“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
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.
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 Prey, Let It Come Down, The 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.