A craft-focused essay on Paul Bowle's short story, "A Distant Episode," as it appears in "The Granta Book of the American Short Story"

Essay by doom-nationUniversity, Bachelor'sB, November 2006

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"A Distant Episode" took me on a scary ride I didn't want to go on, but by the time I realized where I was heading, it was too late. The story seems innocuous at first, with descriptions of beautiful desert scenery and the Professor's eagerness to revisit Aïn Tadouirt. [Does this name strike anyone else as sounding like it came from a Star Wars film?] There is a dark atmosphere established by this same innocent façade however, hinted at with excellently telling details: the brevity of his previous visit, the chauffeur's cryptic remarks, the persistent smell of human excrement and rot which mingles with the orange blossoms and pepper. And when we learn that the only connection he has to this place is deceased, we realize the Professor is in way over his head here.

This setting is a totally surreal, totally believable place, which Bowles reinforces with foreign, Arabic-esque words sprinkled throughout.

Most of them are decipherable through context, but I'm curious as to what qaouaji means, since the definition seems to change as the story sinks deeper into weirdness. The tension builds quickly through dramatic irony, and it's almost not a surprise when the Professor is taken captive. It was a surprise, however, when his tongue is cut out (!) and he is dressed in a ridiculous tin can suit. I was blindsided by his lack of reaction.

This is certainly a tale with much at stake for the narrator, and he doesn't get anything at all like what he wants. He wants everyone to know him (read: to be accepted fully into this foreign culture) and instead becomes something no one wants to know, something not even human--he's an exhibit, and a well-trained one at that. This is where the best of this story lies,