paul bowles, expat americans, and psychological horror: “unwelcome words”

 


Unwelcome Words 

By Paul Bowles 

 

I

 

I’m glad you replied to my letter from the blue, although sorry to see that you imagine I think of you as a captive audience merely because you’re confined to your room. Or was that said simply to make me feel guilty for having remained mobile? 

 

Of course prices began to rise here long before the international oil blackmail of the seventies. We watched them go up, always thinking: They can’t go any higher. Everything’s five times as expensive as it was ten years ago. Since 1965 importation has been forbidden. So instead of imported goods we had smuggled goods, which fetched whatever people were willing to pay for them. (I suppose one should remember that prices here were incredibly low in the thirties and forties, so that they could keep on rising more or less indefinitely before they were equal to those of Europe or America. Then came the oil inflation, so that they’re still going up, and still lower than other countries.) 

 

Five years or so after independence, Christopher was talking with an old Berber somewhere in the south. In the midst of a general conversation the old man leaned toward him and said confidentially: "Tell me. How long is this Independence going to go on?" 

 

I remember in 1947 I sent to New York for a thousand dollars. (If you care to remember, that was enough to live on for three or four months in those days, at least here.) The bank where it was supposed to have been sent didn’t have it, but they advised me to try all the other banks in town. There were more than forty of them here then. I’d try two or three a day; nobody knew anything. A month later I still didn’t have my money. The American Legation suggested I go to the first bank and demand it, at the same time hinting that the American Minister would take steps if they failed to produce it. Magic result: the clerk went straight to afiling cabinet and pulled out the check. But I’ve always wondered what they hoped to gain by holding it up for such a long time. (It seemed very long to me then, and I was indignant about it.) Now things are much worse. All foreign money coming into the country is thrown into a pool in Casablanca and kept there while interest is collected from those who borrow it, generally over a period of three months. Eventually the sum shows up on your bank statement, charged at whatever was the lowest rate during that period. It’s perfectly understandable considering that the war goes on and is expensive, but that doesn’t lessen the inconvenience. We’re probably lucky no to have to pay a special war tax, and God knows, that may yet come. Sufficient unto the day. 

 

You ask for news about me: my daily life, what I think about, my opinions on exterior events. All in good time, if I can do it. But what happens here in the city carries much more weight than what we hear from outside. There are plenty of crimes, but each year we seem to have one murder which interests everyone. The special interest lies in the victims having been non-Moslems. This fascinates Moslems as well as infidels, although doubtless for different reasons. 

 

For instance, two years ago, while the workmen were still building the new mosque between here and the Place de France, an elderly woman used to appear from a building across the street, carrying pots of tea and coffee to the men. She’d come early in the morning, before sunrise, when the air was still cold, and the workmen looked forward to her arrival. One day she failed to appear, and later the same day they heard that she’d been murdered in her bed. Someone had managed to climb up to her window and get into her apartment, and before leaving he had prudently cut her throat. He’d expected to find hidden money (which, the woman being Jewish, he naturally assumed he’d unearth somewhere). But she lived in poverty; he found nothing but a blue plastic transistor radio, and he took it. After that, although the workmen got no more tea or coffee, they had music from the blue transistor, but only for a few days. A neighbor of the murdered woman noticed the radio there among the mounds of tiles, and was so certain she had recognized it that she mentioned it to a policeman in the street. So of course they caught the workman, who said he wouldn’t have cut the old Jewess’s throat if he’d known how poor she was! 

 

Then there was the case, last year, of the two old Americans (I don’t think you ever knew them) who lived in a small house high up on the Old Mountain, at the very end of the navigable road, where it turns into what’s left of the Roman road. They were truly isolated there, without a telephone or another house in sight. So after several decades of living up there in peace, they were suddenly attacked. The husband was in the garden at the edge of the woods, filling a ditch with water. The attackers felled him and pushed his head into the ditch. The wife saw everything through the window before they went into the house and beat her up, trying to make her tell where ”the money” was hidden. (These people were penniless, living on their Social Security checks.) There was no money, so after landing a few more kicks in the woman’s face, the marauders went on their way. The husband died; the wife survived. The incident alarmed the Europeans living on the Old Mountain Road, all of whom have large properties and are already guarded by night watchmen; the muggers chose the old couple precisely because they were unprotected, and of course gotnothing at all out of it. The grapevine claims that the criminals were caught about two months later. They were part of a gang that lived in a cave on the coast to the west. But who knows? These things are taken more seriously by the European residents than food riots and battles with the so-called Polisario in the Sahara. The bridge-table mentality, if you’ll pardon the slur.

 

So anyway, that’s that for now. 

 

II

 

Good that we’re back in touch. 

 

You’re wrong; I do remember the last time we saw each other. You were living in that crazy apartment on the roof of the castle, and there was a terrible wind coming from the harbor. You had a few people there for dinner, and I remember the door onto the roof being opened and the wind blowing through the entire flat, so that everyone was calling out: Shut the door! What the precise year was, I don’t know, because the episode seems to have no context. The only other detail I recall is your remark that you couldn’t read anything written after the eighteenth century. I accepted it as a personal idiosyncrasy; since then I’ve thought about it, wondering how healthy such a self-imposed stricture is for a twentieth-century author. Is it that you don’t read contemporary writing any longer in order to escape from its possibly pernicious influence, or that any contact with present-day fiction is repugnant to you because it suggests the idea of competition? Of course your reasons for excluding the nineteenth century remain unexplained in any case. Although in music I could easily make a similar sweeping statement, relegating to oblivion all the music of the nineteenth century. But that kind of generalization is never fruitful, it seems to me, and I wonder how closely you adhere to your dictum. 

 

Half the time I haven’t even been sure where you were during these past fifteen years or so. Through others I heard you’d been living in Hong Kong, Tokyo and even Malaysia. (There was a town there which you were said to be fond of, but I can’t remember its name. On the east coast, and fairly far north.) Once you’d got out of the habit of writing to me, you no longer knew where to write, which is understandable. The excuse applies even more strongly to me, since you had no fixed residence, whereas I always had a home base.

 

since they were your bridge and canasta partners, along with all the other residents I avoided knowing for years. Both of them died ten days or so ago; who knows of what? He first, and she a few days later. Smina is convinced that Betty did herself in so as not to have to go through Alec’s funeral. She could be right; I never knew the Howes except at parties and in the market. I suspect you won’t bemoan their passing. 

 

And of course there’s the incredible Valeska. She’s been back here several times since you have, although not in the past five years or so. Abdelouahaid conceived a strong dislike for her, mainly because she steadfastly refused to sit in the front seat of the Mustang, even though it was the only comfortable passenger’s seat in the car. Her insistence upon riding in back rubbed him the wrong way, since he assumed, and probably quite correctly, that she wanted to make it clear to the public that he was the chauffeur. This basic antipathy made it easy for him to criticize other facets of her behavior. This he constantly did to me, but of course not to her. Then one day he found his chance and sprang. The result was so insane that I couldn’t upbraid him afterwards as I should have. 

 

On the days when I went to fetch Valeska at the hotel she always sat by a table in the courtyard, reading, doing crossword puzzles or whatever, but very busy. Abdelouahaid would drive right up to the head of the stairs so she couldn’t help seeing us, and she always glanced up once, so that it was certain she’d noticed. For some reason I couldn’t fathom, she never budged until I got out of the car and went down into the courtyard and crossed it and stood within a foot of her table. This was a sacred rite. One day I stayed at home and sent Abdelouahaid for her. When she saw him going down into the courtyard she jumped up and followed him up to the car, he said, asking again and again: "Where’s Paul? Where’s Paul?" 

 

At this point Satan must have arrived and prompted Abdelouahaid to look at the ground and say sadly: "Paul’s dead." You’ll be able to imagine the screeches and squawks that followed on this announcement. He helped her into the car and they set off for Itesa. As you know, he doesn’t speak English, but he knew enough words to convey to her that I was lying on the floor, and that people were standing around looking at me. 

 

He said that as they got to the Plaza del Kuweit, Valeska suddenly cried out: "Oh Christ! My camera’s at the hotel. Never mind. Go on." 

 

She was literally hysterical when she saw me, safe and sound, and I thought: This is too much, and saw myself taking her to Beni Makada to the psychiatrist. Then she wheeled and shrieked at Abdelouahaid: "You son of a bitch!" 

 

I don’t think she’s ever forgiven him for his joke, but he’s still delighted by the memory of it. As I say, I couldn’t bring myself to criticize him, since in a way he did it for me, thinking that she might change her behavior as a result. But naturally it changed nothing, she considering it merely an arbitrary action by a crazy Arab who was curious to see how she’d react. 

 

They’re building fancy villas all around me. They’re well-built but hideous, and look like old-fashioned juke boxes, their facades plastered with wrought iron and tile work. Each one is required by law to have a chimney, but in no case is the chimney connected with anything inside the house, being purely decorative. The builders are waiting for buyers who don’t arrive. Will they ever? The prices seem very high: between $125,000 and $200,000, and there’s no heat, of courseno furnace, no fireplacesand often no space outside for a garden. Yet it’s that space which determines whether they’re to be considered officially villas, or merely houses (which don’t have to have chimneys). 

 

I hope all’s well with you, and that you’ll reply. 

 

III

 

I’ve made it an objective to write you regularly if not frequently, to keep you in touch with this section of the outside world; it may help to aerate your morale. Clearly the only way to give you an idea of my life is for me to write whatever comes into my head. In the conscious selection of material to include, there is the possibility of imposing a point of view, a parti pris. I think my procedure will give you a more accurate picture of my daily life—at least, that part of it which goes on inside my head, by far the most important part. 

 

I’ve often imagined being in your unenviable situation in the event of a fire or an earthquake. Not to be able to get out of your bed and try to run to safety. Or if you’re in your wheelchair, not to be able to go anywhere in it save up and down the corridors. I think that would be my main preoccupation, but again, maybe it wouldn’t, since one doesn’t live in constant expectation of fires and earthquakes. But I can see myself lying awake at night imagining in detail what it would be like to be asphyxiated by smoke or suddenly flung to the floor with a girder on top of my legs and the dust of plaster choking me. I hope you don’t do that, and I somehow doubt that you do. By now you must have become enough of a fatalist to be able to consider all objective phenomena as concomitants of your condition. If that’s the case, it may be partially due to your having had to put up for eight years with an impossible wife—a kind of training for the ultimate attainment of a state of total acceptance. At the same time it has occurred to me that the constant presence of a woman like Pamela may easily have augmented the tension which led eventually to the stroke. You suffered unnecessarily for those eight years. Pamela was a racist. She felt she operated on a higher level than yours because she was aware that three hundred years ago her ancestors were living in Massachusetts, whereas yours were living in some benighted region of the Ukraine. "We were here first, so of course it’s ours, but we love to have you here, because it makes life more interesting." Am I wrong, or was Pamela like that? Weren’t you always aware of a profound contradiction between what she said and the way she acted? At this great remove, I don’t remember her very well. That is to say, her face escapes me;I can’t project an image of it. I do remember her voice however. It was beautifully modulated and a pleasure to listen to, except when she was angry. This was to be expected: one purposely changes one’s voice and delivery as a means of communicating one’s emotion. Yet now I have to ask: was Pamela ever angry? When Ireplay the mental tape I have of the breakfast in Quito (in that crazy ice-cream parlor with the balcony where they served food) I hear those trenchant staccato phrases of hers not as expressions of annoyance but as orders being given to an inferior. They had the desired effect: you shrank into your shell and said no more. Everything was delightful as long as there was no resistance; then commands had to be issued. 

 

The truth is that for two or three decades I haven’t thought of her at all. I thought of her this morning only because I was trying, from what I knew of your life, to imagine possible causes of a cerebral lesion. I admit that after the fact it’s of purely academic interest. The autopsy doesn’t cure the patient. 

 

After I woke up this morning I recalled a silly song I heard as a child, when it was sung to me by a woman named Ethel Robb. (I don’t know who she was, but I seem to remember that she was a schoolteacher.) The words struck me as so strange that I learned them by heart. 

 

In der vintertime ven der valley’s green

And der vind blows along der vindowsill

Den der vomen in der vaudeville

Ride der velocipedes around der vestibule. 

 

(The melody was a variant of "Ach, du lieber Augustin.") Surely you never heard the song. I wonder if anyone ever did, outside Miss Robb’s circle of acquaintances. 

 

The early twenties was the time for absurd lyrics: witness "Oh by Jingo," "The Ogo Pogo," "Lena Was the Queen of Palestina," "Yes, We Have No Bananas," "Barney Google" and God knows what else. There was also a Fanny Brice song called ”Second-Hand Rose," which got me into trouble with the mother of my hostess when I sang it at a party here in the sixties. She paid no attention to: ”Even the piano in the parlor Papa bought for ten cents on the dollar." But when I got to "Even Abie Cohen, that’s the boy I adore, had the nerve to tell me he’d been married before," the lady jumped up and ran across to the divan where I was sitting. She seized my face between her thumb and fingers and squeezed, crying: "Even you, Paul Bowles, even you?" It was all so sudden and dramatic that I felt I’d committed a major solecism. Fortunately there were other guests who knew the song, and they were able to convince her that I hadn’t been extemporizing for the occasion, although she didn’t seem completely mollified. 

 

I think the most important characteristic you and I have in common (although you’d be within your rights in claiming that we have no points at all in common) is a conviction that the human world has entered into a terminal period of disintegration and destruction, and that this will end in a state of affairs so violent and chaotic as to make any attempts at maintaining government or order wholly ineffective. I’ve always found you excoriating the decay of civilization even more vehemently than I. This of course was when the worst we could imagine was destruction by nuclear warfare. But now we can imagine conditions under which sudden death by fire might be a welcome release from the inferno of life; we might long for a universal euthanasia. Can we hope for nuclear war—I mean ethically—or are we bound out of loyalty to wish for the continuation of the human species at no matter what costs in suffering? I used the word ethical because it seems to me that unethical desires are bound to engender false conclusions. 

 

I suppose what is at the bottom of my mind in all this is that I’m curious to know whether being totally incapacitated has altered your point of view in any way. Has it left you angrier, more resigned, or entirely indifferent? (Although that you never were, under any circumstances, so that I doubt the likelihood of such a major alteration in personality.) I have a feeling that you may consider these things a purely private matter, and as a result may resent my prurient probing. 

 

IV

 

I can see that you don’t really remember the weekend you referred to earlier. There’s nothing shameful about not having total recall: still, it seems doubly unfortunate that you should have been deprived of both external and internal mobility: I mean the freedom to wander in the past, to explore the closets of memory. I know, it was forty years ago and you say you don’t remember, that all three of us were so drunk none of us could possibly recall the details of that absurd excursion. But neither you nor I was drunk when we arrived in the village (and had to get off the train because that was as far as they’d built the railroad). It was still daylight, and we crossed the river on that unfinished bridge to get to the so-called hotel. Surely you remember that there was nothing to drink but mescal; you kept saying that it smelled like furniture polish, which as I recall it did. Have you ever drunk any since? And what a night, with Bartolome sitting there getting drunker and drunker and giggling his head off. And at one point (search well—you must remember this) the mosquito net over my bed collapsed onto my head so that I was swathed in folds of netting, and the dust made me sneeze, and Bartolome in his chair pointed at me while I struggled, and cried: Pareces al Nino Dios! And you and he laughed interminably while I sneezed and flailed my arms, trying to find an opening in the net. By then there was nothing to do but send Bartolome down for another bottle of Tehuacan and go on drinking our mescal. I think it was he who finally extricated me from the netting. I admit that you were more or less intoxicated, but certainly not enough so to have drawn a blank. All that was fun, and belongs on the credit side of the ledger. As usual, however, I was more conscious of the unpleasant details than of all the amusement. The next day was eternal. It was agony to be on that plunging rattletrap little train, and I looked with loathing at the miles of cactus on the parched hillsides. Eachjolt of the train increased the pounding in my head. Bartolome slept. You seemed to have no hangover, for which I felt some bitterness; but then, you were used to alcohol and I was not. But since you say you don’t remember, I’m left alone with the memory; I might as well have dreamed it all. 

 

Sometimes I suspect you of exaggerating your present deficiencies, not, certainly, to evoke pity, since that would be unlike you, and besides, the desire to exaggerate is probably unconscious in its origin. Nevertheless, you do emphasize your unfortunate situation, so that one can’t help feeling sorry for you. The question is: Why do you italicize your misfortune? My feeling is that it’s simply out of bitterness. I feel you thinking: Now I’m in a wheelchair. That’s that, and that’s what the world wanted. In other words, they have done it to you. If only you were religious you could blame it on God, or wouldn’t that be any more satisfactory? 

 

As I remember, you’re not particularly fond of animals. I’ve always been an ailurophile myself as opposed to a dog-lover. It seemed to me there’d be time enough later to make friends with the canines. Here there’s not much likelihood of that. At night they’re out in packs, and sometimes attack passersby in the street. A sextet of them chased an American friend for a quarter of a mile one evening along the new road that goes from the foot of the Old Mountain to the new section of Dradeb. When one particular dog gets to be a continuous sleep-disturber I’ve twice resorted to drastic measures. It would be better to describe the drastic measures, I realize, than let you think that I poisoned the beasts. Naturally that was the first thing that occurred to me, but I decided against it because of the suffering it causes. Also, the symptoms of death from rat poison (the only lethal product I’d have been able to find here) are so classical that the owner of the animal would immediately suspect that his watchdog had been poisoned. My system with the first brute, which used to bark all night from the garden next door, was time-consuming but effective. It involved my staying up half the night for a week in my wait for a completely deserted street. About half past one I would go to the kitchen and prepare the half pound of raw hamburger. One night I would mix Melleril and Largactyl with the meat, the following night I would grind up several tablets of Anafranil. I continued the alternation until the dog’s owner decided it was rabid, and had it shot. There was no more barking after the first night of treatment. This seemed the most humane way of getting rid of the animal. 

 

Another year a bitch whelped in the garage, which is always open. The night watchman gave her a carton to lie in with her pups. When these had been given away, she remained in the garage, encouraged by an eccentric Ethiopian woman who sent her maid at all hours with food for her. As soon as she felt thoroughly at home in the garage, she began to engage in long-distance conversations with friends in Ain Hayani and Dradeb. I complained about this to Abdelouahaid; I thought he might have a solution. He had a very simple one. He picked up the bitch and put her into the boot of the car. We drove to the Foret Diplomatique, to the edge of the beach, where there’s a restaurant run by a Moroccan with a crew of dogs. Before letting her out of the boot, Abdelouahaid turned the Mustang around, to be able to start up quickly. She stood on the beach for a second, bewildered; the other dogs saw her and came to investigate. While they surrounded her Abdelouahaid started up, and we escaped, even though I saw her running behind the car for a good distance as we drove through the woods. She wasn’t stupid: as soon as she heard the motor she pushed the other dogs aside and rushed toward the car.

 

Something has happened to the Moroccans. Fifty years ago dogs were execrated. Only people living in the country owned them. Too dirty to live in the city. Somehow they noticed that practically all French women went into the street accompanied by dogs on leashes, and gradually began to imitate them. At first it was boys leading curs by ropes which they tied tightly around the animals’ necks. French ladies passing by would be indignant. Mais ce pauvre chien! Tu vas l’etrangler! Now every Moroccan child in neighborhoods such as mine has a canine pet. Most are German shepherds: fathers think they provide better protection. 

 

The French are unpredictable. Last month a young photographer from Paris was here taking pictures for Liberation. The only thing which moved him to exclamations of surprise was the size of a peanut-butter jar full of birdseed. Is that authentic? he wanted to know. Do they really sell such large jars of peanut butter? When I said yes, I’m not sure he didn’t suspect me of pulling his leg, as he went across the room and examined it carefully. Merry Christmas. 

 

V

 

Someone sent me a box of American chocolate creams last week. On the cover are the words Home Fashioned. On another facet of the same cover is a list of ingredients included in the home-fashioning. Among these are: invert sugar, partially hydrogenated vegetable oils, sorbitol, lecithin, butylated hydroxytoluene, butylated hydroxyanisole, propyl gallate, potassium sorbate, sulphur dioxide and benzoate of soda. Even the most modern home isn’t likely to have all these delicacies in its kitchen. Although I haven’t been in an American kitchen in many years, I know that they’re inclined to look more and more like laboratories. Perhaps by now they have chemical cabinets stocked with everything from triethylene glycol to metoclopramide. 

 

The kitchens in farmhouses at the time of the First World War were not too pleasant to be in either, as I remember, in spite of all the propaganda romanticizing them. There were mingled odors of sour milk, dill and iron from the well water. Spirals of flypaper hung from every convenient hook, and the flies still buzzed on all sides. If there were dogs, they smelled. If there were children, they smelled. It was unbelievable that serious people should want to live that way. What’s the matter with them? Nothing. They just don’t know any better, that’s all. This answer never satisfied me. It implied a double standard that made it possible for my parents to overlook these people’s shortcomings. But they never forgave me for not knowing something I ought to know, and the severity was applied precisely because I was nota farm boy. Seventy years ago there existed that class difference between those brought up in the city and those brought up on the farm. Now there seems to be very little distinction made. The concept of class has been carefully destroyed. Either you have money or you don’t. The result of democracy, I suppose, when it’s misunderstood to mean similarity rather than equality. 

 

You couldn’t have known the typical small, medium-priced hotel of Paris in the twenties. (By the time you got to Paris, after the Second World War, things had changed somewhat.) There were only three or four rooms per floor, the staircases and corridors were heavily carpeted and the windows were hidden by two sets of curtains. Normally there were two lights in the room, one hanging from the center of the ceiling and the other above the bed’s headboard. Both were affixed to a system of pulleys, so that they could be propelled upward or downward according to the needs of the moment. The wallpaper was always dark with wide stripes in colors which might at one time have been garish, although there was no way of knowing, since the patina of age had long since darkened them. It was easy to feel encased and protected in those rooms, and I often dream about them even now. Such dreams however aren’t pleasant, since I seem always to be on the point of having to leave in order to let someone else move in. No dream without at least subliminal anxiety. 

 

Incidentally, you have no reason to upbraid me for not giving my specific reactions to your most recent tale of woe. Such reactions can only be emotional in content, and there’s never any point in expressing emotions in words, it seems to me. I assure you, nevertheless, that I experienced a feeling of profound chagrin when I read your letter and realized that you were undergoing further torments, and I thought I’d conveyed that impression earlier. 

 

You may remember (although probably not, since you never crack a book written in our century) a phrase used by the Castor in La Nausee: "Je me survis." (Ineptly translated in the American edition as "I outlive myself.") I understand the Castor’s feeling of being her own survivor; it’s not unlike my feeling, save that I’d express mine as: "Ma vie est posthume." Do you make sense of that? 

 

I’ve often wished that someone would rewrite the end of Huckleberry Finn, delivering it from the farcical closing scenes which Twain, probably embarrassed by the lyrical sweep of the nearly completed book, decided were necessary if the work were to be appreciated by American readers. It’s the great American novel, damaged beyond repair by its author’s senseless sabotage. I’d be interested to have your opinion, or do you feel that the book isn’t worth having an opinion about, since a botched masterpiece isn’t a masterpiece at all? Yet to counterfeit the style successfully, so that the break would be seamless and the prose following it a convincing continuation of what came before—that seems an impossible task. So I shan’t try it, myself. 

 

I think a warning sign of creeping senility is the shortening of the attention span, which strikes me as a form of regression to childhood. We’ll see. 

 

VI

 

I haven’t mentioned the mounting hostility I’ve noted in your letters because I’ve assumed that it was directed at the world in general, and not at me. Now I see how mistaken I was. First you tell me that my letters are self-indulgent. I let that pass: it was merely a criticism of my method. But I can’t overlook the word "gloating." On seeing that, I realize that I’d have done better to limit my correspondence to one necessarily cruel Get Well card, and let it go at that. 

 

It seems to me that for this final period of your life it might be profitable to stop encouraging your masochistic tendencies. I can see that you don’t feel that way at all, and that on the contrary you intend to go on giving free rein to them. Too bad. There’s obviously nothing I can do from here to help you, so I may as well let it rest. But as you sink into your self-imposed non-being, I hope you’ll remember (you won’t) that I made this small and futile attempt to help you remain human. 

 

Hasta el otro mundo, as Rosa Lopez used to say. 

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