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In a Cruel Light

THE STORIES OF PAUL BOWLES; By Paul Bowles; Ecco Press: 672 pp., $39.95

November 25, 2001|JAMIE JAMES | Jamie James is a critic and travel writer based in Jakarta. His first novel, "Andrew and Joey," which is set in Bali, will be published in February. Many American masters of the short story devoted their craft to excavating the horror in everyday life; Paul Bowles examined the outer limits of human experience. and

Paul Bowles, poet-novelist-translator-composer-traveler, made his quirky mark in all those fields but dominated none of them in his long life, which spanned most of the last century. He seemed to invite criticism that he was a dabbler, putting much of his craft and ingenuity into concealing his artistry. He flouted established narrative conventions yet let his era's mania for stylistic innovation pass him by; he put his characters into extreme, harrowing circumstances but rarely expended much energy in analyzing their psyches or souls. Bowles, who was born in 1910 in Jamaica, N.Y., and died in 1999, spent most of his life in Europe and North Africa yet, unlike his near-contemporary expatriates Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, he never possessed an ideal that could be betrayed or an illusion worth shattering. Bowles dedicated his career to elaborating variations on a single theme: the evil that befalls people when they visit places where they don't belong. Beginning with his first novel, "The Sheltering Sky," published in 1949, he created a fictional sub-genre that has been variously called African Gothic and Travel Horror. This collection of his stories, the most comprehensive ever published, reveals that he saved his most macabre chops for his short works.

An early story in the volume, "A Distant Episode," published in 1947, sets the tone. The Professor, a linguist traveling in North Africa, comes down from the high country to visit a friend in the desert: "Now facing the flaming sky in the west, and now facing the sharp mountains, the car followed the dusty trail down the canyons into air which began to smell of other things besides the endless ozone of the heights: orange blossoms, pepper, sun-baked excrement, burning olive oil, rotten fruit." When he arrives in the village, he learns that his friend is dead. On a whim, against his better instincts, the Professor sets off on a nocturnal shopping expedition in search of boxes made of camel udders. A sinister guide leads him to a deserted quarry, where he is ambushed by bandits. They cut out the linguist's tongue, tie him up, dump him into a sack and carry him off into the desert. The Professor's captors deck him out in a tinkling armor of tin-can bottoms and sell him into slavery as an object of entertainment, a human dancing bear.

It's not the most gruesome story here: In another, the hearts of stolen babies are eaten and the remains consumed by crocodiles. In "The Delicate Prey," Bowles' most famous story, a traveler is brutally emasculated yet the punishment of the man who inflicts the mutilation is, if anything, even more horrible. Much of the havoc is psychological; in "Pages From Cold Point," incest between father and son is presented in so offhand a manner that you have to reread the key passages to be sure you haven't imagined it.

Yet for all his originality, Bowles does have his antecedents: "Senor Ong and Senor Ha," about Chinese drug dealers in a small Central American town, seethes with the claustrophobic atmosphere of moral rot that pervades the tales of Joseph Conrad and W. Somerset Maugham; several stories, weaker ones, rely on one of Maugham's favorite plot devices, the native cook poisoning her employer. Yet the writer Bowles most strongly resembles is the first master of the short story, Edgar Allan Poe--not only in the macabre subject matter but also in the feverish ambience and his vivid portrayals of the sick mind. The narrator of "If I Should Open My Mouth" (1954), who puts poisoned gum in candy machines on subway platforms in Manhattan, or imagines that he does, is a direct descendant of the maniacs in such Poe stories as "The Tell-Tale Heart." What makes Bowles' best stories so powerful is their wry, detached tone; horrific events are reported as commonplaces, in the same low-key fashion as travel details or a dinner menu.

At the same time he was writing the earliest of the short stories included in this collection, Bowles was achieving renown as a translator of contemporary French and Latin American literature; in 1946 he produced what remains the standard English version of Jean-Paul Sartre's play "Huis Clos," bestowing upon it the title "No Exit." While Bowles never loaded his fiction with the self-conscious philosophizing of the French existentialists, their atmosphere of futility and world-weariness pervades his stories, perfumed with the smoke of a hookah and saturated with Saharan sunlight.

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