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Bowles writes in a baroque and hallucinated manner that is more focused on
depicting the inner motions of the psyche than the outer motions of the plot,
but he is also a realist, in fact a hyper-realist, who can describe the simplest
action in the most frightening detail. Bowles' careful, painstakingly precise
documentary of ordinary life recalls Balzac, although his interiorized and
metaphysical detours belong to the opposite tradition of fiction.
The Sheltering Sky (1949) tells more than a story of self-destruction,
it tells a nightmare of self-immolation to demons of alienation.
Port and Kit Moresby
are married Americans and are traveling in Africa in the company
of their friend Tunner. The trip began with Port's restless existential crisis.
Somehow that coincided with a separation of sorts from his wife. Tunner was
taken along to lessen the pain of being together while not being truly together.
Port's unhappiness and uncertainty are reflected in his continuous wandering
through the narrow and dark alleys of the Arab city, in his fascination with
the Sahara desert. He has no second thoughts about following a stranger in the
middle of the night to a desolate quarter where the stranger has promised him
sex with a young woman. He almost gets lynched by the men and has to run in
Kit is often left alone with Tunner, who is obviously trying to seduce her.
Kit is terribly annoyed by Tunner's attentions.
One day two English people show up at their hotel: the dumb and curious
and his disgusting mother. The couple is obnoxious to the say the least,
but they truly enjoy the company of the Americans and invite them to ride
in their car rather than take the train. Port decides t! o accept, mostly for
Kit's sake since she is axhausted, but Kit rea cts furiously to the idea
that they would have to leave Tunner alone and refuses to accept the ride.
Port rides with the English couple, while Kit and Tunner take the train.
Kit is so bored by Tunner that prefers to wander to the fourth-class with
the natives and almost leaves the train, but maybe her disgust with Tunner
hides the fact that she's secretely attracted: when she returns to their car,
she lets Tunner get her drunk and then make love to her.
Kit's shame is made worse by Port's sudden tenderness: Port has decided that
he would like to get closer again to his wife and doesn't know that it is
too late. They take a bus to another city in the desert,
Ain Krorfa. The Lyles reach them there and offer again a ride to the next
stop, Messad. Port has decided that Tunner is an obstacle to his plan to
get closer to Kit and passes on the offer to him. Then he plans to take the
bus to the even more remote town of Bou Noura.Still unable to heal his relationship, Port falls in love
with a blind
dancer but cannot consume his lust. On the other hand he learns from an Arab
that Eric is having sex with his "mother". Eric has begged him for money
and Port has refused. Eric seems to be an even lower being that Port and
In Bou Noura Port finds out that his passport has disappeared and thinks the
thief is the owner of the hotel. Port would like
Lieutenant d'Armagnac to do something about it but the French knows the
hotel owner is innocent and suspects somebody stole Port's passport to sell
it to the legionnaire, so he invites Port to wait.
Port is finally brought to the realization that Eric stole his passport,
and Tunner's later: both his passport and Tunner's passport are recovered,
and Tunner is on his way to bring Port his passport.
Still trying to avoid a meeting with Tunner, Port decides to proceed to
El Ga'a.! He buys a seat on a bus that was already full with the excuse that
his wife is sick, but he is the one who falls sick during the trip.
In El Ga'a, his fever already very high, they are faced with a complication:
the town is threatened by an epidemic of meningitis and the local hotel
will not even let them in. The hotel owner tells Kits to get out of town
as soon as possible. Port's conditions worsening by the hour, Kit finds
a truck going to another town, Sba. When they get there, they are met by
the local French captain, Broussard, who identifies the disease as typhoid
and provides shelter and assistance, but looks suspiciously upon the couple.
In the meantime Tunner is trying to find them.
As Port's health gets worse, Broussard gets more suspicious of Kit, even if
the passport that is missing is Port's, not Kit's. Kit is now a devoted wife,
who sleeps on the floor next to her husband and takes loving care of him.
She is suddenly strong and determined, even if she is surround! ed by strangers
and she fears she got infected with meningitis.
Tunner finally finds them and, instead of giving her courage, he seems to
throw her in a desperate state. Upon returning to the room, Kit finds Port
dead. She makes an appointment with Tunner that she has no intention to keep
and then, without telling a soul that Port is dead, she simply leaves the
town carrying only her suitcase.
Tunner stays put for a while hoping that the French will find Kit, but the days
go by without any news whatsover: the American woman seems to have disappeared.
Tunner is staying at the same hotel where Port thought his passport was stolen
and eventually the Lyles show up again. This time Tunner, who doesn't suspect
anything, catches Eric stealing from his room and beats him.
Kit wandered in the desert until a caravan appeared. The caravan was led by
two men, Belqassim and his older friend. They rescue her and take her ! with them,
but they both rape her in what becomes a daily ritual. K it becomes strangely
attached to Belqassim and only resents that he lets to other also rape her.
When the caravan finally reaches Belqassim's town, he dresses her like a boy
and takes her to his mansion pretending she's a (male) guest. Naturally her
presence (locked in a room) and the master's attentions for her generate
enough curiosity that one day Belqassim's three wives enter the room and find
out the truth about her. Even if Belqassim seems to be ready to defend her,
Kit decides to run away and buys the complicity of the wives. She finds himself
in a negro town by the sea. But she is incapble of dealing with people, even
with the kind negro who speaks French and tries to help her when she gets in
trouble for offering francs to a vendor who has never seen such money.
She is afraid like an animal and can't truly connect. The man is kind and truly
helps her recover her belongings and she has sex with him.
Finally, her ad! venture ends when she is delivered safe and sound to the French
authorities, who simply fly her back to Algeria. But she has completely lost
her mind and has to be tied in the plane. She is welcome by a staff of the
American consulate, who tells her that Tunner is coming to take care of her.
Kit does not react and does not seem to understand. The other woman looks for
help to get her out of the cab, but Kit is faster and runs away.
The narration is punctuated by philosophical sentences (reminiscent of Buddhism)
such as "the difference between something and nothing is nothing" and "when
I'm here I can't remember being here... but here I can remember being there".
Bowles excels in following the harrowing journey of a devastated mind, whether
Port's fever or Kit's madness. He is both poetic and merciless in the way he
photographs each gesture of the "other" existence.