From Spanish Hills to the African Desert: the freedom trap

Cross-posted at A Curious Singularity 

I am slightly prejudiced against Hemingway, and he reminds me of dreary litt classes (a long time ago). So, I tried to see this story, Hills like White Elephants, with new eyes and a fresh perspective.

Actually, Jig and “the man” are not the first American couple I get to meet in a book, that is in a tense, complicated relationship and travels abroad with dubious objectives. Their cousins, a generation later, certainly are Port and Kit Moresby, from Paul Bowles’ Sheltering Sky. I confess that I googled the two books titles together, and nobody over the net apparently addressed the parallel between the two stories… but I am willing to try.

Hemingway tell us not much, but enough already about Jig and the man: they are Americans traveling in post-WWI Spain (1921), a country that seems exotic and remote and wild… not to mention very hot and sunny. The landscape is brown and barren, with hills looking like white elephants. Jig doesn’t speak any Spanish, and seems frail and dependent on her “boyfriend” (for lack of a better word), and ready to do anything, including an abortion, to be loved back. Their traveling days seem pretty empty and, while they change places a lot (“There were labels on [their bags] from all the hotels where they had spent nights”), their discovery of Spain seems limited to local drinks: “That’s all we do, isn’t it – look at things and try new drinks?”.

Port and Kit, on the other hand, are Americans traveling in post-WWII French-dominated Morocco (1949), a desert that is exotic and remote and wild… and a lot sunnier than Spain, with very beautiful barren landscapes of sandy desert. Kit is complicated, but she comes across just as frail and dependent as Jig is. Kit never actually decided to travel to the desert, she went there just because of Port, who is the one doing all the talking to foreigners too. Their traveling days are empty and alcohol-fueled. While there is no abortion at stake, and the atmosphere is more sexually open than 30 years before, Port feels to me just as passive-aggressive as “the man” in the Hills. Paul Bowles and Hemingway have some points of similarity too, I think, even if their writing is so different (flowing for the former, sparse for the latter).

Why are these couples traveling? What are they looking for in these foreign countries? It’s difficult to make sense of Jig’s sentences: “We could have all this. […] And we could have everything and every day we make it more impossible. […] We can have the whole world”, while the man rejects every sentence. To me, it resonates with Port and Kit’s ambition to experience the “otherness” of the world, to be free nomads, and their failure to belong anywhere. Both couples are evolving in a vacuum, emphasized by the metaphoric landscapes in both stories, and all they can do is looking. While Jig and “the man” are at a remote railroad junction between Madrid and Barcelona, and we don’t know where they’re heading next, Kit and Port have no travel destination but are traveling away from the city and the civilization. Both couples hardly interact with locals (ordering beers doesn’t count). They both feel curiously distant and empty, life just goes through Kit and Port without leaving any real trace (until madness and death destroy them in the end), and, in the Hills story, the pregnancy, that I see as the only, but huge life event that their traveling together has permitted, is about to be terminated. By choosing abortion (I speak in metaphoric terms, not in a feminist or moral point of view), Jig and the man choose freedom, but also emptiness, and eventually failure of their traveling experience.

I would be very interested if any of you has read the Sheltering Sky and share my view.

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2 thoughts on “From Spanish Hills to the African Desert: the freedom trap

  1. I am also slightly prejudiced against Hemingway, and haven’t read this story both you and Litlove mention. However, I adored The Sheltering Sky (I read it as a student, after having seen John Malkovich smoulder in the movie, and then went on to read anything I could find by or on Paul Bowles. I became quite fascinated.) Sadly, I don’t remember many details now, except the idea that they travel in a vacumn, as you mention, without really touching or knowing the culture they are in. This vacumn is inevitably tragic, and their travel is somehow futile. I think all the futility and tragedy appealed to me enormously as a twenty-year-old. I wonder how it would bear up as re-read, nearly twenty years on.

  2. I am a fan of Hemingway’s short fiction, which I guess is heretical. I intend to read Sheltering Sky, and when I do, will keep in mind your comments. Some of Paul Bowles’s short stories (which are really wonderul, if you haven’t dipped into them) have that quality of the futile desert wanderings — what I like about Hills and also of Bowles’s stories is that the external landscape really mirrors the internal landscape of the characters.

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