From A Distant Episode: Selected Stories
One of the abiding themes in the work of the great modernist writer Paul Bowles is the way in which the ignorance and arrogance of American travellers collides with foreign cultures they don’t – or wilfully refuse to – understand. This is profound in Bowles’s most famous work, the 1949 novel The Sheltering Sky, about a trio of Americans adrift in postwar North Africa.
Bowles’s story “A Distant Episode” is set in the same part of the world, in and around the fictional town of Aïn Tadouirt, located “in the warm country.” Aïn Tadouirt is presumably in the Maghreb region of Northwest Africa – which includes Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco – as the professor who is the story’s protagonist claims to be there “making a survey of variations on Maghrebi.” This assertion comes in response to his “scornful” chauffeur, who tells the linguistics professor, “There are no languages here. Only dialects.”
Here we have but the first indication that the professor is unprepared for the reality of the place to which he has come, notwithstanding the academic’s fanciful notion that he knows the land and its people having spent three days there a decade previously. When we first encounter the professor, he is descending “out of the high, flat region in the evening … with two small overnight bags full of maps, sun lotions, and medicines.” He is prepared for what he expects to find, carrying Western accoutrements such as sunscreen and antidotes for dysentery or other exotic ailments.
At the same time, he appears not to notice the downward trajectory he is on, nor the evening sunsets, which are “at their reddest.” The “flaming sky in the west” is an ominous harbinger, as are the “sharp mountains” he sees out the window of the car. The chauffeur follows the “dusty trail down the canyons” – note again the direction, as though the professor is on an inexorable descent. As they proceed, the scent of the air begins to change, encompassing “orange blossoms, pepper, sun-baked excrement, burning olive oil, rotten fruit.” While the professor is pictured “happily” for an instant “in a purely olfactory world,” this image is undercut by the appearance of excrement and rotten fruit among the catalogue of smells. Later on, the professor will encounter an odour of human excrement that is “almost constant” alongside the smell of “rotting meat.”
These early indications of something amiss go unremarked by the professor, though the reader cannot help but notice them. There is a strain of Western hauteur and racism attached to all this, but Bowles is careful in the way he structures his story. The first part is told in a free indirect discourse that stays close to the professor’s sense impressions of an environment he feels much more knowledgeable about than he has reason to be. By the latter part of the story, the perspective shifts and the professor’s impressions give way to those of the locals in a reversal that is as ironic as it is brutal.
Briefly, the professor attends a café he believes to be owned by a friend of his, Hassan Ramani. Upon arrival, the manager, who is referred to only as the qaouaji, tells his visitor that Hassan Ramani is dead. The professor offends the qaouaji by inquiring after “little boxes made from camel udders,” a tacky trinket that once again sets the American apart as an outsider. The qaouaji tells the professor that for a price he will take him to the Reguibat, a local tribe that imports the items. Once in the realm of the Reguibat – an area “at the edge of [an] abyss” overrun by ravenous dogs – the professor is abducted, his tongue is cut out, and he is forced into slavery as a kind of dancing jester.
Appearing two years before the novel that would make Bowles an inescapable figure in the canon of 20th century Western literature, “A Distant Episode” was actually seen by the author as an early working out of the ideas he would expand upon in The Sheltering Sky. In an essay titled “Paul Bowles and the Problem of Postmodernity Within the Colonized World,” Steve Weber quotes Bowles as saying, “In my mind it was the same story retold; it described the same process in other terms.” This process involves stripping the illusions of Western exceptionalism from a series of characters who exist on a spectrum that runs from ignorant tourists to rapacious colonialists. The professor is reduced from an academic to a dancing fool with no recourse to his supposed status or knowledge (or lack thereof).
One early exchange between the professor and the qaouaji is emblematic of the cultural dynamic at work in the story:
Outside in the street there was very little movement. The booths were all closed and the only light came from the moon. An occasional pedestrian passed, and grunted a brief greeting to the qaouaji.
“Everyone knows you,” said the Professor, to cut the silence between them.
“I wish everyone knew me,” said the Professor, before he realized how infantile such a remark must sound.
“No one knows you,” said his companion gruffly.
The professor’s wish for familiarity is a chimera, and in the world of the Reguibat, his cultural cachet and academic credentials are exactly worthless. The true extent of his foreignness is laid bare when the qaouaji abandons him in the dark, leaving him to the ministrations of the Reguibat. “Is this a situation or a predicament?” the professor wonders idiotically. In a further testament to his lack of comprehension about his surroundings, or the threat they may entail, when he is attacked by one of the Reguibat’s feral dogs, his first reaction is offence at the “breach of etiquette.”
Writing in the Guardian, Sam Jordison isolates what makes Bowles’s story such a potent reading experience, even from the perspective of a 21st century encounter:
It would be easy to characterize this story as a kind of orientalist fantasy: a good Westerner is torn apart by the inscrutable cruelty of a desert people. But that’s not where its real horror lies. It’s not so much that the professor loses his way, as that he chooses to go down such a dangerous path in the first place. Bowles steadily, mercilessly, sadistically strips the professor of dignity and humanity and the result is all the more frightening because we always have the feeling that the poor old professor asks for his degradation.
The trials that the professor endures – from the balefully ironic grace note of the linguistic scholar having his tongue cut out through the abject debasement of his enslavement as a dancing clown – are undeniably shocking. But if Jordison is correct, and there is every reason to believe he is, even more distressing is the notion that the professor’s hubris results in him bringing his fate down upon himself.