Paul Bowles’s “The Sheltering Sky” is ostensibly a novel which focuses on the troubled marriage between Port Moresby and his wife Kit – a relationship which is eventually complicated as a love triangle by their friend George Tunner, who accompanies them – as the three Americans travel to the North African desert, yet there is a broader tension between their experiences abroad and the harshness of the North African environment. In this vein, even though the events which befall the unfortunate trio only go from bad to worse, Bowles’s descriptions of their surroundings as they move further away from the “Western” civilisation and comforts they are comfortable with and their corresponding helplessness were the most striking.
Against this background of post-colonialism, the third-person narrative style juxtaposes what is said and what is left unsaid: The dialogues or conversations of the protagonists – especially Port and Kit – are short and almost functional, whereas the reflective monologues and the soliloquies (which go unnoticed by the others) reveal more about their respective states of mind and the extent to which they keep secrets from one another. This said-unsaid juxtaposition, moreover, shows how the mutual suspicions and insecurities fester, contributing to the reader’s sense of frustration with the inability of the characters to express themselves and to make sense of the developments around them.
And this frustration persists throughout the three parts of “The Sheltering Sky”, but it is at and after the climax towards the end of the second part – on their trip to the interior of Morocco – when all three of them, for different reasons (death, insanity, despair, or a combination of these reasons), lose their ability to express themselves. It is an extension of their unfamiliarity with the journey and their cultural cluelessness, and put otherwise their trials and tribulations can be perceived as a warped form of cruel comeuppance, for which they have no answers for.