A Tea in the Desert (The Sheltering Sky - by Bernardo Bertolucci )
by Ciro Discepolo
The story – I think – is known by everyone, but for the ones that never read the book or never saw the movie, I will remember that the novel is structured around the trip of an American couple in crisis and of their friend Tunner, from North Africa going south, towards the Sahara desert.
The trip is obviously metaphoric and, hides, under the superficiality of the dune’s sand in the desert, the suffering of a man and of a woman searching for themselves, a few years later the second world war. The desert is dry and cold (in the night) and is a synonymous of Saturn.
Saturn is, in fact, the American writer whose natal chart, drawn theoretically for noon, could be wrong only by half an hour or one hour. Paul Bowles, in fact, is strongly saturnine, with the Sun, Mercury, Venus and Uranus in Capricorn and, has been living practically for the most part of his life in foreign territories, he could have the Sun in the ninth House and then Saturn in the first House, to demonstrate what I just wrote.
The aridity and the not differentiation could be the key words of the desert, like in Red Desert of Michelangelo Antonioni: “There is a reason that lets me consider Red Desert as very different respect my precedent movies: it does not regard sentiments. I will come to say that sentiments are completely strangers in this film. In this sense, the conclusions, which arrive in my other movies, are here considered obvious (October 1964, Michelangelo Antonioni, by Giorgio Tinazzi, La Nuova Italia publisher).
And already from the first pages of the book, that can be read with more than a psychoanalytical key, prevails a Freudian vision of the narrative structure: Port, the protagonist, left his wife Kit in the hotel, penetrates in the country, towards south, where only a great black mouth (the vagina) is visible and where the man arrives to search for love from a young and wonderful prostitute.
The story proceeds with the trip of the three towards labyrinthic cities and towards the “Africa’s nostalgic sentiment” that every foreigner gets.
The husband and the wife of the novel in object try to find the truth under the desert sand. The conductor string of the romance is the tea drunk in the desert, in every strange or dramatic situation of the book.
The author begins narrating a story from the Arabian Nights in which three girls, Outka, Mimouna e Aìcha, live for years following their dream: take tea among the desert dunes and, when finally they are able to do that, their little cups are filled with sand and even the girls are swallowed by the desert that, for this reason, can be compared to a great stellar “black hole”.
As we read later on Port’s passport will be robbed (he has lost his identity) and Kit – his wife – betrays him with the young, beautiful and insignificant Tunner.
In the journeys stops, everyday more difficult, towards the desert, Bowels lets us imagine fantastic scenes, enormous expanses, mountains that decline in without borders and unlived valleys: “If I watch the death of a day - any day - I feel always the sensation that it is the end of a whole epoch. It is autumn! It could be – absolutely – the end of all, that is because I detest the cold countries, and I love the hot ones, where there is no winter, and when evening arrives you have as the impression that life opens, instead of closing itself” (page 83 in the Garzanti edition, 1989).
The cold and the dry, Saturn of course, as I was saying before.
The continuation of Port’s trip in the vagina-desert continues with the cold, the cold that penetrates in Port’s bones and that is in contrast with the asphyxiating hot of the day. Even the mental and physical isolation of the second lieutenant Giovanni Drogo, constellates the “dryness” of the desert, the one of the Tartars of the intricate novel by Dino Buzzati (Arnoldo Mondadori Editor, 1992).
The cold of Port wrapped in heavy wool jackets, metaphorically is the cold that is inside him, the one that for years doesn’t permit him to make love with his wife. Kit is in love with her husband and she follows him everywhere, hoping that a little miracle could link again their sentiments.
They continue in the penetration-journey on old and battered buses at the limit of their end. They eat horrible things, for occidentals. As they advance the mountains disappear and the Sahara’s dunes always get closer. The dunes that could be even the ones of the best science fiction novel, Dune, by Frank Herbert, of course, where the protagonist named Paul (is it casual?) is engaged, on the desert planet Dune, very great monsters that come out from the Earth’s bowels.
The same monsters that devour, from the inside, Port that, at this point arrived at the borders of the desert, is not able to warm himself up anymore, not even with hot tea of the French garrison and dies with a typhoid fever, leaving poor Kit alone, that escaping among the Sahara’s dunes even she takes tea in the desert, but after she will be raped by nomads that take her away with them, on camels.
The novel ends with the craziness of Kit that was not able to support the “monsters” of the Sahara.
A Kafka’s distich included in the book, could terminate well this trip that, already, every reader has done together with Paul Bowels: “From a certain point on there is not a way to return. That is the point to which we have to arrive”.
Translated by Ciro Discepolo and Anna Carmela Mellone