Saturday, October 5, 2013


Travel writing is really time travel writing, an attempt to capture place and time in a form that can be shared with those of us who weren't there, who  never can be there, who missed our chance. That this has always been the case is the chief, melancholy lesson to be learned from Their Heads are Green and Their Hands are Blue*, a collection of essays from Paul Bowles' extensive travels through the "non-Christian" world as it was in the mid-20th century.

In most cases, Bowles got there before globalization, before electricity and modern communications and other technology changed local lives forever in Sri Lanka (still called Ceylon when he was there), North Africa, South America*, the Middle East. Or he was there just as the changes were starting, as in southern India when he observes a pair of government officials pulling up at  his hotel with a keyring on which is the only existing key to the box that turns on the hotel's electricity, which is on only for the duration of the officials' lunch before it is shut off again. Which lunch Bowles declines to observe because he has rushed up to his room to enjoy 15 minutes with the fan on because southern India is really, really stiflingly hot and breezeless, even near the sea.

But of course it's in North Africa, where his most famous fiction is set, that Bowles is most interesting, and most aware of his secret status as a time traveler, or at least a person in some way at war with time as he tries to capture the feel of a place:
"...Writing about any part of Africa is a little like trying to draw a picture of a roller coaster in motion. You can say: It was thus and so, or, it is becoming this or that, but you risk making a misstatement if you say categorically that anything is, because likely as not you will open tomorrow's newspaper to discover that it has changed."
Hardly only North Africa, am I right? Hardly just in the 1960s, am I right? Plus ├ža change...

The best part of the collection is Bowles' musical mission through Morocco, "The Rif, To Music" in which he recounts his efforts, along with a few very interesting friends, to capture the unique music of several tribes before it gets contaminated by globalism. A sample of what he captured can be found here. There's more at the Libary of Congress' website, I think, but the government shutdown has made that impossible to verify. I shall be seeking it out, though!

Also notable is "Baptism of Solitude", in which Bowles confronts the immense silence of the Sahara desert, and which has left me with a tremendous longing to watch again Werner Herzog's extraordinary Fata Morgana, which thank goodness I own:

Now you probably want to as well, no?

I have a biography of Bowles on tap for later this winter, and plan to investigate his own musical compositions soon as well. Fascinating, fascinating man. But if one is really interested in this guy, on whom the character of Tom Frost in the film adaptation of William S. Burroughs' Naked Lunch (if not the book, exactly; it's been so long since I read that I can't remember if Tom Frost is explicitly named in the book) is based, this essay collection highlighting his strange love for the discomforts and inconveniences of travel, his pursuit of music and his awe at the variety his world still had to offer, is an indispensable read.

*The title is drawn from some wacky lines of poet Edward Lear's, meant to evoke the sense of genuine difference and novelty which travelers, if not tourists, usually seek when going abroad.

**Wherein he teaches us that "All Parrots Speak" and if that essay doesn't charm your socks off, you probably weren't wearing any.

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