Avoid the Orient

Colm Tóibín

  • Paul Bowles: A Life by Virginia Spencer Carr
    Peter Owen, 431 pp, £19.95, July 2005, ISBN 0 7206 1254 3

Long before the sin of Orientalism was discovered, Paul Bowles had frequently been guilty of it, in word, in thought and in deed. In his first stories, for example, the natives are shining examples of naked otherness, created partly to refresh our view concerning the mixture of simplicity, guile and sexual beauty available in remote places. The white heroes, on the other hand, are neurotic and complex. Against artless allure, they have technology and a gnarled consciousness. When left to their own devices, the natives are cruel and irrational, in need of guidance and tips and the wisdom of Western laws and the bright, clear line of Western narrative. Bowles’s trick as a narrator is to make each side as unreliable as the other. While one side merely look like animals, the others, travelling with money and attitude, act like animals whenever they can, or else feel sorry for themselves when opportunities to do so do not come in sufficient quantity.

‘Indians, poor things, animals with speech,’ Lucha says to her brother in ‘At Paso Rojo’, the first story in Bowles’s first book of stories, The Delicate Prey and Other Stories, published in 1950. They need, she insists, ‘a strong hand and no pity’. When Chaliá, her sister, attempts to seduce one of them she notices that ‘his face had become an impenetrable mask; he seemed not to be thinking of anything, not even to be present.’ Later, when she watches him bathing naked, ‘wholly conscious of her presence at that moment’, she decides to have him fired. ‘The idea of vengeance upon the boy filled her with a delicious excitement.’ In ‘Call at Corazon’, from the same volume, the waiter on the boat with ‘his broad, somewhat simian face . . . gave an impression of purely animal force.’ The husband of a deeply neurotic honeymoon couple asks his wife: ‘How are the mosquitoes? Did my monkey man come and fix you up?’ Soon, of course, he will find his wife with a member of the crew, possibly even the monkey man himself. Sex in the tropics comes cheap and strange.

So strange indeed that two stories, both written onboard ships, had to be omitted from the English edition of Bowles’s first book, which was entitled A Little Stone. The first of these, ‘The Delicate Prey’, set in Morocco, is Bowles at his most deeply Orientalist. Two native brothers and their nephew in a bare North African landscape are met by a stranger who, despite their hospitality, feels free to murder the two brothers and castrate the nephew. Having done so, ‘a new idea came to him. It would be pleasant to inflict an ultimate indignity upon the young Filali. He threw himself down; this time he was vociferous and leisurely in his enjoyment. Eventually he slept.’ Eventually the murderer is found and murdered in turn.

The narrator of the other story, ‘Pages from Cold Point’, is equally leisurely, almost languorous, in his account of life after his wife’s death when he and his son Racky leave by Pan American for an isolated holding on an island off Cuba, a pure paradise. (‘The servants are clean and quiet, and the work seems to be accomplished almost automatically. The good, black servants are another blessing of the islands.’) All is perfect by the pool. (‘There too I like to lie in the sun; when I climb out of the water I often remove my trunks and lie stark naked on the springboard. I regularly make fun of Racky because he is embarrassed to do the same. Occasionally he will do it, but never without being coaxed.’) Racky, however, is not attending school; instead, he is coming to the attention of the local police, who visit his father to complain: ‘He has no shame. He does what he pleases with all the young boys, and the men too, and gives them a shilling so they won’t tell about it.’

In publishing these stories Bowles joined Gore Vidal, Tennessee Williams and James Baldwin as one of the pioneers of gay fiction in America. Williams read ‘The Delicate Prey’ while accompanying Bowles to Tangier on the SS Vulcania in December 1948. ‘It was a stormy crossing, and I stayed in my cabin most of the time,’ Bowles said.

I also wrote a story during the crossing, which I called ‘The Delicate Prey’, and gave it to Tennessee to read on the ship. The tale itself was based on an actual happening, but Tennessee thought I had made the whole thing up. The next day he brought it back to me and said: ‘It is a wonderful story, but if you publish it, you’re mad.’

Williams later remarked: ‘I recognised it as a beautiful piece of prose but advised him against its publication in the States. You see, my shocking stories had been published in expensive private editions by New Directions and never exhibited on a bookstore counter.’ When he returned to New York, Williams told a friend: ‘It wasn’t the Arabs I was afraid of while I was in Tangier; it was Paul Bowles, whose chilling stories filled me with horror.’ ‘The Delicate Prey’ was published in Tangier a few weeks after it was written, in a magazine called Zero. ‘I thought no one would ever see it there,’ Bowles said, ‘except possibly a few hundred readers who regularly read the magazine. I was mistaken, of course.’

Bowles made North Africa seem thrilling and alarming, which must have pleased the readers of his stories as they appeared in Mademoiselle and Harper’s Bazaar. Readers of the Partisan Review also must have been chilled to the bone at ‘A Distant Episode’ – the story of the Professor, a linguist wandering in North Africa, who has his tongue cut out by a bunch of marauders – which appeared there in 1947:

The man looked at him dispassionately in the grey morning light. With one hand he pinched together the Professor’s nostrils. When the Professor opened his mouth to breathe, the man swiftly seized his tongue and pulled on it with all his might. The Professor was gagging and catching his breath; he did not see what was happening. He could not distinguish the pain of the brutal yanking from that of the sharp knife. Then there was an endless choking and spitting that went on automatically, as though he were scarcely a part of it. The word ‘operation’ kept going through his mind, it calmed his terror somewhat as he sank back into darkness.

The passage has all the hallmarks of Bowles. It is clearly written, coldly imagined, cruel and sensual at the same time. Only half of it is credible, but that half – the first four sentences – brilliantly so, especially the bit about the nostrils. The last three sentences are simply made up; instead of terrorising the reader, they offer relief from the real terror of imagining what it might be like to have your tongue cut out. Much of Bowles’s writing is, in his own phrase, ‘half sinister, half farcical’. His Orientalism came light and was often harmless.

‘I reject moral messages unless they’re my own,’ Bowles told an interviewer in 1971. Sometimes his own were very heavy-handed. When the Professor in ‘A Distant Episode’ tells his driver he is a linguist, the driver replies: ‘There are no languages here. Only dialects.’ The Professor responds: ‘Exactly. I’m making a survey of variations on Moghrebi.’ The 1971 interviewer made the point to Bowles that the story ‘shocks at the same time as it teaches’. Bowles replied: ‘Precisely. If there is anything to teach in “A Distant Episode”, it can only be taught through shock.’ The lesson of the story and indeed its shock were not, one hopes, lost on readers of the Partisan Review: professors looking for new dialects in strange countries can have their tongues cut out by the people whose dialects they wish to steal and take home.

Bowles’s best-known novel, The Sheltering Sky, was written after ‘A Distant Episode’. ‘I knew it was going to take place in the desert,’ Bowles told an interviewer, ‘and that it was going to be basically the story of the professor in “A Distant Episode” . . . I wanted to tell what the desert can do to us. That was all. The desert is the protagonist.’ Later, when an interviewer asked him if it was ‘in any way autobiographical’, Bowles replied:

No, not at all. None of it ever happened, to my knowledge. But I’d been to all the places I described and other locations I visited while I was actually writing the book in 1948. Wrote most of the story while travelling around the Sahara, so it was a combination of memory writing and minute descriptions of whatever place I was in at the moment.

Later again, he told another interviewer:

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