Monday, October 18, 2010

Paul Bowles at 100: "Spells are being cast, poison is running its course"

Last night I awoke and opened my eyes. There was no moon; it was still dark, but the light of a star was shining into my face through the open window, from a point high above the Arabian Sea. I sat up, and gazed at it. The light it cast seemed as bright as the moon in northern countries; coming in through the window, it made its rectangle on the opposite wall, broken by the shadow of my silhouetted head...There were no other stars visible in that part of the sky; this one blinded them all.

(from "Notes Mailed at Nagercoil," 1952)

This year is the centennial of the birth of Paul Bowles, who delighted in confounding expectations and wrote extensively about cultural dislocation and its consequences in a series of novels, most famously in
The Sheltering Sky (1949). This stance evolved quickly as Bowles travelled the world and found a home in the myth and ritual of the desert cultures of the Sahara. His collection of travel pieces dating from 1950-1963, Their Heads Are Green and Their Hands Are Blue, reveals a growing love of solitude and the unfamiliar road in a time when American influence began to dominate the post-war world. Seeking refuge from growing American conformity at home, Tangier, Morocco had become Bowles's permanent address in 1947.

The subtitle of the book --
Scenes from the Non-Christian World -- reflects Bowles's attraction to cultures and locales that, to Westerners, seemed exotic and bewildering. It was, of course, this otherness that attracted Bowles in the first place, as well as the possibility that anything could happen there. Tangier's position as an international free port encouraged its mix of cultures and languages (although French was universally spoken) and the resulting openness towards the habits of its residents and visitors made Tangier a "dream city," as he described in his 1972 memoir, Without Stopping.

Tangier made an ideal jumping-off point for Bowles, who visited Sri Lanka (Ceylon) in 1950, Cape Coromin, India in 1952, Istanbul, Turkey in 1953, as well as frequent trips into Morocco, where he documented and recorded its music and musicians. His travel writing can be at once witty and withering, and with a gimlet eye for detail:
The first time I ever saw India I entered it through Dhanushkodi. An analagous procedure in America would be for a foreigner to get his first glimpse of the United States by crossing the Mexican border illegally and coming out to a remote Arizona village. It was god-forsaken, uncomfortable, and a little frightening. Since then I have landed as a bonafide visitor should, in the impressively large and unbeautiful metropolis of Bombay ... however, I've seen a lot of people and places, and at least I have a somewhat more detailed and precise idea of my ignorance than I did in the beginning.

Bowles, 1970 (film image by Gary Conklin)

Bowles obviously relished his role as the cultural outsider; he enjoyed writing about drugs, sex, and traditions the West found taboo. The people he describes are individuals, sketched boldly and without reserve. A trip to Ketama, "the
kif center of all North Africa," becomes a chance to provide an extensive description of Morocco's drug culture. His willingness to describe the whole of his experience -- from an unexpected swarm of flies, to the unrelenting sun, to the cool desert night and the noisy neighbors in an overcrowded hotel -- is what makes Bowles's writing so all-inclusive.

As Edmund White's introduction to this collection makes plain, the attention to detail in Bowles's writing "creates individuals, not types," and although he often trades in stereotypes for his central, Western characters, "these individuals do not always conform to his expectations." His travel writing was similarly unique, providing a novel-like richness of detail and experience that extended to the flora and fauna of Sri Lanka, Morocco, and elsewhere.

This included Bowles's experience with parrots while traveling in Mexico and Central America. His essay, "All Parrots Speak," is a delight, and an education. After acquiring a first parrot in Costa Rica, Bowles's Mexican journey becomes a succession of parrots (Amazons, African greys, cotorros), macaws and even parakeets with names fashioned by homonym, habit, or disposition: Buduple, Loplop, Cotorrito, Babarhio, Hitler.

I think my susceptibility to parrots may have been partly determined by a story I heard as a child. One of the collection of parrots from the New World presented to King Ferdinand by Columbus escaped from the palace into the forest. A peasant saw it, and never having encountered such a bird before, picked up a stone to hit it, so he could have its brilliant feathers as a trophy. As he was taking aim, the parrot cocked his head and cried, "Ay, Dios!" Horrified, the man dropped the stone, prostrated himself, and said, "A thousand pardons, SeƱora! I thought you were a green bird."
Sahara film image (1970) by Gary Conklin

"Each time I go to a place I have not seen before," Bowles writes in his foreword, "I hope it will be as different as possible from the places I already know." Bowles considered his first visit to Tangier (at the suggestion of Gertrude Stein) nothing more than "a rest, a lark, a one-summer stand;" the writer Edmund White suggests that he was away from America so long that this "consummate loner" became a shadow figure in his home country.

Not that he missed America much -- as White says, he was strongly against the "homogenizing force" of Western civilization -- but he realized other forces could threaten the desert landscape as much as any American influence. His essay "Baptism of Solitude" ends with this sad note during the Algerian War, 1954-1962: "The Sahara is not on display at the present time."


The above fore-mentioned. said...

Attempt two at a comment:

I have not read any Paul Bowles, but reading your post bought so many wonderful things to mind. Gustave Flaubert's travels in Egypt, William S Burroughs living in Tangiers - that wonderful line from Ginsberg in "Howl", "Burroughs is in Tangiers I don't think he's coming back/ it's sinister/ are you being sinister?" As well as Henry Miller's "Air-Conditioned Nightmare" an expressive rant about America gathered through his diary while travelling the US after being abroad for many years (seen by some to be the precursor to Kerouac's "On the Road"). The list goes on, thanks for a great read and re-evoking some great reading memories

M Bromberg said...

His novels are well worth reading -- his Western characters are always caught up in some slow form of entanglement which happens imperceptibly, usually of their own making and in innocence of the culture of the desert. Bowles's Sahara is always potent and filled with more power than is evident in the barren landscape. "The Spider's House" and "Let It Come Down" are both great novels as well as "The Sheltering Sky," and the travel writing in "Their Heads are Green" is a good place to begin.