Sunday, July 10, 2005

The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles

Paul Bowles spent more of his life as a composer than as a writer. The Sheltering Sky, published in 1949, is his first and best known novel, based on his own travels in North Africa and his version of existentialism.

Port Moresby and his wife Kit leave New York City after World War II to travel through North Africa and the Sahara. They are young and their marriage is in trouble, but they are in Africa for different reasons. Actually Port doesn't quite know why he is there, but Kit is following him for the sake of love.

I did not like the book for the entire first half because they are both such weak and confused people, besides which there seemed to be no point except pointlessness. That is not my understanding of existentialism and Port has no reason, or at least there is none given, for his despair.

I did like the author's explanation of the difference between a tourist and a traveler, given in Port's voice on page 14: "Whereas the tourist generally hurries back home at the end of a few weeks or months, a 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."

In the second half, called Book Two, it becomes Kit's story and then it gets better, even exciting. The underlying sense of dread, present from the first page, becomes life experience. Kit is a more developed character, though still a bit flat.

The ending is ambiguous. Tragic perhaps but possibly a breakthrough for Kit. The issue here is the clash and difficulties of coexistence between Westerners and non-Western people, clearly still a world issue in 2005.

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