Saturday, September 10, 2011

Up Above the World, by Paul Bowles

When I'm fed up with traveling, I threaten to stop buying airline tickets and, with the money I save, buy travel books instead. When you've got someone like Paul Theroux describing the Trans-Siberian Railway, why vex yourself with vodka-sodden berth-mates and watery borscht?

Up Above the World is a novel which left me equally soured on both fictional and real travel.  Or maybe it just left me soured on Paul Bowles.  Bowles' best known novel is The Sheltering Sky, in which an American couple ventures into the North African desert in a misguided effort to reinvigorate their marriage. The married couple travelling to an unnamed Central American country in Up Above the World have no such agenda but come to an unfortunate end all the same.

They are unremarkable people, Dr. and Mrs. Slade -- upper middle-class, educated, worldly. They are not feckless. It's not carelessness nor stupidity putting them in harm's way. They simply cross paths, quite coincidentally, with the wrong man. In that regard, this story reminds me very much of Ian McEwan's The Comfort of Strangers: People who are very much like me travel to a foreign place, strike up a casual conversation with a person they meet there, and come to very bad ends within a couple of hundred pages.  Bowles' villain is actually another American -- a charming expatriate. He's not even a wicked foreigner.

Maybe I expect certain things from books set in foreign countries. Sometimes there's a lesson:  Scott didn't prepare sensibly for the antarctic and is now buried in a glacier somewhere. Sometimes I just soak up the scenery:  The fact that the Finns are mad about tango is no less delightful in print than it is in Helsinki.  If the writer is gifted, I just tag along on her prose: Why risk dysentery when someone else can make New Delhi sound poetic?

I was completely frustrated with this novel. Bowles' prose is ordinary. There was no cautionary wisdom. It might have been set in Guatemala, or in East L.A., so as a travelogue, it failed.  I had the sense that I should have appreciated the book more, which only exacerbated the frustration.  Should? Why should I have admired it?

Decades ago, I was in love with the idea of Morocco, and in feeding that infatuation, I ran across Jane and Paul Bowles. At that time of my life, the idea of living as an expatriate in Morocco was beyond fabulous. They had done it and thus became my mentors. Now I can look back on Paul Bowles (1910-1999) with a more temperate view. He was first and foremost a composer. If I read The Sheltering Sky, I've since forgotten it, which doesn't bode well. In retrospect, I was smitten with them and what I imagined their lives to have been. That doesn't necessarily recommend his novel.

Second, the copy on the book jacket misled me:
On the terrace of an elaborate hilltop apartment overlooking a Central American capital, four people sit making polite conversation. The American couple -- an elderly physician and his young wife -- are tourists. Their host, whom they have just met, is a young man of striking good looks and charm. The girl, who is his mistress, is very young and very beautiful. Sitting there, with drinks in their hands, watching the sunset, the Slades seem to be experiencing the sort of fortunate chance encounter that travelers cherish. But amidst the civilities and small talk, one remark proves prophetic. The host says to the American woman: "It's not exactly what you think."

My mind jumped to the story I wanted to read. I hoped for a story of a long-time expatriate gradually exposing a place to a visiting tourist. We've all gone here or there and murmured, Ah, this is paradise. Most of us have the good sense to realise that, after two weeks or beyond the boundaries of the resort, it may be less exquisite. There's no substitute for living in a place, day in and day out, for years. Only then can we tell the starstruck newcomer, "It's not exactly what you think."  I am captivated by the disparity between those two views, and I was really looking forward to a novel based upon it.

I was disappointed.  Does that mean Up Above the World is an unworthy novel?  I can't step far enough away to say. I wish there were someone at hand to defend the book, to tell me that I'm not seeing it clearly enough, perhaps because I didn't spend enough time with it.  With enough time and attention, we see everything differently.

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