Were you ever into the beatniks? I remember being an eleven year old poetry geek and loving Ginsberg. Some of the artists and writers, loosely known as the beatniks were brilliant, and some of them seemed to be misogynist loafers trying to escape from life. (Have you read On the Road as an adult? Ugh!)
Why this rambling critique? There is this group of travel writers, whom I'm going to call the "Desert Writers". I hope to share a mini series of reviews on their work. Whatever attracted me to the beatniks, the desert writers far surpassed them in terms of style and depth. They were pre-beatnik wanderers, tracing the edge of their known world and boldly running into the encounter with "the other", thus, confronting themselves.
there is something about the desert that has drawn me in for some time. It forces you to see yourself. I thought I was comfortable being alone, until I spent some time in the desert. In the city, there is a constant soundtrack to distract you: honking horns, laughter, music from passing cars, footsteps. There is something new to look at every second. In the desert, there is hardly a sound to distract the mind, nothing to look at but dunes and a few bugs weaving through the sand.
In the summer of 2008, I spent a few days in Wadi Rum and then Siwa. The first few hours, I almost went nuts. My thoughts were spinning on their axis in the vacuum created by the vast landscape and noiselessness. Then I began to observe the constantly changing light, the shadows, the curve of the dunes and the changing palette on the rocks. My mind began to unwind and mimic the stillness. Like any truly raw landscape, the desert is profound.
But on to the book...
The Sheltering Sky is a book about three Americans traveling in North Africa, post World War I - a young married couple and a young man, a social acquaintance from New York. They form an odd little group, Kitt and Port, with their decaying relationship and Tunner as the third wheel, who is constantly trying to keep up with Kitt and Port, intellectually. The book was recommended to me by a friend's husband just before my own trips to the desert. I was a young college-grad, working my first nine to five, with little life experience, certainly no marriage or children at the time. While I enjoyed the exotic scenery in the novel and the beautiful prose, when I put the book down, I was perplexed as to why this book left such an impression on my friend's husband. The psychology of the characters had been hard to follow and the ending was bizarre. There is a dramatic subject and tone shift toward the last third of the book, that is mysterious and disorienting. Certainly, Bowles breathtaking observations flew over my head.
From the second chapter:
At the table in the darkest corner sat three Americans: two young men and a girl. They conversed quietly, and in the manner of people who have all the time in the world for everything. One of the men, the thin one with a slightly wry, distraught face, was folding up some large multicolored maps he had spread on the table a moment ago. His wife watched the meticulous movements he made with amusement and exasperation; maps bored her and he was always consulting them. Even during the short periods when their lives were stationary, which had been few enough since their marriage twelve years ago, he had only to see a map to begin studying it passionately...
They stared out into the street's dusty afternoon glare.
"The war has certainly lefts its mark here." Small, with blonde hair and olive complexion, she was saved from prettiness by the intensity of her gaze. Once one had seen her eyes, the rest of the face grew vague, and when one tried to recall her image afterwards, only the piercing, questioning violence of the wide eyes remained.
"Well, naturally. There were troops passing through for a year or more."
"It seems as though there might be some place in the world they could have left alone," said the girl. This was to please her husband, because she regretted having felt annoyed with him about the maps a moment ago. Recognizing the gesture but not understanding why she was making it, he paid no attention to it.
How is that for a searing glance at dysfunctional relationships? The critiques do not end there. Bowles also doesn't shy away from the topics of colonialism or racism. Yet, the tone of the book is not self-righteous. Even as the main characters note that they are disgusted by cultural imperialism, in every interaction with the locals they are condescending and never enter in true relationships with the native peoples in the countries through which they wander. It it not an adventure book, per se, and I believe that might be why I was disappointed on the first read. However, as a study of human nature, The Sheltering Sky is a sublime read. Read it. Reflect. I'd love to hear what you think.