Stories of Paul Bowles
by Paul Bowles
A Real Ministering Angel
A review by C. P. Farley
Paul Bowles was the most famous expatriate in the world. From the late forties until his death in 1999, the elusive author of The Sheltering Sky received countless visitors to his ramshackle Tangiers flat. Aside from nosey tourists, he also welcomed many fellow artists: Truman Capote, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and so on.
Bowles had a favorite prank he like to play on unsuspecting guests. He would slip them some majoun, a Sufi fruit and nut paste powered by cannabis. He would then sit back and wait to see how his specimen would react. According to William Burroughs, if his victim was having a bad trip, "Paul would say things like, 'Oh, my God, you know sometimes people get in these states and they never come out. Really, I'm sorry I gave you that majoun. I can see you're having a terrible reaction to it.'" Burroughs didn't think it was very funny: "Oh, he was a real ministering angel when you were having the horrors."
Bowles's dubious manners will only surprise those who haven't read his fiction. As all writers, he was deeply curious about human nature. But he was also famously unsentimental. In his fiction he liked to drop his (generally naive) characters into some foreign, and often dangerous, situation and then watch dispassionately to see what would happen. The results varied.
For example, "The Time of Friendship" features Fraulein Windling, a Swiss teacher who lives part of every year in the Moroccan countryside. She feels an affinity with a young boy and they develop a friendship. In the end she realizes that she will "never understand him" and is forced to admit the "dangerous vanity at the core of that fantasy." This dangerous vanity is at the heart of all of Bowles's stories. In "Pastor Dowe at Tacate" an arrogant missionary in the South American jungle becomes frustrated with the Indians he seeks to convert. They seem unwilling to fully embrace Christ and stubbornly cling to their pagan beliefs. Pastor Dowe only truly understands his folly when the tribe gives him a young girl for a wife. Realizing that he will never reach them he flees, as if for his life. Not all of Bowles's characters manage to avert disaster so easily.
Bowles said that he was most influenced as a writer by Poe, and it showed. More often than not his tastes veered toward the macabre. "A Distant Episode" remains one of the most powerful works of psychological terror written in the twentieth century. A hapless linguistics professor researching dialects in North African is kidnapped by a group of nomads. They cut off his tongue, dress him up in a ridiculous outfit made of old tin cans, and turn him into a sort of ghastly tribal jester. He purpose is to amuse his captors by grunting and leaping about on command. In order to keep from going insane, the professor sinks into a deep unconsciousness; he becomes a mechanical shadow of a human being. Eventually, though, circumstances jar him back to self-awareness and the professor becomes conscious of the full horror of what has happened to him. The story's final passage describing the professor, now completely mad, fleeing into the desert "bellowing and shaking his arms in the air to make as loud a jangling as possible" is a perfectly executed moment of existential rage. Poe would certainly have approved.
Written in 1947, "A Distant Episode" was one of Bowles's first forays into fiction. When he showed it to some other writers, they suggested caution. Though Tennessee Williams considered "A Distant Episode" a "masterpiece of short fiction," he nonetheless warned his friend, "if you publish it, you’re mad. Everyone is going to think you are some sort of horrible monster." He needn't have worried. Though Bowles did hold the story back briefly, it was eventually published to critical acclaim. Encouraged, Bowles began to write fiction in earnest.
We're lucky he did. In prose precise as a scalpel, elegant as a lynx, Paul Bowles explored, perhaps better than any other writer of the twentieth century, issues that are increasingly important in our shrinking world: greed, the (im)possibility of communicating across cultures, and the disastrous effects of Western naiveté. The Stories of Paul Bowles collects all of his short fiction in one place for the first time.
For readers already familiar with Bowles's work, this wonderful collection will be a welcome addition to their library. For those new to Bowles's gothic realism, though, the effect can be jarring. When writer Jane Auer first met Bowles at a party in Harlem, she thought he was "mysterious and sinister. The first time I saw him I said, he's my enemy." Later, she fell in love with him and became Jane Bowles. I suspect over the years many readers of Paul Bowles fiction have reacted the same way. After the initial shock, they couldn't live without him.