The short story was but one of many writing genres embraced by author Paul Bowles, known also for his novels, travel essays and poems. The influential American writer drew the admiration of other literary giants such as Tobias Wolff and Norman Mailer, who said Bowles “let in the murder, the drugs, the incest, the death of the Square… the call of the orgy, the end of civilization.” That aptly describes the content of the dozen short stories found in Too Far From Home: Selected Writings of Paul Bowles. The selected stories were written over a span of approximately 25 years, beginning in 1950.
As an expatriate who lived for many years in Tangier, Bowles’s writing not only demonstrates a keen understanding of the Western traveler (“A Distant Episode”), it also shows how he comprehended the varied inhabitants of Morocco (“The Delicate Prey”) more than any other American or European writer of his time. From the dunes of the Sahara desert to the peaks of the Atlas Mountains, Bowles effortlessly enters the minds of a people living in the French Protectorate (1912-1956).
Bowles masters a range of narrative techniques in a variety of settings. While he’s perhaps best known for The Sheltering Sky – a novel adapted for the screen, starring John Malkovich and Debra Winger – Bowles is also at ease with stories set in the Caribbean (“Pages from Cold Point”) and elsewhere. In one story (“The Circular Valley”) he even adopts a type of meta-narrative by giving voice to a spirit that moves in and out of the consciousness of birds, fish, humans and reptiles to experience emotions in different forms of life.
Bowles’s short stories are indeed very brief. The longest in this collection is 28 pages (“The Time of Friendship”), and most are less than half that. The brevity is a testament to his word economy. Characters are developed quickly and fully in the opening pages, and in each tale the protagonist is faced with nothing short of a profound, life-altering event – emotional, physical or both. When necessary, Bowles does not shy away from the harsh realities of life outside “civilization.”
The man moved and surveyed the young body lying on the stones. He ran his finger along the razor’s blade; a pleasant excitement took possession of him. He stepped over, looked down, and saw the sex that sprouted from the base of the belly. Not entirely conscious of what he was doing, he took it in one hand and brought his other arm down with the motion of a reaper wielding a sickle. It was swiftly severed. A round, dark hole was left, flush with the skin; he stared for a moment, blankly. Driss was screaming. The muscles all over his body stood out, moved.
Some readers may find it frustrating how Bowles often uses foreign words – Arabic, French and Spanish – when the English translation is insufficient. But not only are such occurrences sporadic, they also lend a certain authenticity to conversations between a melange of characters.