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A Challenging and Poetic Novel
on May 4, 2003
Beautifully-written novel about the cruelty of that which we do not know or understand. There were unbelievable descriptions of the filth and abject poverty in the some of the North African cities. At these times, it was difficult to see the beauty that the main traveler, Port, was searching for, and also laid to waste a lot of the glamor attached to the "world traveler" in third-world countries. The entire story was filled with poetic imagery of the desert, death, the sky, the sun and heat. Also many characters along the journey; the descriptions of the Lyles were incredible: A wonderful picture of such a disgusting and despicable pair. There were many other characters like the menacing Captain Broussard, the frightening yet intriguing Belqassim.
For the first part of the book, we met Kit and Port, who supposedly went to North Africa to rekindle their marriage, although I didn't get that impression simply because a) Port invited his friend Tunner and b) Kit didn't seem to share Port's interest in North Africa and c) neither Port nor Kit seemed interested in each other once they got there. At some point, all three of them had cheated on each other, betraying each other's trust, friendship, and love, though the issue was never confronted by any of them. In fact, these characters' personalities and relationships to each other were the most bewildering issues of the book.
There was a constant criss-crossing between a desperately strong sense of duty (without knowing why) to utter complacency and indifference between Kit and Port. They, along with Tunner, seemed rich, spoiled and ignorant. I couldn't understand their reactions to certain situations; such as Tunner's thoughts as to how his friends at home would interpret Port and Kit's disappearance, or Kit's reaction to Port's death, or Port's overreactions to Kit! Then again, the three of them were in an extreme environment. They wandered aimlessly in another world, void of Western reason, void of Western fairness, powerful, unyielding, and wholly unsympathetic.
I loved Bowles' constant symbolism throughout the book; such as Marhnia's retelling of the story of the women who wished for tea in the sahara, for which they got more than they bargained. Then there was the train dream that was so important for Port to interpret: "one's hesitation was an involuntary decision to refuse participation" in life. I think that this sentence pretty much described Port, Kit and Tunner. Again, they drifted much of the time, making decisions very much on a whim, living moment to moment, refusing to face the feelings deep in their conscience: Guilt, regrets, fear, etc. Finally, Port's stolen passport was a wonderful symbolism of his inevitable erasure from existence.
The last section of the novel was fantastic. Kit was forced to stop living according to omens in the sky, forced to stop living in fear. Up until this point, most of her living was vicarious through Port. Her journey with the men in the caravan was frightening and savage, yet it completely opened a long-hidden facet in her character. The irony was that it took her to the point of no return. Once she was "saved," it was sadly clear that no Westerner could possibly understand what she experienced, so it seemed fitting that Kit would just disappear into her own madness, or was it even madness?
Yes, I loved this novel--a gorgeous illustration of the cruel beauty of the desert and its culture. Such a seemingly benign environment was powerful enough to bring any arrogant Westerner physically and psychically, to his knees.