32 pages 1 hour read

Paul Bowles

A Distant Episode

Fiction | Short Story | Adult | Published in 1947

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Summary and Study Guide

Summary: “A Distant Episode”

“A Distant Episode,” a modernist short story by Paul Bowles, was first published in 1947 in The Partisan Review. It was one of Bowles’s first published works of fiction. The story follows an unnamed professor of linguistics as he undergoes a horrifying experience while travelling in the remote interior of Algeria.

Paul Bowles was born in 1910 and grew up in New York City. He had already developed a reputation as an up-and-coming composer and music journalist before turning to writing fiction in the 1940s. He traveled to France at a young age, where he met Gertrude Stein and was introduced to members of her artistic circle. He had traveled extensively in North Africa and Algeria in the 1930s and thus had firsthand knowledge of the region at the time he wrote “A Distant Episode.” This story has many themes that are characteristic of his work, including Orientalism and Western Naivete in the Face of Colonialism, “Primitiveness,” “Civilization,” and Psychology, and Fatalism and Free Will.

This guide refers to the version of the text that appears in The Delicate Prey and Other Stories, a short story collection by Paul Bowles, published in 1995 by Ecco Press.

Content Warning: The story and this guide discuss extreme violence, captivity, and enslavement. The guide also references imperialism.

A middle-aged professor implied to be American or European is visiting the Algerian town of Aïn Tadouirt. The professor has traveled from the cool highlands in the north of Algeria to the “warm country,” the interior part of the country bordering the Sahara Desert. While on the bus to town, the professor reflects on a visit he made to the same town 10 years prior and on a friendship he struck up with a local café owner named Hassan Ramani.

The bus driver asks the professor if he is a geologist, and he responds that he is a professor of linguistics and is conducting research on the languages of North Africa. The driver tells the professor that if he goes further south into the Sahara, he will find “some languages [he] never heard of before” (Paragraph 6).

In town, the professor takes a simple room in a decaying hotel called the Grand Hotel Saharien, and after settling in to his accommodations and having dinner, he makes a stroll through town to the café of his old friend Hassan Ramani. There, instead of finding Ramani, he encounters a new qaouaji, or café attendant. In response to the professor’s inquiries about Hassan Ramani, the new qaouaji gruffly informs him that Ramani has passed away.

The professor is dismayed by the news but decides not to dwell on the matter. He asks the qaouaji if there is a way to purchase a camel-udder box, a local artisanal good, in the town. The qaouaji tells him that he may be able to purchase them from the Reguibat, a nomadic tribal people, but he is dismissive of the boxes’ value and annoyed by the question. Nevertheless, when the professor insists that he likes the boxes and will pay the qaouaji to help him procure one, the qaouaji offers to take the professor to the Reguibat that evening. The professor accepts this offer, and the two set out after the qaouaji closes down the café.

As the qaouaji leads the professor through the dark streets of the town and then along the road leading out of town, the professor entertains the possibility that the qaouaji may be leading him out of the city to murder him. The professor addresses some questions to the qaouaji, trying to ascertain his intentions, but the man’s responses are terse and ambiguous.

After walking for some time past macabre images like a three-legged dog and a decaying marabout (a type of shrine), the qaouaji and the professor reach the top of a cliff far outside of town. The qaouaji indicates to the professor that he may find the Reguibat if he follows a path that leads down to the bottom of the cliff. Although the professor cannot see anyone, he does hear flute music rising from under the cliff. The professor gives the qaouaji 50 francs and attempts to dismiss him, but the qaouaji asks for a cigarette, which he then smokes beside the professor. Suspicious of the man’s expression, the professor asks what he’s thinking about, but the qaouaji merely laughs and says 50 francs is sufficient payment for the “honor” of escorting him. The qaouaji then takes his leave of the professor. Standing alone at the edge of the cliff, the professor again debates internally whether the qaouaji means to attack him when he descends, but after some hesitation, he decides to take the path down the cliff.

When he reaches the bottom of the cliff, he is attacked by a dog and then suddenly feels a gun pointed at his back. He immediately recalls the reputation the Reguibat have for violence and banditry. He is knocked to the ground and savagely beaten by a group of Reguibat tribesmen until he falls unconscious. The next morning, he finds himself captive. One of the tribesmen calmly and brutally cuts out the professor’s tongue. That evening, while the professor is still in a state of shock, the tribesmen bind him with a series of belts and girdles and put him in a costume of metal plates.

After a few days, the professor is taken to a Reguibat encampment, where he is introduced as a novelty to the women and children of the tribe. Even after his wounds begin to heal, the professor remains in a state of shock, unable to think coherently. The Reguibat take the professor deeper into the desert, and he lives with them for a year, where he is trained to become an object of amusement for the tribe. He performs a crude act for the tribe: “dancing, rolling on the ground, imitating certain animals, and finally rushing toward the group in feigned anger, to see the resultant confusion and hilarity” (Paragraph 68). The text implies that the professor has lost all sense of who he is.

Eventually, the Reguibat take the professor to the town of Fogara and sell him to a wealthy Algerian villager, who locks him in his home. When the villager invites a group of friends to view the professor, overhearing the words of an Algerian man speaking classical Arabic causes the professor to remember something of his former life. The professor refuses to dance and perform for the merchant and his friends. The Algerian villager who purchased the professor, incensed that he is not performing as intended, seeks out the Reguibat tribesmen who sold the professor to him and kills them with a razor in a local brothel. The merchant is swiftly arrested by the French colonial police, leaving the professor alone and uncared for in the villager’s house.

Trapped in the villager’s house, the professor discovers a French calendar and regains the ability to read. This triggers a flood of memories that causes the professor to recall his entire life, which he now feels led him inexorably to his current circumstances. In his torment, the professor tears apart the Algerian villager’s house, breaks down the door, and comes running through the town’s main street to the city gate that leads out to the desert. A French colonial soldier witnesses the professor’s escape and remarks to himself that the man must be a “holy maniac.” As the professor runs toward the setting sun, the soldier fires in his general direction. The professor screams and waves his arms as he continues to run away, the soldier watching as he recedes into the distance.

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