Sunday

Excruciating Dramatic Tension in a Short Fiction Masterpiece: Paul Bowles' "A Distant Episode"

Upon finishing The Sheltering Sky, I was reluctant to leave Bowles’ deeply engaging northern Africa behind, so I read his story, “A Distant Episode,” thinking I would take advantage of the opportunity to contemplate the differences between short stories and novels.  It was a good call, I believe, because the story is a reprisal of a plot line present in the novel: a traumatized foreigner is captured by sinister nomads and transported into an exotic desert world, losing her/his identity for a long period, only to recover it momentarily as part of a final plunge into complete insanity and/or despair. 

A happy little fugue Bowles liked to play out! But to get to the point, the striking difference between the short story and the novel is, not surprisingly, character development.   In “A Distant Episode,” the protagonist (the “Professor”) is sketched only in outline—we never find out what he looks like, and we know very little about him other than that he is a linguist, that his scientific bent allows him to feel that he can maintain an amused distance from the culture he’s in, and that he sometimes behaves impulsively.  Although these tidbits of character are important, the story takes on an admirable breakneck momentum that has little to do with character, and everything to do with pure narrative tension, or dramatic conflict.  How does Bowles do it?

The story begins with the Professor’s return to the small desert town of Ain Tadouirt, where long ago he formed a friendship with a café keeper.
Now facing the flaming sky in the west, and now facing the sharp mountains, the car followed the dusty trail down the canyons into air which began to smell of other things besides the endless ozone of the heights: orange blossoms, pepper, sun-baked excrement, burning olive oil, rotten fruit.
Although the passage does contain hints of something amiss (sun-baked excrement, burning oil, rotten fruit? Hmmm) its most important accomplishment is to place the reader in the scene with concrete sensory detail. 

Soon, however, the reader has stronger reasons to believe things aren’t exactly right.  The locals behave with barely masked hostility. The Professor, confident of his cultural understanding, chooses “airily” to ignore it. When the Professor blithely offers to pay a local man for some little boxes made of camel udders the story’s violent downward trajectory is set in motion.  An indication of the shift shows up almost immediately in Bowles’ landscape descriptions:
. . . the growing chorus of dogs that barked and howled as the moon rose higher into the sky . . . through a great rift in the wall the Professor saw the white endlessness, broken in the foreground by dark spots of oasis . . .
And then, as he walks with the udder-seller, it occurs to the Professor for the first time that he might be in danger:
The Professor thought: “He may cut my throat.  But his café—he would surely be found out.”
“Is it far?” he asked, casually.
“Are you tired?” countered the qaouaji.
“They are expecting me back at the Hotel Saharien,” he lied.
“You can’t be there and here,” said the qaouaji.
The Professor laughed.  He wondered if it sounded uneasy to the other.
“Have you owned Ramani’s café long?”
“I work here for a friend.”  The reply made the Professor more unhappy than he had imagined it would.
Dramatic tension surges into the story like a shot of adrenaline.  No longer can the reader believe that this is just a harmless travelogue.  Something is wrong, and the Professor knows it.  The tension reflected in the scenery (what I referred to in the George R.R. Martin posts as “Shadow description”) is cranked up. We smell the “sweet black odor of rotten meat.” The path is bordered on each side by high walls. There is no breeze and the palms are still, but you can hear running water behind the walls. There is the constant odor of human excrement.

A series of tension-ratcheting events ensues. The qaouaji warns the Professor to pick up some stones because there are dogs ahead. A dog attacks, and the qaouaji nails it with a stone, causing it to “scramble haphazardly about like an injured insect.”  The Professor goes back and forth in his mind about whether the qaouaji is going to do him violence. Finally, the qaouaji departs, and the Professor is relieved. 

But now he has a choice to make: Does he climb down the cliff to ask the Reguibat for camel-udder boxes, as the qaouaji seemed sure he would, or does he call it a day and head back to the Hotel Saharien?

Compulsively curious, he decides to descend the cliff.  That he’s made a fatal choice is illustrated by the following eerie passage:
Only the wind was left behind, above, to wander among the trees, to blow through the dusty streets of Ain Tadouirt, into the hall of the Grand Hotel Saharien, and under the door of his little room.
The beauty of this story is that the chain of events seems inevitable. Like the Professor, the reader is drawn from one occurrence to the next, as if by inexorable gravity. Bowles accomplishes a continual ratcheting-up effect, creating a sense of mounting dread using judiciously suggestive landscape descriptions interspersed with evidence of increasing hostility from the locals—hostility that becomes bald violence, and eventually leads to the Professor’s enslavement and unspeakable degradation. 

And the worst (or best) thing about it is that throughout the lead-up to story’s crisis, the Professor is not quite ignorant of what the reader strongly suspects is going to happen to him. Indeed, he seems drawn to his terrible fate like a moth to flame. 

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For posts analyzing the art and craft of some of the other English language masters of short fiction, click here (Robert Stone), here (Ray Bradbury), here (Denis Johnson), here (Annie Proulx), here (Tobias Wolff), here (Rick Bass), here (Hemingway), here (Faulkner), and here (Joyce).