Saturday, August 3, 2013

Remembering Paul Bowles

(1910 - 1999)

Paul Bowles represents a peculiar case of exiled writer. He was not a political refugee in the proper sense of the phrase, nor an obsessed seeker of material wealth. He did not seem to enjoy being in the spotlight. He shunned academic attention and led a bohemian lifestyle in a city he almost felt like home. Was he a disillusioned idealist ? A belated Orientalist? A covert colonialist? A postcolonial visionary? A secret hedonist? Each of these appellations conveys part of the elusive truth about Paul Bowles. Like a chameleon he shifted fast and adapted even faster. He started as an aspiring composer but gradually turned to writing fiction. He wrote gripping tales of human horror and composed refined music for Broadway theatrical performances. He traveled the world from north to south, from east to west, and occasionally fled the hubbub and distraction of cities to seek the comforting silence of the Sahara.

He lived between ages: The age of collapsing empires and warring ideologies and the age of fervent nationalisms and ‘modern gadgets’. He had little or no political sympathies to smooth the passage. A skeptic of political discourse and action, he rarely addressed political issues in his writing and swiftly ducked the question of his interviewer when politics was in the air.

As years passed he grew tired and more alienated. To his fellow Americans he was and is still remembered as a freak of sorts — a survivor of the Beat Generation whose life story abounded with strange and amusing tales worth recounting. Elsewhere I made the point that much of the critical engagement with his work consists of biographical narratives, anecdotal accounts of his friends and acquaintances in Tangier. Very little academic criticism, to my knowledge, has been produced on his fictional work to counter this frivolous trend of American ceremonious appreciation.

On the Moroccan side, Paul Bowles was recognized as an accomplished writer who depicted complex images of Moroccan characters and lifestyles. He excelled his predecessors and even his contemporaries among Western writers in being a shrewd and detached observer, meticulous in his descriptions, inquisitive to the extent of obsession and cruel in his judgment of the inner forces that drive his characters to their final abysmal lots. While a number of well-researched doctoral dissertations have been produced on his fictional writing, Paul Bowles still remains unknown to the large Moroccan public. His four novels and volumes of short stories as well as his travel narratives, diaries and autobiography still need to be translated into Arabic. One notable exception, however, is a collection of short stories translated into Arabic by the Moroccan critic, Ibrahim Al-Khatib titled Al-bustan, (The Garden) containing ten of Bowles’ best stories such as ‘Mejdoub’, ‘Allal’, ‘A Thousand Days for Mokhtar’, and ‘the Delicate Prey’.

In turn, Bowles was a brilliant translator of Moroccan tales. His translations of Mohamed Choukri’s novel, For Bread Alone and the (recorded) oral stories of Mohammed Mrabet’s and Driss Charhadi’s among others have contributed to highlighting the underground world of Tangier. It is a different type of a Tangerine experience that confronts us in these plain narratives of underprivileged individuals forced to fight for their livelihood in aggressive and not always honest terms. What is it exactly that appealed to Bowles in these grim accounts of native lives? Was he driven by a sense of sympathy for these deprived souls? Or perhaps was it the astute sense of the taleteller that ultimately dictated this unusual creative experiment? In any case, Choukri, Mrabet and Charadi, who do not feature high on the list of established Moroccan writers, have become known to numerous readers in USA thanks to Bowles.

As a student, I first came to know of Paul Bowles through his novel, The Sheltering Sky (1949) turned into a movie in 1990 starring John Malkovich and Debra Winger. I liked the book so much that I wanted to read more of his work. An old edition of The Spider’s House I bought from a second-hand bookstore increased my interest even further. Over the years I have sought to obtain copies of his entire works. I read volume after volume of his stories and narratives. Still I am surprised when skeptical readers like a colleague of mine declare in all confidence that they find Bowles not a terribly interesting writer. While I too have my reservation about Up Above the World which I find a bit superficial, I have a great admiration for his other novels and particularly the short stories.

I met Paul Bowles in June 1996. He was already old and frail and rarely left his dark, shabby apartment. The poet, Alfred Yeager — a relative of the poet Alfred Chester, was on a visit to Tangier and, knowing of my interest in interviewing Bowles, volunteered to arrange the meeting. I did not like Bowles as much as I did his writing. It was a bit frustrating. He had trouble hearing my questions and on repeating them once and twice I had a feeling I was more of a nuisance to him than a veritable interlocutor . Eventually I had to wound up my interview and leave him in peace. He had the passion for books even during his last years. Piles of books filled the small space of the room: on the ground, near the bed, on top of the old TV set.

Bowles has left an impressive body of writing – a legacy that, alas, has received little credit or attention. He had contributed in his own way to creating the myth of Tangier- the city of sin and vice which hosted him till the end of his days. He had survived generations of drifting travelers, artists, and writers who flocked into the city to enjoy its climate and liberal ambience or get inspired by its colors, sounds, and flavors. They left but he chose to remain even when the cultural landscape of the city was changing fast and losing the cosmopolitan glamour of earlier decades. He spoke Moroccan dialect, Darijafluently and knew the people and the culture much better perhaps than many parts in his native country.

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