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Since my wife returned from a two week visit to Morocco we’ve been combing old movies for scenes shot in the cities and deserts of the country.  One of the first to pop up was Bertolucci’s Sheltering Sky, his 1990 take on Paul Bowles’ widely acclaimed, 1949 novel of the same name. There were scenes in the souks and small towns which she recognized, and of course the  million year old sand which changes without change, ceaselessly.

Watching it I became curious about Bertolucci’s fidelity to the Bowles’ text so I took up the novel decades after having first read it.  Bowles was a favorite of Ginsberg, Burroughs and many of the coming-of-age American writers after WW II, and is often associated with the Beats, a characterization which Bowles vigorously disputed — and which no reading of his fiction would support. He was not so far removed from the Existentialists, however, whose attitudes, if not philosophy are at the core of Sheltering Sky.  I kept thinking as I read that his descriptions of hell, nausea and no exit were far more visual, rich and convincing than Sartre’s — whose No Exit (Hui Clos) Bowles in fact translated, apparently close to the time Stuart Gilbert’s 1947 version came out, and in much more idiomatic American English.

The film is rich in landscape and musical score but the saturated colors and hues turn the story of  Kit Moresby (a young Debra Winger) and Port Moresby(John Malkovich) into something other than the gray, ennui and sand saturated pages of the novel.  Bertolucci follows the plot lines quite scrupulously, with a major exception being the relation between Kit and the Bedouin caravan leader.  In the novel she becomes sexual chattel, used by two men for the duration of the caravan and then, as in the film, disguised as a young man, imprisoned in the household of the younger man.  It is true that Bowles has her relationship with the young man, beginning in rape,  turn tender, once ‘she realized her helplessness and accepted it.’  But the ‘friendly carnal presence’ she finds with him, is not the kind of romantic love the movie portrays. Nor does Bowles indicate the sort of details Bertolucci indulges in a prolonged erotic scene with the keffiyeh wrapped man and fully draped prisoner.

It’s not that both movie and novel aren’t powerful expressions on their own, but they invert a finding I have had reading differing translations of the same novel, in which no single phrase matches between two renditions yet the story and images are almost identical.  Here we have a story in two tellings, almost parallel in scene and place, yet tone and sensibility are almost opposite.  The movie is sold as a woman’s daring investigation of sensuality, the score is ripe and soaring, the landscapes are dramatic in shape and color.  In the novel the landscapes are unremittingly severe, sun scorched and night cold, sand and wind are everywhere, ‘on every surface which is anywhere near to being horizontal. and this includes the wrinkles in the skin, the eyelids, the insides of the ears…’; the characters are lost, the emotions are of exhaustion, the exploration without adventure, observation without curiosity; the sexual exploration is of capitulation, the giving up of choice and finally, disappearance.

The book is, as Bowles himself described it, “an adventure story in which the actual adventures take place on two planes simultaneously: in the actual desert and in the inner desert of the spirit.” Both are detailed and rich in his telling, but it is the descriptions of the spirit, always mirrored by the weather and the landscape, that strikes us so forcefully.  Here are two people who have never ‘entered fully into life.’  They are ‘hanging on to the outside,’ as Port describes it. And the outside doubles both the severity of the malaise and emphasizes their inability to have any effect, on either.

There was not a tree to be seen anywhere. .. bare wasteland.. raw, savage rock without vegetation …sea of stones   … endless, flat desert beyond, broken here and there by sharp crests of rock that rose above the surface like the dorsal fins of so many monstrous fish…

or that which the humans create:

the flies in their faces, copulating on the dead man’s lips; …fur in the rabbit stew;…weevils in the soup; …a cockroach on the table with a knife point through it; …piles of garbage in what had been a fountain, and three screaming babies covered with sores; …the predominating odor was of the latrine;

Again and again, Kit, married to Port for some ten years, does not want to be ‘involved,’ wants to ‘escape the net of involvement she felt being drawn around her,’ does not want to be ‘responsible.”

“She saw nothing ahead of her but Tunner’s will awaiting her signal to take command.  And she would give the signal.  Even as she knew this she was aware of a pervading sense of relief, to struggle against which would have been unthinkable.  What delight, not to be responsible — not to have anything to decide anything of what was to happen!  To know, even if there was no hope, that no action one might take or fail to take could change the outcome in the slightest degree…”

What is particularly odd is that this need to not be responsible, is conjoined after Port’s death, with a sense that she feels she has been touched by life again.

“Swiftly she walked along, focusing her mind on that feeling of solid delight she had recaptured.  She had always known it was there, just behind things, but long ago had accepted not having it as a natural condition of life.  Because she found it again, the joy of being, she said to herself that she would hang on to it no matter what the effort entailed.

 Immediately after which she hitch-hikes a ride with the leader of a caravan of Bedouin where she is made into sexual chattel, used every night by two men, one of whom she feels the same sort of gratitude towards — not having to make decisions, just to be taken, and sexually used — tenderly, by him at least– and turning into that horror of modern feminist thought, the grateful rape victim, one who, although held prisoner ‘lived solely for those few fiery hours spent each day beside Belqassim.”

As for Port, stopping short of describing ‘hell is other people,’ he comes close:

‘You complain about life all the time.’
‘Oh, not about life; only about human beings.’
‘The two can’t be considered separately.’
‘They certainly can.  All it takes is a little effort.’

He describes “The soul [as] the weariest part of the body.” He seeks aloneness in the infinite, and despairs that Kit does not share this with him. He claims what he wants is apartness from people: “You’re never humanity; you’re only your own poor, hopelessly isolated self…  The fact that I breathe is my justification (for existence)”

Mirroring this ennui, this non-attachment within them are the details of passports, needed and lost, stolen to be sold, evidence of existence even as death looms.

When the ennui disappears for Kit it is in a series of almost softcore porn, like Shades of Gray or even the more radical submissivness in Pauline Reage’s O The more one reads, the more one see that Kit is his own Albert/Albertine of Proust’s imaginings, his female stand-in for a loving male.  Bowles gets to have his cake and eat it too, dressing his female Kit as the ravished male Kit of his own desires.

When [Belqassim] went away, the delicious state of exhaustion and fulfillment persisted for a long time afterward; she lay half awake, bathing in an aura of mindless contentment, a state which she quickly grew to take for granted, and then, like a drug, to find indispensable.

The delight in sexual bondage she displays must stand for something as well — Bowles own desires, driven into hiding in a sexually intolerant America, and his remedy:  someone to take him, to make him, to take away the need to make a choice or a decision.

While Bowles prose is meticulous and his images vivid and lasting, the novel itself almost seems a sort of period piece, or an ethnography of a peculiar, small tribe of people, untouched by the war that had just convulsed the world, including Colonial North Africa, and frankly not very interested in the people and country the are traveling in.  We don’t find the universality of human condition found in truly great novels.  Our modern exuberance in seeing beyond our homes, the world-wide fascination with trekking and touring and traveling are far removed from the utter ennui of the characters in Sheltering Sky, the novel, though Bertolucci sees it more as we might, with sweeping vistas, impossible plays of light, infinitely great nature and infinitely small man, and caravan. This may account for Bowles sour remarks on the film, which he participated in making, during a 1995 interview in the documentary Let It Come Down.  He says he asked them to choose another book to film, something that was less shaped by mental interiors.  Bertolucci wanted Sheltering Sky because it was better known.  But even he got the point of Bowles’ resistance.  In a 1990 interview with Harlan Kennedy we read:

If sun, sand and flies weren’t enough, there was Bertolucci’s systematic removal of verbal crutches. Throwing out whole pages of Bowles’ dialogue and spoken thoughts – “I didn’t want to do a literary movie” – he encouraged the actors to express themselves through behavior, not words.

“In the film,” says Bertolucci, “it is the physicality of the two of them – their bodies, skins, faces, eyes, mouths – that becomes so strong. It is as if their biological presence substitutes for what would have been literary. “But then, ironically, Bertolucci wondered if he hadn’t thrown the book out with the bathwater.

“When I started shooting, Mark [Peploe,coscreenwriter] and I thought, My God, there’s a loss of literature. But how could we find a way to have the presence of literature without being literary? And we thought, Let’s put Paul Bowles himself in the film. So we have the physical author there, looking on, seeing with his eyes something he invented 40 years ago.

And Bowles response to the movie for which he did the voice-over, and provided the summing statement, as Bertolucci wanted, at the end?

“It’s idiotic, the end of the film.  The rest is pretty bad, too, but the end is unforgivable.”

(And what is the sky sheltering them from?

‘I often have the sensation when I look at it that it’s a solid thing up there, protecting us from what’s behind.’
‘But what is behind?’ Her voice was very small
‘Nothing, I suppose.  Just darkness. Absolute night’

The novel will remain with me a while, mostly because of the unsentimental, sharply drawn images of geography and weather, less because of a reawakened interest in the agonizing inwardness of the characters, and in part because of its peculiarity.  As a result I’m inclined to give some time to his third novel, The Spider’s House, also set in Morocco but during the time of the liberation struggle against France in the early 1950s. I’m curious if his American character remains apart, unable to tolerate other humans, or if the ‘meaning’ found and made in a struggle for independence moves him as it has so many in the last fifty years.

The movie, as a spectacle, and product of a great modern auteur is worth seeing of course, perhaps a few times. See if I’m not right is saying it is way too gay, and not enough gray, to carry the heart of the novel to your understanding.

As to other movies filmed in Morocco, there are 949 listed in IMDB.  We settled for the great desert scenes, and re-visited cowboy v Indian charges of David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia (1963) and John Huston’s The Man Who Would be King (1975) which despite being about northern India and the ‘stans’ has scenes shot in Morocco (under the presumption that one exotic is as good as another, I suppose.) In the Valley of Elah (2007), a very good recent film, has scenes in Morocco, as did the Marlon Brando vehicle, Burn, (1969 ) –despite being about a Caribbean slave revolt. Orson Well’s marvelous Othello (1952) would also sweep you into the country — as would just about every Biblical story told by Hollywood or Cinecittà.  Plenty to keep you spotting your favorite souks.

And, as a brief afterward, this is all another example of how travel broadens (me), even when it is done by another!