- Two Moroccan Storytellers in Paul Bowles’ Five Eyes: Larbi Layachi and Ahmed Yacoubi
If, as Michel Foucault claims, “Western man” has become a “confessing animal” with a narrative literature appropriate to that role, does the Western author/confessor elicit from the cultural other a story that makes sense either to the priest or the patient? The Western listener in this case is American expatriate Paul Bowles. The other culture is Moroccan, on the margins of the complex Arab- Muslim culture of the Middle East and North Africa. As the country in that Arab-Muslim complex with the easiest access for Europeans, a country that has argued within itself whether it ought to belong more to the Arab League or to the European community, Morocco is also on the margins of the West. Indeed, its very name means, in Arabic, the “farthest West.”
We ask the others (“primitives,” nomads, Third World peoples, traditional societies) to speak to us—and listen well. We take photographs of them, and analyze the photographs. The professionals in this enterprise are anthropologists and the sociologists like Moroccan Fatima Mernissi, who studied in her own country and then went to Paris and to Brandeis to complete Western-style Ph.D. work and who now interviews non-literate Moroccan women. The women tell her their life stories, and she lets them talk without much imposing of the Western autobiographical styles we have been developing since St. Augustine.
American anthropologists have had ready access to Morocco. Many of them—Clifford Geertz, Paul Rabinow, and Vincent Crapanzano especially—have come, like their counterparts in literary studies, to question the fundamental assumptions of their profession. In different ways they have found ways to have Moroccans speak: for Geertz, through symbols like stories told of 17th Century Sufi saints; for Rabinow, through the hermeneutics of fieldwork (following Paul Ricoeur to the “comprehension of the self through the detour of the comprehension of the other”); and for Crapanzano, through the stories and esoteric lore of a Meknes tile-maker who is convinced he is married to the seductive she-demon ‘A’isha Qandisha. All entered Morocco and found ways to have Moroccans speak to them.
These anthropologists are witnesses, among many others, to what Richard E. Palmer has called the “end of the modern era,” and to what Palmer claims is a “major change in worldview” to “postmodernity” (363–364). The postmodern turn is evident immediately in the short stories and novels of Paul Bowles (1910- ). (A possible exception is The Spider’s House.) While there has been some experimenting with point of view, e.g., “The Eye” in Midnight Mass and “New York 1965” in Unwelcome Words, a key element is probably Bowles’ refusal to accept the assumptions of modern Western realistic fiction about character. How much theorizing about literature this has involved is moot. My guess is that Bowles’ refusal of the modern notion of character, derived from an image of the self that had developed during the period of modern philosophy (i.e., since Descartes), comes from his reading of eccentric fiction—from a lifelong interest in Edgar Allan Poe and an adult interest in Surrealism.
Bowles’ fiction seems at first to be straightforward realistic fiction, one of the defining characteristics of modernism. But the modernist readings nearly always fail. Characters have little “depth.” They rarely “develop.” Instead of closure, there is most often irony: “relationships” collapse, dialogue falls apart. There is no “self” such as has been assumed in the modern West. In the non-Western storytelling of non-literate Moroccans Bowles found a very different sense of self.
One way to detect this postmodern turn in Bowles’ work is to look at Bowles’ translations of Moroccan storytellers. By the mid-1960s he had almost abandoned his own fiction writing for the strange bicultural hybrids that were produced by Bowles—especially Five Eyes (1979). To see what is happening in these texts—literature in English (for an English-reading audience, of course) whose origin is oral performance in Moroccan Arabic—consider a distinction that has arisen in the “modern” world and fundamentally constitutes the West’s image of itself as “modern,” namely a distinction frequently encountered...