Thursday, October 18, 2012

The Sheltering Sky - Paul Bowles

Paul Bowles (1910-1999)

It is sometime recently after the ending of World War II and Port and Kit Moresby in an attempt to put their lives back together, in the aftermath of a now atomic world order, decide to travel through Africa. Their marriage is in chaos, like everything else around them, and they believe spending time in the solitude of the Sahara will ground them in a reality that can one day begin to make sense. Yet as if afraid to truly confront their intrinsic existence, their failing marriage and the ever widening chasm of utter meaninglessness, they bring along a friend, Tunner, who neither seem particularly inclined to interact with and rather spend most of their time trying to avoid. Yet Tunner serves his purpose as being the foil that keeps them from stepping out into the clarity of their meaningless lives.

The book is comprised of three parts and within the first part the reader is given a taste of the despair that comes with existential nihilism, while retaining a modicum of hope. This is a love story between two people suffering to be seen, or heard or prove they exist. They are constantly within reach of each other's grasp, only to find the canyon wider than they expected. Their conversations are peppered with false starts, while each tries to bridge the gap of their intimacy and yet both stop on the edge of the precipice, realizing the canyon is insurmountable. Yet with each passing day, as they share the agony of the heat and the constant discomfort of Saharan living it seems like the canyon, although still infinitely depthless could be leapt, if one of them would take the initiative.

Yet both seem caught in the hopeless of life, the never ending monotony of it all, unpressed for time, they wait exchanging little more than pleasantries.

"Before I was twenty, I mean, I used to think that life was a thing that kept gaining impetus. It would get richer and deeper each year. You kept learning more, getting wiser, having more insight, going further into the truth-" She hesitated.

"Port laughed abruptly. 'And now you know it's not like that. Right? It's more like smoking a cigarette. The first few puffs it tastes wonderful, and you don't even think of it ever being used up. Then you begin taking it for granted. Suddenly you realize it's nearly burned down to the end. And then's when you're conscious of the bitter taste."

In part two Port and Kit have successfully evaded Tunner and exchanged one scorching desert town for another. Port's passport has disappeared and with it a sense of his identity, as he is preoccupied with the unsettling feeling that without a piece of paper proving his existence he is a walking shadow he  continues to weave an intricate web of resolution between himself and Kit. One day he realizes Tunner has found them and is on his way to their little town, Port's plan of an unhurried resolution with Kit seem to be foiled until he realizes there is a bus out of town at the end of the day. He convinces the bus driver Kit is ill and must leave the city and spend time convalescing in the country to improve her health, and after expensive bribery, the bus driver is convinced to find two seats among the already filled bus for them. Port tells Kit she must feign illness, which she does begrudgingly, annoyed at having to participate is such a ruse only hours later to realize Port is suffering from the onset of Typhoid.

The last part of the book they are forced to come to terms with the finality of life and the cruelty and heartache of their existence.  Kit, unable to confront reality, becomes lost deeper and deeper in the expanse of the Sahara which becomes an antidote to the ever poisoning of her soul, which she acknowledges is the weariest part of the body. Soul-sick and broken, she refuses to return to society and chooses to rather hide inside herself, joining an Arab caravan, despondent to her fate.

"Before her eyes was the violent blue sky- nothing else. For an endless moment she looked into it. Like a great overpowering sound it destroyed everything in her mind, paralyzed her. Someone once said to her that the sky hides the night behind it, shelters the person beneath from the horror that lies above."

While this book was perhaps one of the saddest and at times physiologically horrifying books I have read, it was also the best book I have read in a long time. The reader is instantly gripped in the tragedy of their lives, the fruitlessness of it, the meaninglessness of it and is kept almost in a constant state of panic that time is running out, and the unease of not entirely understanding what it all means.

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