I’m sure you’ve heard it said that Americans are the worst possible tourists – arrogant, condescending, intolerant and just generally obnoxious when set loose outside the confines of the United States. This can obviously apply to tourists from any country: Aussies have a pretty deplorable reputation in South East Asia and I came across an embarrassing English couple in the south of France one year. Bowles’ novel, though, is a study of three young Americans travelling in North Africa after the Second World War, and it is a perfect illustration of the extent to which two cultures can clash, each with its own perceptions and stereotyped attitudes towards the other.
Set against the backdrop of the merciless Sahara desert and the Arab and French cultures, Kit and Port, a married couple, and their friend, Tunner, form a dysfunctional trio travelling at random from one obscure location to the next. The reason for their journey and odd choice of destination is never really disclosed, but it may be fair to assume that Kit and Port are attempting to revitalise their marriage, and Tunner was invited along as a poor afterthought, maybe as a distraction if the couple wasn’t coping with the day to day monotony of each other’s company. Regardless of the reasons, though, their struggles are pivotal to the momentum of the novel and its shocking conclusion.
As the story evolves, we see the characters’ increasing descent into death and madness. The desert is their infatuation; their obsession: they cannot extricate themselves from it even if they want to. They exist in a blurred reality, incapable of comprehending the harsh reality of the Algerian culture and environment in which they have insinuated themselves. Becoming increasingly detached from those around them and from each other, they are each pushed to the limits of human endurance and intelligent reasoning.
Bowles’ description of the desert comes first hand, having spent a considerable amount of time living in Morocco. His writing is so descriptive you can feel the sand blowing against your face; the unrelenting torture of the sun’s heat and the parchedness of the landscape. And with it all, comes the inevitable, inescapable, absolute lethargy.
My favourite part of the book is the culmination of Kit’s spiral into insanity with her “abduction” by travelling Arabs. To tell more would spoil the story, but Bowles narrative effectively puts you on the edge of your seat, wondering how it could all possibly work out.
At number 97 on the Modern Library’s top 100 novels, The Sheltering Sky is a good read – amplifying cultural ignorance, xenophobia, insanity and the North African culture.