The Stories of
Robert Stone, Editor
(Harper Collins)Anyone who has read The Sheltering Sky knows the strange magic of Paul Bowles. It's deceptively simple: somewhat unpleasant characters, usually Americans without much in their brains, head out for adventure in North Africa, meet up with some dope-smoking Arabs, and have a startling adventure that ends up destroying them. The message seems to be that innocents who fiddle around in the Muslim world will be surprised, and that surprise will not be pleasant.
We have here some sixty stories by Bowles, the earliest from 1946, the last from 1993. They are arranged (as all such collections should be) by date. I picked it up to give it a hasty scan --- and ended up mesmerized, plowing straight through parts of it, story by story. Few were disappointing; many were harrowing; most were worth it.
Bowles' major theme has to do with the interaction between Arabs and those they call "Nazarenes," outsiders who turn up in Tangiers mildly interested in its reputation; more often there because it is a cheap seaside city, with cheap, expendable labor, and a mild attitude towards westerners' strange ideas of sin.
The gardener in "Madame and Ahmed," for instance, knows her weaknesses: she doesn't trust him, she will let him go when she finds his work at fault, and most of all, she doesn't speak Arabic. The revolutionary aspect is that Bowles appears to have entered the heads of Arabs to such a degree that we would opine that those who are puzzled by recent events in the west might find it useful to study the philosophy of a whole people as revealed in this fiction.
For the Muslims, the "Nazarenes" are as bizarre. We view of women as equals, we have an affection for alcohol over the much more sensible kif, we're obsessed with cleanliness, we frown on bribes, we're always in a hurry, with a tarnished view of their culture (one as ancient as our own), and finally, there is the matter of our arrogant innocence. All these make us as exotic to them as they are to us.
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The surprise in this collection are the animal stories. The 1980 tale of "Kitty" presents us with a girl who is not so sure how and why she got that name, but, in four pages, she turns, quite convincingly, into a cat. She then appears at the door of her family's home, where "She had no lessons to worry about, she never had to go to the dentist's, and she no longer had to wonder whether her mother was telling her the truth or not, because she knew the truth."
In "Allal," we watch a poor boy steal a snake from a professional snake-charmer; with the help of some kif (kif figures in many of the stories) he decides to enter the snake's body. As he looks back on own naked form,
He understood why the serpent had been so wary of him: from here the boy was a monstrous creature, with all the bristles on his head and his breathing that vibrated inside him like a far-off storm....He uncoiled himself and glided across the floor to the alcove. There was a break in the mud wall wide enough to let him out. When he had pushed himself through, he lay full length on the ground in the crystalline moonlight, staring at the strangeness of the landscape, where shadows were not shadows.
Bowles' power lies in his economy of words, his ability to set the scene quickly and well, and his charming perversity. Nothing is what it seems. There are puzzles inside puzzles. Hidden in the Muslim world are awful, beautiful eccentricies --- eccentricies that have profound effect on those who don't take the culture or its people seriously. As we read him, we find bits of Ring Lardner, pieces of O. Henry, a touch of E. A. Poe. But his tales have their own special mix of the bizarre and commonplace --- and it's wonderful stuff.--- Ignacio Schwartz