Paul Bowles

A Distant Episode

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A Distant Episode Summary

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“A Distant Episode” is a short story by American author Paul Bowles. First published in 1947 and set some time that same decade, it follows a linguistics professor, believed to be of French origin, who travels “the warm country,” a non-specific North African state, to meet a friend and study the local dialects. His experiences with the native tribes, such as the Ouled Nail and the Reguibat, bring him to the realization that languages are mirrors of identity and culture, and that they can shape, subdue, and imprison the minds of outsiders. The story has been republished many times, most recently in Bowles’s 1988 collection of the same name.

The story begins as the Professor first enters Ain Tadouirt, a city in the warm country where he is to meet his old acquaintance and conduct his research. The Professor seems to be a scholar of Arabic; additional contextual clues make it likely that he is in fictionalized eastern Morocco studying the Maghrebi. He searches for his acquaintance, Hassan Ramani. Without his guidance, the Professor wanders through Ain Tadouirt alone. He tries his best to connect with the locals but fails miserably. In one particularly awkward encounter, he accidentally insults an elder qaouaji in a cafe several times in his ignorance of local linguistic conventions and etiquette. The man tells him that Hassan Ramani has died. Desperate for guidance, the Professor regains the qaouaji’s favor by offering him money. The qaouaji agrees to help the Professor find camel udder-boxes, a local ware he is seeking for an unclear reason. The qaouaji leads the Professor to the start of a path and tells him he must proceed alone. Following the path to the bottom of a quarry, he is mauled by a wild dog. The Reguibat arrive, kick the dog away, and then beat the Professor, taking him away atop a camel.

The Reguibat torture the Professor, removing his tongue. They enslave him for their amusement, forcing him to wear metal scraps, dance, and struggle to speak. At this point, the narrative perspective transforms: no longer is it the conventional Western, rational, scholarly voice of the Professor, but that of a dejected creature whose linguistic capacity mirrors the chaotic and guttural voice of the Reguibat people. They torture him for a year until his humanity is almost worn away. Finally, they sell him to a new owner, who intends similarly to use him as a plaything. After the Professor refuses to perform, his enraged owner decapitates one of the merchants who sold him.

While his owner is gone, the Professor shouts and bangs against the walls of the house where he is imprisoned. Eventually, it breaks open and he runs into the street, howling and jangling his metal armor to make as much noise as he can. The villagers react only with mild curiosity. In his frenzy, he fails to notice a French soldier, missing his best opportunity to escape. The French soldier, perceiving him as insane, studies him and watches him run off into the desert sunset. He fires a shot at the ground in his wake, deliberately missing, as a gesture of good luck. This tragic and ironic ending suggests that the Professor is now an alien to the Western world, fully at the mercy of the language and power of the warm country.