Paul Bowles on the Steamer Ship to … 

“Paul Bowles’s first and best novel, “The Sheltering Sky,” published 70 years ago this fall, was a book few saw coming. Its author was better known as a composer. Doubleday, the publisher that had paid Bowles an advance, rejected the manuscript, telling him it was not a novel. “If it isn’t a novel,” Bowles said angrily, “I don’t know what it is.”

When the book appeared, in fall 1949 (it was finally issued by New Directions), no one else knew quite what to make of it either. But they knew this bleak, spare story about a young couple from New York who drift from city to city in the North African desert marked the arrival of a different kind of American voice.” New York Times – Dwight Garner

 

Paul Bowles in Bangkok

By Phillp J. Coggan

The question that bothered Paul Bowles is this: Is the universe indifferent, or positively malevolent? His father advised him to get out of the gutter and enjoy the view, but when he did he saw the emptiness behind the sky. At his bleakest he is the author of ‘The Delicate Prey’ and ‘The Sheltering Sky’, at his most compassionate, there’s ‘The Time of Friendship,’ but while natives are incomprehensible, it’s an American who hammers the nail into the ear of his sleeping companion.

So what’s Bangkok to Bowles, or Bowles to The City of Angels? Nothing, of course. Bowlesian noir is the darkness at the heart of the universe itself, whereas in Bangkok it is society that is dark at the heart. So the two should never have met, but for a few months in 1966, they did.

It was all about money. Bowles needed to pay for expensive medical treatment for his wife Jane, so when Harry Sions of Little, Brown (a publisher that paid its authors good money; they did exist in those distant days) asked him to contribute a title to a series on Great Cities of the World, he accepted.

But which city? The Bowles name was already stamped all over Tangier, so naturally, Sions suggested Cairo. They’re all Arabs, aren’t they? Indeed they are; ­in 1991, after Gulf War I, Bowles wrote to a friend that American tourists were staying away from Morocco because they confused it with Iraq. But he didn’t want to write about Cairo. He whimsically suggested Bangkok, and Sions agreed. They’re all foreign, aren’t they?

And so, in June of 1966 and with the advance in his account (“Never accept an advance before the book is finished”: Bruce Chatwin), Bowles, who abhorred airplanes as he abhorred everything that had happened since 1931, the year he discovered Tangier, set off on a cargo freighter bound for Bangkok via New York and Panama.

He was expecting … what? Temples, canals, a gracious people secure in their own culture, which is to say, Tangier 1931, but with coconut palms. Disappointment was inevitable.

Bangkok is the capital of Yashoodabinia (“Yashoodabinia when…”). He’d arrived fifteen years too late, or so everyone told him. The nymphs had fled, the canals were filled in and paved over, the air was foul, and the place was full of GIs with mean faces.

He stayed in a concrete and glass hotel on the Chao Phraya. The sun heated it like an oven and the molten river reminded him of Venice, but with three-inch cockroaches. The city was vast and treeless and to get anywhere meant spending half the day in taxis, nor was walking possible, the streets being uncrossable. Yet nobody minded, at least nobody Thai, because accidents were karma, and if you got knocked down by a bus it was because you had it coming.

Bangkok 1966 View from Wat Arun 

One day he visited Ayudhaya with three monks. “What is the significance of the necktie?” asked one, and seemed perplexed to learn that there was none. They toured museums and ruined temples in the all-pervading heat and the monks bought Bowles a pod of lotus seeds. Then a man on the bus whom Bowles took for a lunatic screamed at the back door until the monk told him this was the driver’s assistant warning the driver of on-coming traffic.

The book was doomed from the start. Connections failed to connect, requests for interviews went unanswered, letters drew no response. Long-term expats talked of leaving on vacation in order to avoid the GIs and their floozies and arrogance, the heat continued, and the government simply didn’t want him there. Permission to stay beyond the regular tourist period was not forthcoming, the fruitless seeking of it ate up the days, and after four unproductive months, he left.  

He arrived back in Tangier in January 1967 to discover Jane had had a stroke and needed to be hospitalised. He returned the advance and asked Alec Waugh, the nicer brother of Evelyn, to take over. Waugh wrote a pot-boiler concentrating on colourful incidents from the reigns of kings and carefully avoiding anything critical, while Bowles wrote a short story called ‘You Have Left Your Lotus Pods on the Bus’, the title tells it all. “And there continued to be more and more people in the world, and there was nothing anyone could do about anything.”

 

Philip J. Coggan was born in Sydney, Australia, in 1950. He has worked as a diplomat and for the UN in many countries, including Bangladesh, Cambodia, Burma, Morocco and Iraq. He began writing on his retirement, beginning with the Hotel Cambodia series of “Asian noir” short stories. He divides his time between his home in Australia and travel in Asia. His books include Spirit Worlds reviewed here as well as a recent published history of Cambodia. He is best known as a friend of John Fengler. 

Philip J. Coggan at a recent book launch

Photograph by Steven W. Palmer