Sunday, October 19, 2008

Adrift in the Desert

“The Sheltering Sky” by Paul Bowles was first published in 1949. It was his first novel and it entered the New York Times best-seller list on January 1,1950. He subsequently wrote three other highly acclaimed novels. Paul Bowles was also a well known composer, a travel writer, a short story writer, a translator and a poet. He died in Morocco in 1999 at the age of 89.

“The Sheltering Sky” is the story of Port and Kit Moresby, a young, affluent married couple from New York, who consider themselves travelers but not tourists. They had crossed the Atlantic with the intention of keeping as far as possible from the places which had been touched by the war. They were able to find boat passage to North Africa. The Moresbys were traveling with their so-called friend Tunner. The three travelers find themselves drifting in the strange cities and desolate desert of North Africa. They encounter the Lyles a strange English twosome who may or may not be mother and son. The travelers have little understanding of the alien culture of the people they encounter in these cities. While Port wants to immerse himself in the solitude of the desert, Kit seems to be terrified of it. There is an emotional void in the marriage of Kit and Port, and Kit turns to Tunner for a connection. Then Port suggests they separate from Tunner and travel by bus to Bou Noura. Once in Bou Noura he convinces Kit to move onto El Ga’a, where it is a lot warmer because Port is cold all the time. On the bus to El Ga’a Port develops a fever and chills. When they arrive in El Ga’a they discover there is an epidemic of meningitis. A young Arab helps them find a truck to take them yet further into the desert to the city of Sba. There Kit finds the French “Chef De Poste” who gives them a room, diagnoses Port with typhoid, gives Kit medicine to administer to Port every two hours and leaves them on their own.

Here in the remote city of Sba, Port’s alienation escalates as he becomes lost in the delirium of his fever. When the inevitable happens, Kit escapes reality by losing herself in the wilderness of the desert and submerges herself into the alien culture she fears, until she too is lost.

Paul Bowles’ vivid descriptions of the desert, the heat, the light, the dust, the sounds, make it come alive to the reader with all its beauty and terror. Some critics have called the desert the main character in this novel of “psychological terror”. Bowles describes in beautiful prose what can happen when man inevitably succumbs to the all encompassing power of the unfathomable desert.

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