In Tangier We Killed the Blue Parrot
By Barbara Adair
The unconventional marriage of Paul and Jane Bowles has long been a subject of literary fascination and speculation. Jane (born Jane Auer) suffered ill-health all her life — not helped by her heavy drinking — and wrote only spasmodically. However, her best known novel, Two Serious Ladies, first published in the United States in 1943, has lost none of its decadent yet zestful and witty appeal.
Much the same can be said of her play, In the Summer House (1953), but it is really her private life that most engages interest today.
Born in the United States in 1918 she married Paul Bowles in 1938 and died after a stroke in 1973.
Paul Bowles (born 1910) outlived his wife by many years but, by all accounts, never ceased to miss her. His best-known novel, The Sheltering Sky (1949), is set in Morocco where the couple settled — on the advice of Gertrude Stein! — in 1948 and where they lived intermittently for the rest of their lives.
In her accomplished debut novel, Wits human rights law lecturer Barbara Adair imaginatively recreates the lives of these two intriguing figures.
The novel is preceded by a brief preface relating to Adair’s visit to Tangier in 1993 and her glimpse of the elderly Bowles sitting at a table in the Café Hafa: “the old man with the white hair continues writing. As I leave he looks out across the sea.”
Even in this brief foretaste of what is to come, Adair manages to suggest something of Paul Bowles’s quiet solitude and concentration on the written word. Also sitting apart in the café and raising a glass in silent tribute to Jane and Paul is Belquassim, who as a young man just turning 20 becomes Paul’s lover and companion.
Using the recollections of Belquassim as well as journal entries of both Paul and Jane, Adair pieces together a compelling portrayal of their lives in Tangier.
The house in which they lived was often visited by other writers, painters and musicians. In fact, Paul Bowles was also a composer, trained by Aaron Copland, and one of the highlights of the book describes Paul Bowles and Belquassim’s journey into the countryside to record the work of indigenous musicians.
The novel’s evocative title refers on a literal level to Paul Bowles’s “beautiful blue parrot”, which died mysteriously. But the words also have a metaphorical resonance that suggests all the other things that wither and die in life. Not least of these, of course, is Jane Bowles, whose self-destructiveness seems unstoppable.
Jane Bowles loves a local woman called Cherifa who emanates a feeling of mystery and evil. Neither Belquassim nor Paul Bowles like her and even think she cast a fatal spell over the parrot. But Paul Bowles does nothing to influence Jane Bowles, just as she makes no unreasonable demands on him.
Despite their open marriage, infidelities and Paul Bowles’s profound sense of solitariness, there is a palpable bond between the two which Belquassim recognises and respects: “She was always there, Paul would never leave her. And no love for Paul by anyone else could ever break that bond.”
This is a fine book with the powerful story to tell, but it is also a meditation on memory, creativity, morality and the nature of storytelling set against an exotic but politically fraught background.