Dian Parker on Paul Bowles and the unfamiliar.
During quarantine, my dreams felt like Paul Bowles’s stories; dark, smoke-filled interiors, conjuring spells, tourists frantic to find a way out. Whether possessed by a spirit, or driven mad by the locals, Bowles takes us through a foreign landscape that is constantly unsettling. You never quite know where you are or even how you got there.
One of my favorites of his 62 stories is “The Circular Valley.” In the story, an Atlájala (spirit) is able to possess souls. It is lonely, now that the monastery where it lives has been abandoned. A young American couple, on a burro, ventures up the steep mountain to visit the ruined monastery. The Atlájala enters the man, but finds the man’s soul suffocating and painful because of the man’s jealousy and emotional neediness. The spirit leaves the man and slips into the woman: “Now it believed itself to be housed in nothing, to be in its own spaceless self, so completely aware was it of the wandering wind, the small fluttering of the leaves, and the bright air that surrounded it…each element was magnified in intensity, the whole sphere of being was immense, limitless.”
Sensing the woman’s pain and wanting to help, the Atlájala pushes the man off the cliff. Watching him fall, the woman “raised her head and a tiny exultant shiver passed through her.” The spirit never entered into another being’s awareness after that, having attained through the woman the sense of completion it sought.
This profound scene reveals the scope of Bowles’s understanding and sensitivity to the human condition. Setting his stories in foreign lands, like Morocco where he lived, Bowles places his characters in mysterious and terrifying situations where they have no familiar point of reference.
I traveled to Morocco. The intense light and silence of the desert, the shrouded women, clicking tongues and frantic drumming, along with my feverish nights, all conspired in me a sense of something lurking just beyond my awareness. So like today’s environment; inside and out. So like my dreams.
Dian Parker is a writer, curator, and oil painter. She lives and works in Vermont.
Paul Bowles (1910-1999) was an American author, composer, and translator best known for his writings based on his traveling experiences.