The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles
I doubt there is. I doubt even more that I could have been better prepared for Paul Bowles’ excursion into the wilds of
A travelogue of sorts, The Sheltering Sky follows an American couple (Kit and Port) as they travel around
Paul Bowles in many ways straddles the line between the Lost Generation and the Beat Generation. Ousting himself from the
Yet, at least as far as The Sheltering Sky is concerned, a more accurate point of reference is that of Albert Camus. The meditations on the nature of the human and the sufferings of existence that fill The Outsider, typical of a Camus preoccupied with the individual ripped from the claws of religion and set down in front of a potential freedom, paint stark pictures of persons lost and exiled as they endeavour to function in the world.
Kit and Port are wayfarers in a sea of alienation, cut apart from each other, unable to bond with others except by the most tenuous of threads. The barren terrain of the desert perfectly allegorises the existential condition: the subject stripped of all social clothing forced to endure the elements of the world. Characters, failing to connect with the other, retreat into their own solitude – a solitude both geographical and mental. The fixity of Kit and Port’s marriage becomes as eroded as the sand upon which they tread. Locals are momentary decorations on their aimless journey, mere objects to colour the scene. The land is an abyss of dejection and physical torment, the bearer of disease and wanton disfigurement. Port’s illness, which emerges some halfway through the novel, spawns as if from nowhere, its sudden darkness swallowing him whole – the illness of isolation transfigured into a ravaging of the body. Kit’s descent into a cauldron of instability and tears also traces a progression from mental pain to physical pain. Kit and Port assume ‘an existence of exile from the world.’
What is worse: to be locked off from the mind of the other, or to be treated insignificantly by the world you never chose to be a part of? Both emerge as a double whammy of estrangement for our two protagonists. The gulf between the thought and the said is repeatedly used to show the discord between the interior self and the surface, and generates even more distance between one character and another. Dialogue scenes are marked by these snippets of interior reflection where Kit, say, will think what she wants to say to Port, but will then say something else, a banal mask for what she really thinks. The subject is concealed from the other, like Swayze enshrouded in his nomadic ways in Steel Dawn.
The web of social relations and the furtive eyes of the other may be off-limits, but the physical world of spaces and smells remains similarly a fount of despair. The desert assumes the form of another character, given body by long, winding descriptions flowing ruthlessly in and out of chapters. The desert is the site for loss; it takes and does not give, spiralling its prey further and further into its heart of darkness.
Bowles’ novel – as if the foregoing synopsis isn’t clear enough – is a bleak picture of people lost in the world. It can be quite harrowing at times, plummeting characters to terrifying depths, especially as the narrative reaches a climax. These later events work to such brilliant effect because by that time one has already become enraptured by the antics of the pair, of the curios of their minds, of their robust adventuring.
To go alongside the diegetic estrangement – the clawing remoteness separating Kit and Port – there is an odd reader estrangement prompted by the amount of foreign tongues not translated into English: the fragments of French, Arabic and countless other local dialects spoken throughout the book. This and the subtle use of ambiguity make an alien world for the reader also.
There are some moments of humour over the course of the novel, such as when Kit and Port attempt to ditch Tunner, but on the whole The Sheltering Sky is a dark tale. Here, the snapshot is sepia-tinged with edges frayed by loss. Bowles’ best known work is a wonderful creation in the vein of existential fiction; a joy to read and think about.