A perennial problematic fav, Paul Bowles possessed undeniable skill but his work often feels illicit and irresponsible. The man led a charmed life that was itself suspect, infamously spending much of his life in Tangier, Morocco. A gay, white American expatriate, he hosted cultural luminaries traveling abroad and smoked primo hash every day.
My issue with Bowles’s fiction only really makes sense in the context of his infamy: he was someone who enjoyed a relatively luxurious lifestyle in an impoverished foreign country. But his fiction, including the story I’m recommending here (not to mention his most famous novel, The Sheltering Sky), consistently depicts colonized lands as dark, dangerous places where the health and safety of white people are predated upon.
There’s an argument to be made that Bowles’s evident lack of sympathy for his white protagonists (typically conceited and hubristic) complicates this reading, but I don’t think the writing escapes a broader orientalist bent. Leaving aside questions of intent and the mores of his time, there is an ugliness to the writing that must be acknowledged.
‘Pastor Dowe at Tecaté’ is my favorite Bowles story that directly relates to culture shock. Dowe is a missionary in the Mexican city who has long been conscious of the disconnect between his mission and how the people of the city receive him. He recognizes that they essentially humor him, not absorbing his sermons; in fact it becomes explicitly clear that the people gathered would not come if his phonograph were not used to play pop music after the services.
Humiliated and ineffectual, Dowe lives knowing that folk religion is still practiced, and the narrative becomes increasingly strange and surreal as he engages with it. Asking after the local God Hachakyum, Dowe is corrected when he asks if that God made him. He is told that he was made by the other God. “Metzabok makes all the things that do not belong here.”
Death hangs over the story – Dowe, we’re told, is a recent widower – and it culminates in something like a conversion experience in reverse. “A region like this seemed outside God’s jurisdiction,” he thinks. “Now it is done. I have passed into the other land.” He prays in a sacred cave, speaking aloud the local dialect, before realizing too late that it is the wrong sacred cave.
But rather than despair at having prayed to the wrong God, Dowe feels stronger, and he seems to reach a greater understanding of the people, adapting biblical stories to local myth. It is only when Dowe is offered a child bride (seen multiple times, surreally, holding a baby alligator in swaddling clothes) that he is jarred once again into alienation. Like many Bowles protagonists, he flees, despite having nowhere to go.
A reductive take on Bowles is that he sort of bridges the gap between Poe and Kafka, writing strangers in strange lands under acute psychic distress. What most intrigues me about ‘Pastor Dowe at Tecaté’ is that conversion experience, though – the suggestion of spiritual belonging, even in the absence of social belonging, is not Bowles’s stock in trade. It cuts against his cynicism in an intriguing way.
First published in 1949. Collected in The Stories of Paul Bowles, HarperCollins, 2010