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Paul Bowles: The Sheltering Sky

This novel, Bowles’ first, is the story of three young Americans, a married couple and a male friend. They have journeyed over to North Africa sometime after the War, their first trip across the Atlantic since 1939. The early part of the book is a portrait of the American in North Africa, a person Bowles despised. They are, of course,”doing” Africa but nevertheless seem to despise the people and customs. But while in the town, they can remain American and”civilised”. When they start to move down towards the Sahara, accompanied by an Englishman and his mother, the veneer of civilisation starts to drop.

Book Two of the novel starts with a quote from Valéry “Good-bye,” says the dying man to the mirror they hold in front of him.”We won’t be seeing each other any more.” and this is what happens to the Americans and civilisation. They get separated. One of them gets typhoid and dies in a horrifying vision of blood and excrement. The woman goes insane and the other man hunts around for her and then finally takes her back to civilisation. But Bowles makes his point loud and clear – the two civilisations are incompatible and the Americans can never understand the Arab civilisation. The book was hailed as an existentialist work – and the alienation of the Americans supports this claim – while condemned both for its seeming lack of purpose and the bleak picture it paints. Both are, of course, true but the second claim should be seen as a strength and not a weakness. The book was made into an interesting film by Bertolucci.

Publishing history

First published 1949 by New Directions, New York and John Lehmann, London