Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Late Bowles

When this slim volume was published in 1982, it was marketed on the jacket flap as a novel, which is the one thing it isn't, at least in any conventional sense of the word. Points in Time is, more accurately, a collection of tales, anecdotes, and vignettes set in Morocco and ranging, in chronological sequence, from the time of Hanno the Carthaginian to the late 20th century. The pieces vary in length from a paragraph or two to several pages, and the whole thing can be read comfortably in one sitting — which in fact is how it ought to be read. For there is a unity to the book, even though there are no shared characters or any direct connections between sections.

What does hold the book together is, to begin with, the author's interest in the country where he lived for many years, and his personal take on both the Moroccan landscape (which is always there, in the background, though rarely described in detail) and its succession of inhabitants (Berbers, Arabs, Jews, and Christians). The tales also have in common a decidedly fatalistic view of human existence: people scheme and plan, love and hate, but in the end nobody controls his own fate.

Even the land itself doesn't remain unchanged by time; the book begins with these two paragraphs, which get a page by themselves:
After a half day's voyage they came to a large lake or marsh. No such place now exists, the lagoons being all to the north of the cape. South of it the shore is either guarded by cliffs, steep slopes, or stony and sandy beaches.

Nor is there any sign of such a lake having existed, and the sudden winter rains which make every dry watercourse roar from bank to bank are not of a character fit to cause floods likely to be mistaken for a marsh or a lake.
Besides such quick illuminations, Points in Time contains a half dozen or so more or less fully developed episodes, all of them apparently retold from either historical or contemporary accounts. Like earlier Bowles stories like “A Distant Episode” and “The Delicate Prey,” these tales display an affinity for unpredictable outcomes and a merciless fascination with sudden, almost ritual violence.

The book is, in a way, a distillation of the author's entire output, or one side of it at least. In principle, at least, that's not necessarily a good thing; you could make a case, I think, that Bowles was at his most interesting when he wasn't being just one kind of writer. These stories, shorn of any kind of interior life or social observation, are not particularly representative of his full range, but they may represent his work at its most Bowlesian, that is, they show the aspect of his art that no other writer really shares.

And the distillate is very pure. The writing is beautifully controlled and efficient throughout; any sense of an authorial presence has been carefully shorn away. Having come, in his progress of tales, to the present day, he closes with the following brief final chapter:
The river runs fast at the mouth where the shore is made of the sky, and the wavelets curl inward fanwise from the sea. For the swimmer there is no warning posted against the sharks that enter and patrol the channel. Some time before sunset birds come to stalk or scurry along the sandbar, but before dark they are gone.

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