In an essay about the Sahara, “Baptism of Solitude,” Paul Bowles tells us many interesting things about oasis towns (where the fertility of cultivated plants is all-important and birds are hated as seed-stealers) and about the Touareg, a desert-dwelling tribe whose name in Arabic means “lost souls” but who call themselves the “free ones.” But what Bowles (who was born a hundred years ago this past December) prizes above all else about the desert is its absolute solitude. “Why go?” he asks.
The answer is that when a man has been there and undergone the baptism of solitude he can’t help himself. Once he has been under the spell of the vast, luminous, silent country, no other place is quite strong enough for him, no other surroundings can provide the supremely satisfying sensation of existing in the midst of something that is absolute. He will go back, whatever the cost in comfort or money, for the absolute has no price.
As his novel The Sheltering Sky (1949) suggests, the absolute solitude of the desert may exert a strong appeal, but that magnetism is not necessarily salutary. In it two young Americans, Kit and her husband Port, head farther and farther into the desert, even though he is seriously ill and will soon die. When they finally arrive at a remote outpost, Kit observes that at last there is no “visible sign of European influence, so that the scene had a purity which had been lacking in the other towns, an unexpected quality of being complete which dissipated the feeling of chaos.” Here Port dies and Kit enters her own slow process of abjection and self-destruction. “Purity” is the quality Bowles’s characters cherish, but it is a purity that destroys them.
Bowles embraced the desert as a Christian saint embraces his martyrdom. His self-abnegation and his love of traditional culture made him one of the keenest observers of other civilizations America has ever had. Unlike some of his countrymen he did not brashly set out to improve the rest of the world. For Bowles, Americanization was the problem, not the solution.
Although The Sheltering Sky was a first novel, it reads like the work of an experienced master. Bowles was in his late thirties when he wrote it; he had long been living in a sophisticated milieu; and he had carefully edited the remarkable novel Two Serious Ladies by his wife, Jane Bowles. The Sheltering Sky has none of the awkwardness or unevenness of a maiden effort.
It is also surprisingly adroit technically. Novels need different openings than stories do; a novel needs an opening that is inviting, engaging, but not too definitive or even too satisfying. The Sheltering Sky opens with a narrative that wavers between the point of view of Port and Kip without giving away too much about either character. And in just a few pages it establishes the seedy, menacing atmosphere of a North African port.
Right away we’re given a tableau on the terrace of the Café d’Eckmühl-Noiseux (the German-French name in an Arab country suggests the cultural confusion of colonialism) where three Americans—two men and a “girl” (as Bowles calls her)—are observed from a distance. One of the men is looking at a map. Then we suddenly are privy to the fact that maps bore Kit whereas they fascinate Port. They’ve been married twelve years and are constantly in motion. When they’re not traveling, maps continue to attract him. Now they’re in North Africa with a great deal of luggage.
We switch from access to Kit’s thoughts to an external observation of her: “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.” A strict follower of Henry James would object to all these shifts of point of view, but in fact they give a strong inside-outside sense of Kit and Port. It’s important that we know that Kit is slightly mad—and this objective snapshot of her eyes and their “violence” gives us our first clue.
Kit says that she fears everything throughout the world is getting homogenized, and Port is quick to agree that indeed everything is becoming grayer and grayer. “But some places’ll withstand the malady longer than you think. You’ll see, in the Sahara here…” At this point we’re only on page 8 but already the Sahara has been introduced. It will be one of the main characters in the novel. And its introduction is ironic; it will turn out that the desert will be monochromatic, literally, and that the oasis towns will be dirty, dusty, almost featureless, and full of diseases.
Afterward Port wanders through the town on his own. Prefiguring the central movement of the book (the steady push inland), in this opening scene he keeps walking farther and farther—away from the sea, toward the desert—into dangerous zones of the town. This contact with “a forbidden element” elates him. “The impulse to retrace his steps delayed itself from moment to moment.” Someone throws a small stone at him and hits him in the back. But still he plunges on into the terra incognita of the town: “He sniffed at the fragments of mystery” in the wind boiling up out of the desert, “and again he felt an unaccustomed exaltation.”
Port meets a man who appoints himself his guide; he arranges for Port to have sex with a very young girl in a tent in a foul-smelling dump at the bottom of a steep hill. Port catches her trying to rob him of his wallet and he flees into the darkness; he then becomes completely lost and only with great difficulty finds his way home to the hotel. Being endangered and lost foreshadows Port’s fever-dream “travels” at the end of the book when he is dying and fears he won’t be able to find his way back to the room where his physical body is lying and suffering.
The young prostitute tells him a tale that becomes emblematic and gives its name to this section, “Tea in the Sahara.” In her story three prostitutes suffer the attentions of their ugly customers because once they met a handsome, tall nomad and they long to follow him someday to the Sahara where he lives, but they never earn enough. Finally they decide to pool their resources, take a bus south, and then join a caravan. Once they are in the Sahara they sneak away from the caravan and keep climbing one dune after another, always looking for the highest one. They’ve brought along their teapot and cups and plan to drink tea in the desert. But they’re so exhausted they fall asleep, die, and are found days later with their tea glasses full of sand.
Two hundred pages later, after Port’s death, Kit joins a handsome nomad and, like the man in the tale, he is mounted on a mehari, a tall, slender, fawn-colored camel with a small hump. There are other parallels to the fable: the awful British tourists, the Lyles, drink tea no matter where they go; tea-drinking is their proof that they are better than the savages they live among. They carry with them the tea and tins of English biscuits. Finally, the annihilation that the three girls undergo in the Sahara is really what Kit and Port are both courting.
Both Kit and Port are passive and fatalistic, but in a curious way they are extremely active in pursuing their self-destruction. Just as Port is about to get his stolen and all-important passport back (and thus recover his Western identity), he flees with his wife to an even more remote town. He should be heading back north to the coast and an airplane that will convey him to the hospitals of Europe or America; he is very ill and a return to the first world is his only hope of recovery. But he flees the promise of recovery. After his death Kit flees—not once but twice. In fact the book ends with her melting into the crowd and escaping her well-meaning if slightly dim escort from the American consulate; at least we presume she’s boarded the tram that is inching through the crowds and heading out to the very edge of the city. She is inarticulate with madness and even smells bad.
On the level of conventional novelistic plot and motivation, one could argue that Port is fiercely if silently jealous of Tunner, the American who is traveling with them, and that Port flees him because he is afraid of him as a rival, just as one could argue that Kit feels so guilty about not being with Port at the moment of his death that she cannot bear to contemplate what she has done. As she looks at his dead body, Bowles writes,
These were the first moments of a new existence, a strange one in which she already glimpsed the element of timelessness that would surround her…. Now she did not remember their many conversations built around the idea of death, perhaps because no idea about death has anything in common with the presence of death.
She goes staggering out into the desert and hands herself over to a passing caravan. The merchant and his business partner fight over which one will have access to her sexual favors. She only too willingly surrenders to her captors, who keep her drugged, turn her into a sex object, and whose language she cannot understand. Bowles does not, however, resort to the language of psychology; his vocabulary is metaphysical (“the element of timelessness” and “the presence of death”). Most novelists are careful to “motivate” their characters with plausible explanations of their behavior; Bowles submits Kit and Port to eternal philosophical principles, much like the characters in Greek drama.
But there are some faint traces of motivation or at least consistency. Kit has been portrayed throughout the text as a woman who has irrational fears and superstitions, who sees omens and portents everywhere, and is, in a word, slightly crazy. Port, who is presented as being in love with his wife and longing for a rebirth of their sexual intimacy, never does anything to achieve this goal. On the contrary, he is the one who invites Tunner, his rival, to join them. And he never speaks openly of his love to Kit.
This deep passivity, we could even say this obstinate passivity, was an earmark of Bowles’s personality and oeuvre and is so far from the average person’s experience and behavior that it remains a permanent puzzle for most readers. One of Bowles’s friends said to me once, “Paul was as passive as some of his characters.” For instance, he refused to encourage or discourage a woman who was courting him after Jane’s death. In You Are Not I, her portrait of Bowles, Millicent Dillon quotes Bowles as saying, “I never said anything. Well, I never do. I don’t know why you have to say something. You just have to go on living. People can guess for themselves whether it’s yes or no.” Elsewhere, when Dillon asks him if his feelings were hurt when one of his Moroccan lovers left him for a rich woman, Bowles says in his best Zen manner, “I don’t know. I don’t know what it feels like to have your feelings hurt.” In his most troubling short story, “Pages from Cold Point,” the father who has just slept with his son says, “Destiny, when one perceives it clearly from very near, has no qualities at all.” In the story “You Are Not I,” the narrator says, “I often feel that something is about to happen, and when I do, I stay perfectly still and let it go ahead. There’s no use wondering about it or trying to stop it.”