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Book Review

Visiting Bowles’s premodern places

By Carlo Wolff
Globe Correspondent / August 30, 2011

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Travel was therapy for Paul Bowles, a writer of power and precision. Travel, to Bowles, also was danger, sex, and revelation. The restless and prolific American expatriate expressed himself in fiction, short stories, essays, music, and theater. He is probably best known for “The Sheltering Sky,’’ a remarkable 1949 novel about a deadly odyssey to the North African desert by a troubled American couple and their friend that became a commercial success. It earned Bowles the Jaguar that carried him through Morocco and Algeria at the dawn of the ’50s. Always eager to dig where no one had ever dug before, Bowles had a taste for the strange. His travel writing makes the forbidden alluring.

Born and raised in New York in 1910, Bowles uncovered locales and cultures far from those of his childhood and youth. As an adult, his key stamping grounds were North Africa and, to a lesser extent, Asia. “Travels,’’ which also touches on Paris, Costa Rica, and Turkey, is a fine introduction to his dry, sharp style.

The collection comprises 40 mostly published pieces, largely chronologically arranged, on things and places he came to love and occupy, chief among them Morocco and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). Some were written for commercial magazines such as the defunct Holiday and the still-extant Nation. Others targeted a narrower audience, like an essay on kif, the potent hashish variant he learned about through decades of smoking it. Several deal with Spain, the European nation closest to his beloved Morocco. All reflect the psyche of a man who never seemed quite at home in place or in gender.

As an outsider, Bowles was open to whatever he found in his travels. His research into the folk music of the Rif, his exploration of cities such as Colombo (Ceylon’s largest city), where you could still find areas free of “twentieth-century gangrene,’’ and his respect for cultural variance render his travel writing prescient, his political insights unusually complex.

“Apart from the fact that the more easily sensationalized aspects of Mau Mau activity . . . made it excellent copy for news correspondents, there is no justification for the enormous publicity it received at the time of its apogee,’’ he wrote in “Letter From Kenya,’’ a 1957 article for The Nation. “Infinitely greater numbers of French colonists, for instance, died equally horrible deaths at the hand of Moroccan terrorists during the War for Independence in 1954 and 1955, but because there was no way of camouflaging the openly anti-colonial nature of the struggle, relatively little was made of it in the world press.’’

Bowles shuttled between cultures and sexes (his marriage to writer Jane Auer, while inexplicably steadfast, was deeply flawed) as colonialism gave way to nationalism and Western technology and commerce eroded the medieval heritage of Moroccan cities like Fez, Marrakesh, Casablanca, and Bowles’s touchstone, Tangier (where he died in 1999).

Most of these writings are from the 1950s, when Morocco gained independence from France and Ceylon was not yet Sri Lanka (its name was changed in 1972). Bowles doesn’t embrace Europeanization; a Luddite in constant search of the tried and true, he bemoans modernism. At the same time, he preferred riding in a Jaguar (with chauffeur) than riding a camel.

While the majority of his topics are serious - such as the death of dialects, the erosion of custom, and the fading of leisure (read “Café in Morocco,’’ a piece he wrote for Holiday in 1966) - Bowles can be funny. “All Parrots Speak’’ is a howler. “Tranquility expressed itself in a whispered monologue, quite unintelligible, punctuated with short remarks in Spanish,’’ he writes of a bird he and his wife lived with in Mexico. “One step above that took him completely into Spanish. From there he went into his giggles, from that into strident song.’’

“The Route to Tassemsit,’’ one of his longest and richest penetrations of the frontier, reads like a fable and makes one want to follow in his footsteps. Bowles’s footprints persist in these worldly - and, occasionally otherworldly - dispatches.

Carlo Wolff, a freelance writer from Cleveland, can be reached at carlo.wolff@gmail.com.

TRAVELS: Collected Writings 1950-1993 By Paul Bowles

Ecco, 508 pp., illustrated, paperback, $16.99