I’m hesitant to tick the ‘recommended’ box since this book is unusually, vividly bleak. it’s also considered a landmark piece of twentieth century literature. First published in 1949, it is set in a decimated postwar North Africa, through which Americans Port Moresby, his wife Kit and their friend Tunner move restlessly. Wealthy and aimless, they consider themselves travellers rather than tourists, with Port seeking some kind of defining philosophical experience in the remote Sahara. The precursor to the Beats, Bowles was apparently beset with hippies visiting his home in Tangiers in the hope of meeting a wise sage. He wrote the book in bed (a habit he adopted when freezing desert nights made it impossible to sit at a desk) dissolving writer’s block with liberal quantities of hashish.
I couldn’t find a single character with kindness or other redeeming qualities; the book is a relentlessly hostile description of the meaningless cruelties humans perpetrate on one another and our innate aloneness. Port and Kit are each punished for their wilfull ignorance and apathy. Some passages are a vertiginous deep dive into the horror of death. The writing shows its age by the startling racism and misogyny, branching off the deeper misanthropy. Perhaps it is not the portrayal of people in the novel which is so upsetting but the creeping suspicion that Bowles might have seen through the artifice of polite society, and be right about us all.
Ecco Press / Harper Collins 2014