The Modern Library List of Books

AvatarThoughts on reading the top 100 English-language books of the 20th century

97. The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles

What can I say. I loved this book. Vivid prose. Exotic locale. Existentialist themes. I stayed up much too late to read it, enchanted – entranced even – only to wake up with bags under my eyes and vague memories of desert-sun dreams. The Sheltering Sky, by Paul Bowles, is an incredible story of two people wrestling with (and running from) their freedom, as they rush about between desert towns, chasing a specter as ephemeral as the sand djinn themselves – their love for each other.
Port and Kit are an American couple, who moor themselves in North Africa, to get “as far as possible from the places that had been touched by the war.” Each hopes that the trip – a plunge into an unfamiliar culture in an unforgiving climate – will help them find their way back to each other, but after twelve years of marriage, they are a well-travelled pair (Europe, the Near East, the West Indies, South America), and it is unlikely the extreme conditions will be enough to kindle their love. In fact, all this travel has made them tiresome; they're a bit too self-righteous regarding their ethnological insight. They are travellers, rather than tourists, Port is fond of noting:

[The tourist] accepts his own civilization without question; not so the traveller, who compares it with the others and rejects those elements he finds not to his liking.

Oh how fashionably intellectual, and this being 1945, you know Port and Kit have a library full of Jean-Paul Sartre at home. They are that couple, so complacent in their off-the-beaten-path lives, they can indulge (and suffer) their third-wheel travel companion, Tunner, even with all the “acting and formula-following in his behavior.”
As a traveling troupe, they are hardly the consummate trio. Not to mention, that even in the best of circumstances, three, all too easily, can be a crowd. So we're hardly surprised that before long (but not soon enough – by that time, Tunner has already slept with Kit), Port is scheming to “lose” Tunner in the desert. 
Luckily for Port (or unluckily, but more on that later), he makes the acquaintance of an unsettling pair, the Lyles. The Lyles (they travel as mother and son, but their late-night bed-hopping habit leaves everyone guessing) have a car. But they are also obnoxiously xenophobic (francophobic, especially) and loud. However, Port condescends to accept a ride with the Lyles to Boussif, while Kit, repulsed by the pair, opts to follow, by train, with Tunner. While Port quickly comes to rue his decision to ride to with Lyles (imagine your own personal Jerry Springer show, trapped in a car in a scorching desert), Kit and Tunner, after multiple bottles of champagne, have drunken sex on the train.
In Boussif, Kit, repentant and disgusted with herself, does everything she can to avoid Tunner. Port, by now suspicious of Tunner's intentions toward Kit, is starting to think about getting rid of him. However, the trio travels intact to Ain Krorfa, where they're met with swarms of flies and putrid conditions. Tunner's delicate sensibilities are offended, and Port takes advantage of Tunner's disgust to convince him to ride on with the Lyles (who have unexpectedly ended up in Ain Krorfa, as well) to Messad.

However, Kit and Port aren't taken with Ain Krorfa any more than Tunner is, and they make arrangements to get out of there as soon as possible. They don't get far, before Port realizes his passport has been stolen (by Eric Lyle). When it is recovered in Messad, Tunner sends word that he'll bring it to Port in Bou Noura. But rather than wait for Tunner, Port decides he doesn't need/want his passport, and in a panic, scams his way (his wife, he says, is gravely ill) onto a sold-out bus to El Ga'a . A panicked Port dragging a confused Kit to the bus station is laugh-out-loud funny, but the humour here quickly turns dark – it is Port who, in fact, is gravely ill, and he suddenly succumbs to the fever he's had for days. He grows increasingly delirious as the couple nears El Ga'a. In El Ga'a, Port, barely conscious, is left in a camel stall while Kit tries, unsuccessfully, to find them lodging (the locals are fearful on a meningitis epidemic). With the help of an Arab, Kit arranges passage to Sba on the back of a fruit truck, where she spends the next few weeks sequestered on a military base, nursing Port, delirious with typhoid – to no avail. Port dies. 
Tunner finally catches up to Kit - just as Port dies - but this is far from the end of his troubles. Kit's subsequent disappearance (she runs off with a caravan, spends weeks as an attic-bound concubine and then weeks as a fourth-wife, before she escapes her 'husband', to be rescued by nuns and shipped back to the American embassy) keeps Tunner in the desert, searching for Kit.

One of the most impressive things, for me, about this book (besides the wonderfully evocative prose) was the way Kit and Port came to represent opposing psychological possibilities. They are nihilists; both have peeked behind the veil, behind the sheltering sky of morality and general values, and both have peered into the “absolute night” beyond. And while Kit is terrified by anything that so much as hints at that infinite void, Port is exhilarated and awed by anything that reflects our solitude and the meaninglessness that prevails human life. 
Thrown into a life without explanatory blueprints or a grand plan, we must carve out our own existential purpose. Sure, there are plenty of people (and social institutions) content to hijack our lives and determine our that purpose for us. But relinquishing our freedom to create our lives is to reject the one thing that makes us human – our ability to choose. To do so, is to live life as a beast of burden, an animal in the service of others. Port seems to understand this, roaming the world as he pleases, unbeholden to profession, family or homeland. When he discovers his passport is gone, he is secretly thrilled by the idea of circling the shifting, featureless desert, a no-man without name or home. And while he, outwardly, stands tall under the burden of his freedom, he can't help but wonder if his wandering life is, in fact, a coward's life. 

How many times, his friends, envying him his life, had said to him: 'Your life is so simple.' 'Your life seems always to go in a straight line.' Whenever they said the words, he heard in them an implicit reproach: it is not difficult to build a straight road on a treeless plain. He felt what they really meant to say was : 'You have chosen the easiest terrain.' But if they elected to place obstacles in their own way – and they so clearly did, encumbering themselves with every sort of unnecessary allegiance – that was no reason why they should object to his having simplified his life. So it was with a certain annoyance that he would say: 'Everyone makes the life he wants. Right?' as though there were nothing further to be said.

Kit, on the other hand, seems to be doing everything she can to renounce her freedom. Constitutionally indecisive, she reads omens for hours before committing herself to act. Problem is, she knows the universe takes no interest – and gives no guidance – in her actions. Her portentous hand-wringing is just wishful thinking, and Kit knows that nothing, out there, can relieve her of her responsibility and freedom. 
But that doesn't stop her from submitting, as much as possible, to the will of others. She lives her life for Port, being everything and anything he wants her to be. She tours the world with him, without much input or complaint. And her near complete desire to forsake her freedom means that in the absence of Port, she can't help but succumb to the will of others. Although undesirous of him, she lets Tunner seduce her on the train, and after Port dies, she completely surrenders to her body to Belqassim and another man, who rape her. 
It is this desperate need to have her existence determined for her that accounts for the bliss she finds locked away in an attic – Belqassim's concubine – and later, locked away in a room, as his fourth wife. Life with Belqassim is easy; she succeeds in losing her freedom, nothing but obedience is required of her. 
However, such utter surrender to the will of another is in itself a choice. Perhaps the bravest, in some ways, incomprehensible of choices – the voluntary annihilation of self. And so, we shouldn't be surprised (although I am) when Kit walks away from the American embassy agent, disappearing into the pulsing crowd in Tangier. Because isn't doing exactly what you want, however outside of character, however incomprehensible to others, the ultimate embrace of freedom?



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