There are allusions throughout the novel that emphasize how finite life really is despite the illusion of everlasting. When I first stumbled upon Paul Bowles’ novel The Sheltering Sky on the bottom shelf of an office coffee table in the bustling city of Kumasi, Ghana, I had no idea that I would embark on a mental journey through the (Sahara) desert of life and find myself strangely, maybe very strangely, identifying with the characters.
Spoiler alert for anyone interested in reading the book… The story takes place after WWII in French West Africa. Two American travelers and one tourist find themselves journeying across the Sahara from Algiers, not knowing how long they will stay in each city, acting as if time does not exist. Port and Katherine are a married couple in their thirties from New York City. Their marriage had been struggling but they thought the African adventure might draw them closer together and rekindle their love. They lived like nomads, without pattern or direction, from one city and village to the next. Eventually, Port becomes sick and dies of typhoid fever in some remote village in Mali. At that point, Katherine seemingly begins to lose her mind, at least to the typical western reader. But did she lose her mind or did she find it? It’s hard to say. She disappears into the desert with minimal things, though she keeps her passport. Her journey with no end game takes her through the Sahara where she’s picked up by a caravan of African-Arab travelers on camels. She becomes one of the wives of these men, despite not being able to understand a word of the language or having much say in the matter aside from the fact that she enjoys the physical intimacy. Katherine drifts through the sands of time, a vagabond with nothing holding her back, no routine and no stability whatsoever and not much regard for herself. She was like an African version of Christopher McCandless (Alexander Supertramp) from Into The Wild, only Katherine was fictional and a female.
After she became emotionally wrapped-up and somewhat scarred by the native who had taken her as his wife, she escaped and went back into the deserts and villages, living her nomad life until eventually finding herself on the coast, at the world’s edge. It’s unclear in the book if this is the East or West coast of Africa. At the end of the psychologically terrifying yet liberating novel, Katherine tries to pay for a meal with her French currency which is rejected and not understood. Instead of facing the consequences as she had intended, a man who happened upon her brings her to a place where she is “safe from the natives” and eventually, against her will, brings her back via airplane to Algiers. At this point, Katherine seems like a crazy person, a psych-ward patient who refuses to speak or cooperate, but is she really? The American in me says yes, she certainly lost her mind, but my human soul who has been to Africa multiple times says otherwise. Maybe Katherine’s fatal flaw was holding on to her passport throughout her wanderings. It was as if she had that possible escape plan at her disposal had she needed it or decided to enter back into western civilization.
When she arrives back in Algiers with a woman from the U.S. embassy, Katherine disappears into the streets of the busy city while the woman is checking her into The Grand Hotel. That is all we know of Katherine. The reader never finds out where she ends up, but it’s pretty clear that she stays in Africa.
Katherine had guts, but she didn’t always. In the beginning of the novel she was half and half about being a traveler as opposed to a tourist. In 1990, Christopher McCandless graduated from Emory University in Atlanta and journeyed across the the U.S. embracing a nomadic lifestyle, burning his money and living without stability. Throughout his travels and experiences and people he encountered, McCandless discovered more about himself, the world and living than he would have had he stayed in typical American culture.
Sometimes, I too find myself struggling between stability and instability, wanting one whenever I have too much of the other. There’s an unconscious slavery to having too much stability and it proves lethal, even if a person doesn’t realize it. Often times, those caught up in desiring or living in secure safety and stability (i.e. the typical American
dream nightmare) have never really lived at all. There’s also a recklessness to complete instability that can leave a person quite lonely, despite their rich experiences and the people they’ve encountered. Consistency vs. inconsistency. Both are so very necessary.
One thing is for certain, and it’s something Katherine might have known before her wanderings and Chris McCandless discovered too late, unfortunately…
Happiness is only real when shared.