Friday, January 4, 2013

Underneath the sheltering sky

My first read for the year turned out to be a very interesting but entertaining read. It's the hypnotic novel, The Sheltering Sky, by Paul Bowles. First published in 1949, the novel has always remained in print.

A lot has been said about this novel, with some people calling it heavy on the theme of existential alienation. Others would label it as a "quiet adventure" of sorts. I found it hard to describe the novel really, much less encapsulate the feelings it evokes in a few words.

More than anything, it is Bowles's talent in describing place that shines. One can really imagine being around the areas of the Sahara desert in the narrative.
On the terrace of the Cafe d’Eckmuhl-Noiseux a few Arabs sat drinking mineral water; only their fezzes of varying shades of red distinguished them from the rest of the population of the port. Their European clothes were worn and gray; it would have been hard to tell what the cut of any garment had been originally. The nearly naked shoeshine boys squatted on their boxes looking down at the pavement, without the energy to wave away the flies that crawled over their faces. Inside the cafe the air was cooler but without movement, and it smelled of stale wine and urine. [page 11]
The Sheltering Sky is about 3 American travelers (a couple named Port and Kit and their companion, Tunner). Mind you, these are travelers not tourists, for they make it a point to explore everything they could around the Sahara.

But the Sahara proves to be a harsh environment for our 3 characters. As much as they want to be comfortable in this exotic world, the difference in cultures becomes too much for them. They complain about the place's history. They ramble on and on about inefficiencies. The Sahara, in the end, can only come off as a cruel, uninviting territory.

It's been said that Bowles modeled the character of Port on himself, and Kit on his wife. This isn't too hard to believe as the travels of these 2 are described in detail. It's difficult to note all those nuances if one hasn't gone to that place.

Port, however, dies in the middle of the novel, and The Sheltering Sky at that point now centers on its wife. Again, the Sahara wraps its cruel arms around Kit, who ends up having a harrowing experience as the 4th wife of an Arab. Kit's moments of despair at the end of the novel are probably the most hallucinating point of the novel. She may have escaped the desert, but it has permanently scarred her.

I've always wanted to see the Sahara with its beautiful shifting dunes and its extreme climate. When I think about it, The Sheltering Sky isn't just a beautiful novel; it's also a very useful guide to this alien landscape.

Read this book if:
  1. You've always been fascinated by the Sahara.
  2. You like books that are travelogues as well.
  3. You'll read anything included in Time's 100 best novels.


Anonymous said...

The latter half of this book is crazy. I love the first parts but my interest waned when Port died. I felt that the Kit simply doesn't know what to do with her life (and now I'm reminded of those orgasmic scenes at the Sahara).

Peter S. said...

Yes, exactly! I guess what Kit really wanted was to get away from her husband. When she did that, that's when she just wandered around!

Kaz said...

Most intrigued - don't know this book. Clearly, this is a situation that must be fixed!

bennardfajardo said...

You had me at existential alienation.:)

Peter S. said...

Kaz! This was even turned into a movie starring John Malkovich and Debra Winger!

Hi, Bennard. I think you'll enjoy this book!