In The Red Room – Paul Bowles (re-re-reading experiment)

Here’s a link to In the Red Room if you feel like reading along….

First gloss: story of a man escorting his elderly parents around Sri Lanka. His mother meets a strange young man in the botanical gardens, who invites them all (quite forcibly) up to his villa. They spend a few tense moments alone in a peculiar red room before leaving. On the parents’ last day in Sri Lanka the narrator finds out who the young man was, a deranged young man who shot his young bride and her lover in the room and likes to relive the scene. The narrator agonizes over whether to tell the story and decides not to. But he realizes his mother may well have known the whole story all along.

Second read: Markup I marked sections in the beginning, where the young man began speaking — and I started paying particular attention to what he was saying — then I marked the description of the red room itself, which I’d glossed over, the young man’s actions really are weird, he coaxes them out by offering to sell the house and then offers a personally inscribed book of poetry. He becomes pushier and bossier, much more realistic; the sensation of being trapped in someone’s horrid little chamber is much louder on a second read, the climax of the second scene (with Sonny) comes as he returns to the room after leaving them alone for a long time:

Again we sat in silence, Dodd now shielding his eyes from the glare. When Sonny Gonzag returned, he was carrying a glass of water which he drank standing in the doorway. His expression had altered: he now looked preoccupied, and he was breathing heavily.

They hurry out soon after seeing this. They take a frightening walk back through his garden, which seems exponentially more dangerous — and I’m still snaring a little on this part, and then they are removed progressively from the scene; first by an evening, and then by the length of the trip (several weeks) which is when Sonny’s story is revealed. Finally the last scene is the narrator deciding not to tell his sensitive folks (a callback to the beginning) and then realizing his mother had already sussed out Sonny’s story (and had presumably been thinking about it ever since).

As I’m about to embark on a third read, the structure of it becomes really compelling. This is a reported event told in the first person. [ I [My parents’ trip to see me in a strange place [[the strange encounter with Sonny] parents thinking about the strange encounter with Sonny]] – Thinking about mother’s strange reaction to thinking about Sonny]. The title is “In the Red Room.” So this is really intricately structured. If it were Sonny all by himself in the third-person, or even 1st, it would just a re-telling of that weird incident, but by being about the parents reaction, and then his reaction to the parents reaction, it scoops out a sort of mis en abyme, nesting interpretations like Russian dolls.

Third read focuses on the last few pages: I’ll read it from the moment they leave Sonny’s place. Immediately the never-named narrator’s perception of his mother Hannah leaps out. I didn’t realize Sonny had followed them to the gates through the creepy jungle! They don’t mention the experience at dinner. But they parse it the next day (“we felt sufficiently removed”):

I kept waking up in the night and seeing that awful bed, says Hannah. [The narrator says it] was like watching television without the sound. You saw everything, but you didn’t get what was going on. The kid was completely non compos mentis, you could see it a mile away, Dodd declared. Hannah was not listening. It must have been a maid’s room. But why would he take us there? I don’t know; there’s something terribly depressing about the whole thing. It makes me feel a little sick just to think about it. And that bed!

Stop thinking about it, declares the father. And she does (in scene). They don’t return to Colombo. The trip passes by quickly. Strange repetition of the gas metaphor, that’s a powerful one that keeps coming up, the clove tree, the smokey room. Maybe just emphasizes the claustrophobia. “I was thinking of the crimson blazer and the botanical gardens” — is this just a callback? Why does the Indian lawyer immediately complain about the stale air? Penultimate scene follows, the parents reflecting on their trip, and Hannah suddenly figures it out – it was like being shown around a temple — she says and then the hinge of the whole story:

No, I’m serious. That room had a particular meaning for him. It was like a sort of shrine.
I looked at her. She had got to the core without needing the details. I felt that, too, I said. Of course, there’s no way of knowing.
She smiled. Well, what you don’t know won’t hurt you.

The son reflects on her statement and acknowledges that even though her stock phrase (what you don’t know won’t hurt you) seems so patently untrue, for once it was. The story end in scene (leaving the frame unclosed): I nodded my head and said: That’s right. (Giving the mother the last word, or leaving an ambiguity open, reflecting the unknowability that exists between all human beings.) Giving credence to the last interpretation, the mother and father are presumably dead from this distant vantage point.

Read Four, the first few pages: “I had underestimated their resilience, they had made a greater show of adaptability than I thought possible;” “not tempted by the distant or more inaccessible points of interest”… “(Many of the Sinhalese found it strange that I should call my parents by their first names, Dodd and Hannah; several of them inquired if I were actually their son or had been adopted.)”… repetition of the parents need for comfort is repeated over and over. They are fragile, I think is the point, content to observe. Just as they are about to venture into the outer wild (i.e. the botanical gardens) is this graf:

As usual, the events were late in starting. It was the spectators, in any case, who were the focus of interest. The phalanx of women in their shot-silk saris moved Hannah to cries of delight. The races themselves were something of a disappointment. As we left the grounds, Dodd said with satisfaction: It’ll be good to get back to the hotel and relax.

It was the spectators… who were the focus of interest. Okay, here’s something weird, because it puts them in a tourist position and then reflects on what Sonny makes them do, which is observe them observing the room and their growing discomfort. “We’ll look inside and come out again, she promised,” Hannah says of the botanical gardens. And is that what the point is? That experience, witnessed events and the perception of them change people?

Fifth read – taking apart the mechanics : Sonny is so manipulative! Makes them sit down for a beer and then he’s been watching and talking to their driver. Sonny complains about the birds. Mornings they are singing.

We huddled in a short corridor while he opened a door, reached in, and flooded the space inside with blinding light. It was a small room, made to seem still smaller by having given glistening crimson walls and ceiling. Almost all the space was filled by a big bed with a satin coverlet of a slightly darker red. A row of straight-backed chairs stood along one wall. Sit down and be comfy, our host advised us.

We sat, staring at the bed and at the three framed pictures on the wall above its brass-spoked headboard: on the left a girl, in the middle our host, and on the right another young man. The portraits had the imprecision of passport photographs that have been enlarged to many times their original size.

Hannah coughed. She had nothing to say. The room gave off a cloying scent of ancient incense, as in a disused chapel. The feeling of absurdity I got from seeing us sitting there side by side, wedged in between the bed and the wall, was so powerful that it briefly paralyzed my mental processes. For once the young man was being silent; he sat stiffly, looking straight ahead, like someone at the theater.

This is the core of the story, in the red room. Everyone is silent and the young man is stiffly staring. Then the narrator asks if Sonny sleeps on the bed. Sonny leaps up and hurries away, then spends time away. He returns long after, holding a glass of water. Hannah is still expectant! Why? Did she engineer this whole thing? And then the narrator’s perception of the mother. Okay, so the whole thing is about the mother and the son. Specifically the son’s perception of the mother’s perception. And now the parallels between Sonny and the narrators are coming apparent:

[Westin on Sonny} He’s mad as a hatter, but there he is, free to do whatever he feels like. And all he wants now is to get people into that house and show them the room where the great event took place. The more the merrier as far as he’s concerned.

This is such a tight, complicated story… here’s the paragraph about his perception of their perception of the incident although the unpleasant incident in question is really his memory of his parents’ perception of the event, I think:

I myself felt a solid satisfaction at knowing the rest of the story. But being old, they might well brood over it, working it up into an episode so unpleasant in retrospect that it stained the memory of their holiday. I still had not decided whether to tell them or not when I went to their room to take them down to dinner.

He decides not to. But the mother has actually figured out the story. But I still don’t get the ending: Well, what you don’t know won’t hurt you. So is this just about how much Hannah knew in the red room? It’s confounding! Another gloss, this sentence jumps out: “They had no interest in taking photographs, and this spared me what is perhaps the most taxing duty of cicerone: the repeated waits while the ritual between man and machine is observed. They were ideal guests.”

A cicerone is a tour guide. Oh, wait. So glancing through this again I’m seeing the “adopted” sentence again. So there’s some vexing unanswered question between the narrator and his folks. I guess. Red room, womb, seems sort of a weak read… the dad is really castrated, weak and withering in the sun, unable to catch up to his wife, forced to send his son out to protect her from Sonny the Singhalese. Why was Sonny telling their driver the only thing that was going too far? And what one earth does Sonny do when he rushes out of the room. Something gross: Drinking a glass of water… His expression had altered: he now looked preoccupied, and he was breathing heavily.

Sonny was the son of a major official and stayed out of prison for his crime, and existed now as a sort of creepy, threatening presence, coaxing people into his house. And what is a bhikkhu? A Buddhist mendicant showing people around the temple, so there’s a connection back to the narrator calling himself a cicerone. I guess that’s what the story is, the tension between why he brought his parents out, what he wanted them to see, what they did see, what they took away from it versus what he wanted them to take away from the experience… so it’s about tourism on multiple strange levels, and showing people things, and the half-baked reason why and never being able to penetrate into the consciousness of your own family, let alone the motives of some bizarre foreign country.

2 Comments »

  1. Sylvia says:

    Great review! I’m about to do my own and I find yours very eye opening. I’m reassured to see that I have a similar point of view on it.

  2. James (not signed in) says:

    Glad I could help!

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