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Fiction

The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles

“Whereas the tourist generally hurries back home at the end of a few weeks or months, the traveller, belonging no more to one place than to the next, moves slowly, over periods of years, from one part of the earth to another.” – page 5

After ten years of marriage, Kit and Port Moresby have drifted apart and are sexually estranged. Avoiding the chaos of Europe in the aftermath of the Second World War, they travel to the remote North African desert. Port hopes the journey will reunite them, but although they share similar emotions, they are divided by their conflicting outlooks on life. Kit fears the desert while Port is drawn to its beauty and remoteness. Port and Kit were not alone, a friend Tunner was travelling with them, whose presence only adds to the tangle and opaque relationship between Port and Kit. Along the way, they met obnoxious mother and son Mrs and Eric Lyle, the locals and the authorities, like Belqassim.

This is one book that surprises me every way, partly due to the fact that I went into the book expecting it to be action and adventure packed, perhaps murder mystery in it; another part is the final 100 pages that took a drastic turn in event and plunged Kit into an abyss dearth of human civilisation that I didn’t expect.

The pages certainly atmospheric and tension was built throughout. The problem is that I know Morocco intimately and to have the book’s characters (or Bowles) spat on every food and people that they came across, left a bad taste in my mouth.

I am not sure if this treatment of the local subject is meant to create a sinister tone to what’s coming, but it made it appear as if the desert and its people are hostile and unforgiving, and if you don’t speak the language or watch your back you may get whipped and incarcerated! In fact the desert people or the Bedouin follows a very generous code of honour, no one refuses food or water from a desert traveller and it is in their duty to be hospitable.

This is the time when I ask myself how objective can I be when I’m reading a book. Can I enjoy a book when it is beyond my frame of reference (cultural and otherwise)? Can I step back and ignore my frame of reference and appreciate the book as it is?

I think I can. In between the many unlovable characters in the book, I found beautiful passages and wisdom that I could meditate upon life:.

“Because we don’t know when we will die, we get to think of life as an inexhaustible well. And yet everything happens only a certain number of times, and a very small number really. How many more times will you remember a certain afternoon of your childhood, an afternoon that is so deeply a part of your being that you can’t even conceive of your life without it? Perhaps four, or five times more? Perhaps not even that. How many more times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps twenty. And yet it all seems limitless…”

The Sheltering Sky – Someone once had said to her that the sky hides the horror that lies above. Unblinking, she fixed the solid emptiness, and the anguish began to move in her. At any moment the rip can occur, the edges fly back, and the giant maw will be revealed. – Page 336

Watch the movie trailer here:

and the haunting theme song composed by Oscar winning composer Ryuichi Sakamoto:

The Sheltering Sky was adapted by Bernardo Bertolucci into a 1990 film by the same name starring Debra Winger and John Malkovich, with screenplay by Mark Peploe. In Bertolucci’s interpretation, the bleak, sinister tone of the latter part of the book becomes a desert love story. The movie is filmed in Morocco, Algeria, and Niger and features powerful visual scenery.

I will try to watch it next and prepare for this October trip to the Sahara desert to Merzouga, Morocco. Fingers crossed I don’t go too far south to be stranded in the abyss and far from human civilisation!

The Book Drum entry on Sheltering sky also provides wonderful sense of place and location of the book.

Quote on the opening of Book One : Tea in the Sahara

Each man’s destiny is personal only insofar as it may happen to resemble what is already in his memory. – Eduardo Mallea

Rating: 

What I like most about the book: Atmospheric, suspenseful. About survival, death, solitude, survival. Soul searching and final moment of Port’s ‘departure’ from Kit all make for a memorable read.

What I like least about the book:  Most of the characters in it.The book interspersed with French and Moroccan sentences, may require google translator for French (but tell me where you can translate Moroccan, even if I understand some of them!). A strange cocktail of a book with adventure, relationship, humour, horror and eroticism.

I am still not sure what I feel about the book, but it is not one that I would forget.

Other reviews:

Tracey @ A Book Sanctuary: “A vast journey in a beautiful setting along with the spiritual transformation of the characters. A winning combination. I could have loved the book if the characters had been more likeable.”

Hungry like the wolf: “However, I am not entirely satisfied with the novel. I am finding it hard to describe my dissatisfactions without reference to spoilers. My own opinion is that Bowles loses some control over character. His usually excellent insights are lost in service to his plot, I think.”

Did I miss yours? Let me know and I’ll include them here.

Have you read any of Paul Bowles’ novels? Besides The Sheltering Sky which one have you read? Which is your favourite?

Paperback. Publisher: Originally published 1949, this Penguin Red Classic edition 2006 ;  Length: 342 pages;  Setting: 1970′s Tripoli, Libya. Source: Reading Library copy. Finished reading on: 27th  April 2011.

About the writer:

Paul Frederic Bowles (December 30, 1910 – November 18, 1999) was an American expatriate composer, author, and translator. Following a cultured middle-class upbringing in New York City, during which he displayed a talent for music and writing, Bowles pursued his education at the University of Virginia before making various trips to Paris in the 1930s. He studied music with Aaron Copland, and in New York wrote music for various theatrical productions, as well as other compositions. He achieved critical and popular success with the publication in 1949 of his first novel The Sheltering Sky, set in what was known as French North Africa, which he had visited in 1931.

The Sheltering Sky was followed by The Delicate PreyLet It Come DownThe Spider’s House and Without Stopping, a memoir that describes his legendary associations with members of the Beat Generation. Bowles’s prolific career included many musical compositions, collections of short fiction, and books of travel and poetry and translations. Paul Bowles died of a heart attack in a Tangier hospital on November 18, 1999.

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About JoV

A bookaholic that went out of control.... I eat, sleep and breathe books. Well, lately I do other stuff.

Discussion

9 thoughts on “The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles

  1. Thanks for the link. I recall the book very fondly, but still have some problems with the last section. Obviously, the movie-makers thought it needed a tweak too (though I wouldn’t necessarily have gone in that direction…). Even with the problems, I think your rating is very fair.

    Also, thanks for the links to the movie trailer (which I knew existed, but never knew much about) and Bertolucci’s musical interpretation (which I did not know existed). Good stuff.

    Posted by Kerry | May 2, 2011, 11:57 pm
    • Kerry, thanks for the kind words. I thought your review was very analytical and insightful. Because of The Sheltering Sky theme song, I found out that Ryuichi Sakamoto wrote soundtrack musics for The Last Emperor, Little Buddha, Wuthering Heights (1993 version with Ralph Fiennes in it) and recently the movie Babel. The man is genius. He writes song which moves me.

      Posted by JoV | May 3, 2011, 7:29 pm
  2. Jo – I loved your review which captured my thoughts on it as well as pointing out things I hadn’t picked up on – the difference in Kit and Port’s feelings about the desert for example. How interesting that you know this area well and have plans to travel there again soon – wonderful. It is a book that I will always remember I think despite the frustrations.

    Posted by Tracey | May 3, 2011, 7:59 pm
    • Tracey, thanks for the kind words. When I read a travelogue or a novel set in an exotic setting, I’m adverse to hear about travellers spat on local culture or complain about what they have experienced abroad (even if it is fictional). I felt if one was inclined to be cynical, they might as well stay home and not travel.

      That aside, I thought The Sheltering Sky is an unusual book. Whatever the short fall it is a book that is memorable.

      Thanks again for dropping by Tracey.

      Posted by JoV | May 3, 2011, 8:55 pm
  3. I think this is probably one best books written by a english writer set in africa ,Bowles was so close to the scenery and lives described in this book ,oh and he was a f=good translator as well ,all the best stu

    Posted by winstonsdad | May 6, 2011, 6:04 pm
    • Stu, He is a good translator. He has translated a lot of books from Moroccan Writers, funny I could only find For Bread Along by Mohammed Choukri in the library. Do you see any of it in your library?

      Posted by JoV | May 6, 2011, 9:56 pm
  4. Interesting review, Jo 🙂 One of my friends recommended Paul Bowles’ books, but I haven’t read any of his works yet. This looks like an interesting book and it seems to reflect the point of view of expats of a particular era. By a strange coincidence, I have seen the movie version starring John Malkovich and Debra Winger. It was interesting but I didn’t know that it was based on Bowles’ book. Also, I think that the beautiful passages that you have given above won’t have the same effect in the movie – they are better when they are read. I would love to hear your thoughts on the movie whenever you get to see it 🙂

    Thanks for this wonderful review!

    Posted by Vishy | May 11, 2011, 10:05 am
    • Vishy, that’s the thing with movie adaptation, a lot of beautiful passages are not mentioned but “acted out” I think sometimes a scene with a voice over reading out a beautiful passage from the book would work. I’m two minds about the book, will check out the movie sometime. Thanks for catching up on all my posts! 🙂

      Posted by JoV | May 11, 2011, 9:11 pm

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Ratings Defined

0 = Abandon the book after first chapter

1 = Waste of paper, we will see what the environmentalist say about this!

2 = Skip it, read the book if you have got nothing better to do

2.5 = An average book, easily forgettable.

3 = A good read.

3.5 = A good entertaining read, a page-turner

4 = So glad that I read the book, a book with substance and invaluable for future reference

4.5 = So glad that I read the book, would pester everyone to read it, invaluable, I would want to own it and wouldn't mind a second read (something that I seldom do)

5 = The book is so good that I feel like I am on scale 4 and 4.5, and more, it blew me away and lingers on my head for weeks!

Books Read

JoV's bookshelf: read
Hold Tight
The Fault in Our Stars
The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon
The Thief
Mockingjay
Catching Fire
A Tale for the Time Being
Into the Darkest Corner
The Liars' Gospel
Goat Mountain
Strange Weather In Tokyo
Strange Shores
And the Mountains Echoed
Ten White Geese
One Step Too Far
The Innocents
The General: The ordinary man who became one of the bravest prisoners in Guantanamo
White Dog Fell from the Sky
A Virtual Love
The Fall of the Stone City


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Reading, after a certain age, diverts the mind too much from its creative pursuits. Any man who reads too much and uses his own brain too little falls into lazy habits of thinking. - Albert Einstein (1879 - 1955)

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