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The Sheltering Sky remains topical lesson in culture clash

THE SHELTERING SKY

Written by Paul Bowles.

Vintage International.

335 pages, $9.95 (paperback). to be filled in -- pd

By MARK WEBSTER

PAUL BOWLES PUBLISHED his first novel, The Sheltering Sky, in 1949. It was on the New York Times bestseller list for 10 weeks and since that time has become a cult classic. It served as inspiration for the Beat generation of poets and writers, and many made the pilgrimage to Tangier in Morocco to see Bowles in his permanent, voluntary exile from the United States. Bowles had made a name as a musician before his first novel, composing two operas based on plays by Frederico Garcia Lorca and musical scores for numerous short stories, as well as translating the books and stories of native Moroccan writers. In his long and varied career, he has been associated with Aaron Copland, Gertrude Stein, Allen Ginsberg, and William Burroughs. He was married to novelist Jane Bowles, who died in 1973.

Vintage International has released a paperback edition of The Sheltering Sky in anticipation of the opening of the movie of the same name directed by Bernardo Bertolucci and starring John Malkovich and Debra Winger. With such stellar director and cast, one hopes that the movie will do justice to this novel of the conflict between cultures and one couple's descent into madness and death.

This book is topical today with so much Western concern focused on the Middle and Near East. The lessons that the story teaches are ambiguous and disturbing at best. It shows the culture clash that occurs when an American couple penetrate the Arab world of the western Sahara. It is easy to see the lure that the story had <>

for the Beat generation -- its existential themes and exotic locales would influence many of the figures of that time as well as the later '60s generation.

Port and Kit are apparently well-off members of the New York intelligentsia who think of themselves as travelers instead of tourists. They travel around the world in a haphazard way with no set agenda, staying however long they like in a place and then moving on. The Second World War has been over for two years and they come to a place they think will not have been touched by the war, French West Africa. In no way are they prepared for the culture that they come into contact with or for the vast Sahara desert.

For Port, the extreme solitude of the desert seems to drive him deeper into alienation from all those around him. And when he becomes sick, his alienation is complete as he dwells in the fever of his despair. Although Kit is terrified of the wilderness, and the Arabs who inhabit it, she eventually submerges herself into it in order to escape the reality of the loss of Port and of her shattered life. Tunner, a so-called friend who accompanies them on this trip becomes the catalyst for the final disintegration of their marriage.

Bowles uses the symbolic overtones of this story to good effect, developing a parable of Western civilization meeting wilderness and an alien culture. The characters are drawn gradually, their personalities emerging while the author paints the backdrop of the culture and location. Each brushstroke seems not so much to be adding layers but stripping away the fa,cade to reveal the decadence and corruption underneath. The Westerners constantly rail against the natives and "the stinking towns," but the reader comes to realize that the whites are simply out of their element here, unable to cope with a different set of rules.

Bowles describes the desert in livid detail. While reading, the mind seems filled with blinding hot light and the dust seems almost to settle on the skin. You long to hear the near ultimate silence in the desert. The Sahara becomes a thing alive; cruel, indifferent, and beautiful.

In the years since it was first published, The Sheltering Sky has become a classic and justly so. Bowles has an excellent grasp of the place and the culture as well as the characters. The novel has retained its power over the years, so don't wait for the movie, go ahead and read the book.