This book, along with Gore Vidal's incredible introduction, led to a revitalization of the work of Paul Bowles. For far too long most of this work languished in out of print obscurity. But a sentence such as "His short stories are among the best ever written by an American" from the likes of Gore Vidal helped raise eyebrows along with intrigue. New versions of Bowles' work began to appear in the 1980s and eventually led to Bernardo Bertolucci's 1990 film of Bowles' most famous novel, "The Sheltering Sky". Bowles thus had the privilege of being rediscovered late in life (he died in Morocco in 1999 at age 88).
Bowles lived in Morocco for the vast majority of his life. An accomplished composer (trained by Aaron Copland in his youth) and writer, he remained and remains somewhat obscure (or as Vidal puts it "famous among those who were famous"). He writes mostly about non-european cultures, particularly Arabic or Islamic. Many times he said that he wrote from the subconscious; as though he wasn't aware of what he wrote. Some of the stories such as "The Scorpion", "By the Water" (featuring the surreal creature Lazrag), and "You Are Not I" (with its mindboggling midscene character shift) read as though the words did fall from some other dimension. Other stories seem to bear the marks of solid planning, such as "Call at Corazón" (a portrait of a rather unsuccessful marriage unfolding on a South American river), "Under the Sky" ("you are saving your friend's life"), "How Many Midnights" (a surprisingly standard story about a young couple), the nearly epic "The Hours After Noon" (where impressions and reality do not meet), and "Tea on the Mountain" (a very early story). Regardless of how Bowles wrote them, they all share a common undertow of terror of an Edgar Allen Poe style (Bowles once claimed in an interview that his mother read Poe to him before bed(!!!)). Bowles often gets credited for successfully depicting the threads that civilzation hangs on. And the terrors that await beneath the surface.
Some of Bowles' most brilliant creations stem from europeans attempting to infiltrate non-european cultures. "A Distant Episode" tells the disturbing story of a linguist captured by a Moroccan clan who violently turn him into a jester-esque fool. "Pastor Dowe at Tacaté" tells the story of a South American missionary that ends up "bribing" a group of people into hearing scripture by playing the song "Crazy Rhythm" on a victrola. He becomes too successful. In a gesture of thanks the leader of the group offers his very young daughter to the pastor. Which wasn't exactly what the pastor had in mind. The fantastic "The Time of Friendship" depicts the attempts of a German woman to "Christianize" a young Muslim boy. She memorably builds him a crèche. And he memorably doesn't respond to it the way she hopes. Bowles has an uncanny ability to portray the confusion and frustration of clashing cultures without making either side look ridiculous or inferior. When he writes tragic stories about people getting mistreated or misunderstood in other cultures, it never comes across as spiteful or racist. It seems strangely sympathetic regardless of the pain or horrors depicted. "The Delicate Prey" probably stands as the best example of this. It's downright disturbing. And violently sadistic. In such ways, Bowles' fiction actually teaches us about facing other cultures, and the problems and potential terrors that can arise if one "gets lost". Although he also presents a humorous example with the late story "You Have Left Your Lotus Pods on the Bus". Here a westerner spends the day with a group of Thai Buddhist monks ("What is the significance of the necktie?").
This collection presents a great overiew of the bulk of Bowles' short story output. The thick meaty stories of the 1940s gradually give way to the lighter stories of the 1960s and 1970s. By the 1970s many of the stories run only a few pages. But they maintain their intensity. "Allal" ends the book brilliantly with the story of a boy who enters the psychic perspective of a colorful snake. It evokes the same mood as the gorgeous earlier story "The Circular Valley" in which a spirit (an "Atlájala") enters a couple in love and storms off with disgust.
With the possible exception of the four kif-inspiried stories from the 1960s this collection offers up no disappointments. It demonstrates Bowles at his best. Anyone curious about this still rather obscure writer can start with this book. It includes most of Bowles' most acclaimed work. And at the end readers will likely wonder how this innovative storyteller continues to remain in the shadows of obscurity.