Hemingway in Spain. García-Márquez in Colombia. Kundera or Kafka in Prague.
Some writers and books seem to have their own geography. Reading them at any time is a treat, but doing so while traveling can help one to truly capture the history and essence of a place.
Paul Bowles’ The Sheltering Sky (1949) belongs in this category. This book is an excellent choice for anyone traveling to North Africa.
Bowles lived much of his life in Tangiers, Morocco, and he was well acquainted with this region’s movement from French protectorate to independence during the middle of the 20th century. As a result, he imbues his novel with the colors, sounds, attitudes, temptations, dangers, and uneasy history that make North Africa such a unique place.
The two main protagonists of Bowles´novel are the young, affluent American expatriates Kit and Port Moresby, a sexually estranged couple from New York who are traveling with their friend Tunner. Port seems to believe that the farther he travels into the Sahara the more likely it is that he will find personal meaning. Kit’s reason for going is more unclear; presumably she believes that by making the trip, the nature of her relationship with her husband will take on a larger form — good or bad — and thus provide her with some direction or at least a greater sense of being.
Indeed, neither of them proceeds with any stated objective or moral imperative. They travel haphazardly into remote villages replete with pestilent insects, famine, scorching heat and cold night-winds, almost as if they were drifting in tandem with the ubiquitous Saharan sands. Nor is the reader given much information about the characters’ past. We are allowed to see their angst as a reflection of a more generalized aspect of the human condition.
The result is a novel that lingers in one’s mind well after it is finished, in much the same was as Saul Bellow’s Henderson the Rain King. Like Henderson, this story is about a search for identity in the gripping and unfamiliar clutches of Africa. It explores the dark, narrow corridors where our inner struggle between a desire for attachment and isolation is most intense. At the same time, his novel reveals the complex relationship between what we call primitive and civilized, and what can happen when these two worlds collide. Taken altogether, Bowles’ novel is a kind of existentialist meditation on modern society and the thin veil — the “sheltering sky” — that keeps us at bay from a deeper realm.
If you like serious books, strong narrative, and a story that burrows deep into the human spirit – all taking place in the Sahara – this is a great read.