The Sheltering Sky

by Paul Bowles.
Ecco Press, 1998. 318 pages.

Paul Bowles, the expatriate American writer and composer, died in Morocco in 1999, after having lived there for more than fifty years. Bowles is so closely identified with Morocco that many readers believe that his best-known work, the novel The Sheltering Sky, takes place there. This impression is reinforced because place names are scarce in the book, and a number of those that do appear seem to have been invented. Still, an attentive reader will realize that the story begins and ends in the city of Oran, on the coast of Algeria (also the setting of Camus's The Plague) and that its characters travel as far as the vicinity of Tessalit, just over the border with Mali. A novel of the desert, its action ranges over much of the Sahara, of which Algeria occupies a generous portion. It is written in a spare, incisive, balanced prose that serves its subject perfectly.

Porter Moresby and his wife Katherine -- known as Port and Kit -- are psychic refugees from the massive violence and treachery of World War II. Though Port comes from New York City, before the war he had "felt most at home ... in Europe and the Near East." Now he wishes to avoid any part of the world that has been touched by the war. "Europe has destroyed the whole world," says Port in a fit of pique. "I hope the whole place gets wiped off the map." In some ways, Port and Kit -- and their friend, a handsome and not particularly bright young man named Tunner, who is obviously taken with Kit -- represent a later version of the "lost generation" characters of Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises. But while Hemingway's shell-shocked characters begin in Paris and seek purity and forgetfulness in the dry air and clear light of Spain, Paul Bowles' characters, reeling from the impact of yet another world war, begin in Oran and seek oblivion in one of the most desolate regions of the earth. Even the name "Port Moresby" speaks of remoteness: it is also the capital of New Guinea.

To say that these people are seeking something, though, is almost putting it too strongly. By avoiding the things they despise and cutting themselves off from their previous lives -- Port, we learn late in the novel, is a writer who no longer writes -- they are passively making themselves the playthings of fate. The first brief chapter sets the tone, as Port stretches out on a bed in a stifling hotel room. "Now he could only lie as he was, breathing slowly, almost ready to fall asleep again, paralyzed in the airless room, not waiting for twilight but staying as he was until it should come."

The stoic Port, his tense and neurotic wife Kit (the couple are based on the author and his wife, the writer Jane Bowles) travel ever deeper into the desert, in search of some place without the "taint" of Europe and seemingly pursued by a corrupt and insinuating American named Eric Lyle and his travel-journalist mother. But as they immerse themselves in landscapes and cultures that are increasingly alien to them, they risk losing their mental and spiritual moorings. "It takes energy to invest life with meaning," thinks Port, "and at present this energy was lacking." The sky itself begins to appear as a fragile curtain between humanity and the horror of the universe and its impersonal vastness.

Though the real subject of The Sheltering Sky is the souls of its rootless characters, Bowles describes the land and people of the Sahara with authority, even dipping into the thoughts of two French officials living in isolated desert outposts. The Algerian characters are described from the outside, yet they seem to have an inner life, and their behavior, though sometimes cruel and violent, seems motivated by consistent though dimly perceived cultural codes. Apart from one "Negro urchin" who is portrayed as a cunning clown, Bowles accords them a measure of respect, if only because they understand how to live in an environment that gradually destroys the foreigner.