In the early going, the prologue to The Spider's House seems straight out of The Thousand and One Nights: A foreigner -- in this case, an American, John Stenham -- is following a djellaba-wearing Berber back to his hotel through a labyrinthine medina at night. But this being a novel by Paul Bowles, one's expectations are not met. The outsider, we come to understand, is not wary or disoriented but miffed. Although his host for the evening has insisted on the escort, Stenham thinks he knows better. He loves Fez, where The Spider's House takes place, and prides himself on his understanding of Moroccans (even though at times he admits that the differences between them and the rest of humanity are superficial). Thus, a situation that for other writers might feed into adventurous exoticism has become, for Bowles, a window into the psychology of an infatuated, smug expatriate.
When you add the detail that Stenham is a writer, you get a character who resembles his creator. Bowles himself developed a crush on Morocco, settled there and made a career of interpreting the culture to outsiders, mostly through fiction. But what sets The Spider's House apart from Bowles's masterpiece, The Sheltering Sky, is that it takes us into the mind of "the other": a second main character, who is Moroccan. This is Amar, the illiterate young laborer whose path converges with Stenham's about halfway through the story. Bowles could depict Amar knowledgeably thanks to unparalleled opportunities for observation: his affairs with Moroccan men. The book also portrays, though from the outside, the young radicals who helped Morocco attain its independence from France in 1956.
As Francine Prose suggests in her introduction to the new Ecco paperback edition, The Spider's House should be read by anyone with an interest in either Morocco or terrorism. "It's very, very strange and disturbing, this place," observes a lady friend of Stenham's. "I don't quite see how you can stay in it. It would be like being constantly under the influence of some drug, to live here. I should think going out of it could be terribly painful, when you've been here a long time." Bowles also delves into the desperation underlying jihads launched at civilians, no matter where they occur: "It was not independence they [the terrorists] wanted, it was a satisfaction much more immediate than that: the pleasure of seeing others undergo the humiliation of suffering and dying, and the knowledge that they had at least the small amount of power necessary to bring about that humiliation."
The Spider's House appeals to me particularly because I paid a recent -- and most enjoyable -- visit to Morocco. In addition to the issues the book raises about expatriates and the way we live now, I would like to plant a vague question in the reader's mind (vague because I don't want to give the plot away): Does the denouement suit the rest of the novel? Join me for a discussion of this and other aspects of The Spider's House on Tuesday, Nov. 23, at 3 p.m. on www.washingtonpost.com. *