The extraordinary expatriate American writer Paul Bowles (1911-1999) is primarily remembered for his short fiction. I have in my house the Paul Bowles shelf. Admittedly, one of the books, his autobiography, is a former library book. The majority of the rest are Black Sparrow first editions. Yes, once I was a buyer of literature, without knowing what I was doing. In 1980 or so, first attending Scripps College, I came across a beautiful Black Sparrow cloth trade paperback of the Collected Stories of Paul Bowles. Upon opening this beautiful book, I read the first few paragraphs of the introduction by Gore Vidal, in which he said of Bowles, after explaining a bit of Gore Vidal history (as was his wont), "As a short story writer, he has few equals in the second half of the twentieth century."
So, I write this because this evening, someone from former Alaskan governor and Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin's hometown of Wasilla, AK searched for "Critical essay on Paul Bowles 'A Distant Episode'" and was carried here to this top interweb destination, thus learning that my Clarion admission story was a combination of an old Star Trek episode ("Metamorphosis" - the one featuring Zephram Cochrane, inventor of the "warp drive" and "The Companion") and - "A Distant Episode."
I might try to defend myself in this horrific combination, by saying "I didn't know anything about how to write a story! I didn't even know what a story was! How could I know that I was doing the mashup from Hell . . ." From Hell, Mithter Luthk - I thpit at thee!
Well, look. This is the deal with "A Distant Episode." It's a cruel, shocking, gorgeous story. It's rather famous, and according to the horrific Wikipedia stumbling over what it might sort of be about, it is "a favorite of such authors as Tobias Wolff and Jay McInerny." In fact, if I ever bothered with Wikipedia, I might go fix that some - but it's actually a several-hour project or longer, the description is SO BAD. "One of the obvious themes of the piece," says the Wikipedist, is "the dangers of Cultural Imperialism."
Well, one can certainly see such ideas in the story. However, it's more like a realistic horror story, with desert tribal characters we Westerners easily fear as "alien" and who act in implacable, cruel, irretrievable ways. The plot of the story is simple. A tragedy, the main character is "The Professor," a French linguist who has traveled to North Africa ostensibly to survey "variations on Moghrebi," which is a Moroccan dialect. He travels to Ain Tadouirt, supposedly an "imaginary city," but this strikes me as calling a Southern California town "San Pablo" or something, as there are cities called Ain Temouchent in Algeria, and Ain Behira in Morocco. It is, according to the story, "In the warm country," and it cannot be so far south as the Professor eventually goes, for the chauffeur who takes him to his hotel speaks French, and believes him at first to be a geologist. When the Professor confesses he is a linguist, the chauffeur tells him "Keep on going south. You'll find some languages you never heard of before."
It is good to read Paul Bowles for economy. In that, he is like all great short story writers, from Chekov to Carver. After getting settled in his small hotel room, the Professor engages upon a series of idiotic blunders all caused by his emotional deafness, as well as a complete lack of common sense. He has gone to the town to look for a cafe owner he had met there during a three-day stay a decade before -- Hassan Ramani. Hassan is - like - dead. The current owner of the cafe, or qaouaji, is offended over a series of gaffes made by the Professor. At last, the Professor requests the qaouaji to obtain camel-udder boxes for him for ten francs apiece, and being told they are brought in only by the Reguibat and they aren't wanted by the townspeople, the Professor insists. With seeming reluctance, the qaouaji then leads the Professor through a alleys and streets, supposedly to obtain these boxes, but in reality, leading the Professor far away from the town center, his hotel, and safety.
He then directs the Professor to leave the town by scrambling down a cliff to get his souvenirs - which, not wanting to appear like a crying wussy in front of the qaouaji, and basically lacking all semblance of any common sense, the Professor does. In short order, the Professor is confronted by Reguiba tribesmen and their guns and dogs. They kick and punch and terrorize him, then march him away from the town; while unconscious, he is carried far away to the Reguibat desert domain. Upon awakening, one of them cuts out the Professor's tongue. The Professor is then transformed into a performing clown complete with tin-can-bottom clanging bells and other tin bangles. He soon adjusts to performing for the tribe, and learns dance moves, obscene gestures, and many other feigned emotions for the entertainment of his captors. It takes only a brief time for him to go from French linguist to mute captive clown. A year passes, until his captors devise a plan of taking him to the city of Fogara and selling him to the Touareg. As I know from my friend Hayat, who is Algerian, the Touareg do not speak Arabic, they speak Tifinagh, their own language. The Reguiba are Berber, but according to the untrustworthy Wikipedia, speak a dialect of Arabic. In the town of Fogara, a villager is approached as the broker or buyer of the Professor. Once sold and at the home of the broker, the Professor awakens to what has happened to him, and he rebels. The owner, horribly unsatisfied, runs into the street of another tribe, the Ouled Nail, seeking to revenge himself upon the Reguibat who have sold him this defective clown. Upon finding them, he quickly cuts the throat of one, then throws down the razar and runs off. However, he is quickly caught, which leaves the Professor alone in his house. He stays a night and a day in increasing confusion and hunger, and at last is awakened to a kind of desire for escape by seeing a French-language calendar on the wall and reading the days.
He thrashes the new owner's house, and runs into the street, making a terrible noise, and then heads out of town. The last one to see him is a French soldier guarding the town gate, who believes him to be a "holy maniac," and who takes a shot at him (narrowly missing) just for "good luck." In the desert heat, the soldier watches as the Professor, now fool forever, disappears into the desert.
"A Distant Episode" is told with poetic economy and balance. It is a detailed description of capture, torture, intimidation, identification with one's captors, and the impossibility of escape after such an event. It does wryly indicate that a useless person such as a linguist who knows no culture, and who apparently is incapable of learning any, may as well be a mute clown, fated to clang and clash madly in the dark and endless desert night. By reading the names of the cities and the tribe names, I now think this story is meant to be set in southwestern Algeria, and not Morocco. But I could be wrong; however, I think this description will help many students to write their papers. I hope that it will.
Paul Bowles is exactly as Gore Vidal described him. One of the most gifted writers, with profound things to say, of his part of the twentieth century.