paused. “I’m just a little upset. I don’t think you should have told that dream in front of Tunner.”
He did not dare say: “Is that why you cried?” But he said: “In front of him! I told it to him, as much as to you. What’s a dream? Good God, don’t take everything so seriously! And why shouldn’t he hear it? What’s wrong with Tunner? We’ve known him for five years.”
“He’s such a gossip. You know that. I don’t trust him. He always makes a good story.”
“But who’s he going to gossip with here?” said Port, exasperated.
Kit in turn was annoyed.
“Oh, not here!” she snapped. “You seem to forget we’ll be back in New York some day.”
“I know, I know. It’s hard to believe, but I suppose we will. All right. What’s so awful if he remembers every detail and tells it to everybody we know?”
“It’s such a humiliating dream. Can’t you see?”
There was a silence.
“Humiliating to whom? You or me?”
She did not answer. He pursued: “What do you mean, you don’t trust Tunner? In what way?”
“Oh, I trust him, I suppose. But I’ve never felt completely at ease with him. I’ve never felt he was a close friend.”
“That’s nice, now that we’re here with him!”
“Oh, it’s all right. I like him very much. Don’t misunderstand.”
“But you must mean something.”
“Of course I mean something. But it’s not important.” She went back into her own room. He remained a moment, looking at the ceiling, a puzzled expression on his face.
He started to read again, and stopped.
“Sure you don’t want to see
Fiancée for Rent
“I certainly don’t.”
He closed his book. “I think I’ll take a walk for about a half an hour.”
He rose, put on a sports shirt and a pair of seersucker trousers, and combed his hair. In her room, she was sitting by the open window, filing her nails. He bent over her and kissed the nape of her neck, where the silky blonde hair climbed upward in wavy furrows.
“That’s wonderful stuff you have on. Did you get it here?” He sniffed noisily, with appreciation. Then his voice changed when he said: “But what did you mean about Tunner?”
“Oh, Port! For God’s sake, stop talking about it!”
“All right, baby,” he said submissively, kissing her shoulder. And with an inflection of mock innocence: “Can’t I even think about it?”
She said nothing until he got to the door. Then she raised her head, and there was pique in her voice: “After all, it’s much more your business than it is mine.”
“See you soon,” he said.