Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Black Wall of Certainty

Amar, a Moroccan adolescent, hides out on the roof while the house he has been staying in is raided by the French, who are looking for members of the Istiqlal, an underground independence movement:
He listened: they were going back down the stairs, back along the galleries, back through the house, and away. They had parked their jeeps somewhere far out in the fields, for he waited an interminable time before he heard the faint sound of doors being shut and motors starting up. When they were gone he turned over and sobbed a few times, whether with relief or loneliness he did not know. Lying up here on the cold concrete roof he felt supremely deserted, exquisitely conscious of his own weakness and insignificance. His gift meant nothing; he was not even sure that he had any gift, or ever had had one. The world was something different from what he had thought it. It had come nearer, but in coming nearer it had grown smaller. As if an enormous piece of the great puzzle had fallen unexpectedly into place, blocking the view of distant, beautiful countrysides which had been there until now, dimly he was aware that when everything had been understood, there would be only the solved puzzle before him, a black wall of certainty. He would know, but nothing would have meaning, because the knowing was itself the meaning; beyond that there was nothing to know.
Probably my favorite of Paul Bowles's novels, The Spider's House, which was published in 1955, represents its author's most sustained attempt to depict the interior lives of Moroccans, even if the passage above seems to borrow as much from twentieth-century existentialism as it does from cultural anthropology. Other sections of the book deal, more conventionally, with an expatriate American novelist named John Stenham and a wayward young American woman named Lee Veyron. As the narratives converge, the mutual failure of understanding across cultures comes to the fore. The French colonizers, in the meantime, are depicted as cloddish torturers, while the members of the Istiqlal, who drink alcohol and sport Western clothing, are regarded by Amar (and presumably by Bowles) as corrupt and un-Islamic. Stenham, who speaks Maghrebi Arabic, deplores the encroachments of the modern world into traditional Morocco; Veyron welcomes them.

All of this no doubt reads very differently now than it did when the book was first published; the attempt of an outsider to depict (and thereby define) the consciousness of an inhabitant of a third-world country would probably be regarded as presumptuous if not downright offensive, and Bowles's pessimism about decolonization, like Naipaul's, would be seen as serving the interests of imperialism. But though Stenham seems, on the surface, an obvious stand-in and mouthpiece for Bowles, the writing of fiction exacts its toll on the characters. Stenham is a nostalgist for the primitive, but he is also an insensitive boor who ends by availing himself of his privilege as a Westerner to flee a situation that Amar has no escape from. Bowles the novelist is already a step ahead of his potential critics.

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