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The 
Sheltering Sky

 
 

P A U L  B O W L E S

   

 

  

There are writers who have staked out a particular territory and so convincingly put their stamp on it that the place is forever associated with them; images they have evoked in novels jostling with our own impressions, coloring them.  One cannot think of Morocco without thinking of the stories and novels of American writer Paul Bowles who left New York as a young man and eventually made Tangier his home.  The Sahara, blues and ochres, blue of sky, of water whose absence is felt more strongly than a presence, changing shades and beautiful shapes of dunes . . . dangerous, ensorcelling.  Bowles's Morocco, a world of hennaed women, Arab men swathed in white robes, and exotic Berber tribes on camelback, and always, a frisson of danger lurking beneath the surface.  An exoticism that lured, but could also betray.  This year marks the 60th anniversary of the publication of Bowles's first and most eloquent novel, The Sheltering Sky, and a perfect opportunity to pick up and re-read this modern classic or perhaps discover it for the first time.

 

The Sheltering Sky follows three American travelers who venture into an unknown Moroccan adventure and form a volatile triangle with love, hatred, anger, and a good deal of self-questioning thrown into the mix.  Alienation in this strange world of shifting sands and allegiances, of sweet tea and bitter friendships that casts a spell on them as they negotiate the vicissitudes of their new life -- a world of extremes, of antiquated traditions.  Bowles's straightforward and elegant prose ripples with an undercurrent of danger and cruelty that both enchants and repulses.  Atmospheric, nature in all its beauty and violence, the sheltering sky protects "the person beneath from the horror that lies above."

 

If there is music in his writing, then that is not surprising.  Bowles, was a musician as well -- he initially went to Europe to study music with Aaron Copland in the 1920s.  Later, he traveled across Morocco recording traditional Moroccan Music, including Arabic, Berber, Jewish, Islamic, and secular compositions.

 

The Sheltering Sky was made into an epic, picturesque film by Bernardo Bertolucci in 1990 (with Debra Winger and John Malkovich, and haunting score by Ryuichi Sakamoto).

 

In his 1949 New York Times review, Tennessee Williams said : "The surface is enthralling as narrative…. But above that surface is the aura that I spoke of, intangible and powerful, bringing to mind one of those clouds that you have seen in summer, close to the horizon and dark in color and now and then silently pulsing with interior flashes of fire.…the end of this novel is as wildly beautiful and terrifying as the whole panorama that its protagonists have crossed."  

 

Read: The Sheltering Sky, Paul Bowles  

 

See: The Sheltering Sky, directed by Bernardo Bertolucci, with Debra Wnger, John Malkovich

 


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