I was out to dinner with some friends last year and two of them had just seen Bertolucci's film adaptation of Paul Bowles' "The Sheltering Sky." They were having a debate over whether it was Orientalist or not. I haven't seen the film, but I'd read the first half of the novel and their discussion made me pick it up again and finish it.
I had been curious to read it in the first place after a visit to Tangiers (a city I fell in love with), where Bowles lived for decades and where he still looms large. I have to say that, even making all possible allowances, yes, it is deeply Orientalist: it exoticizes and objectifies the Algerian landscape and the Arab characters as the quintessential Other. The Western characters are self-conscious, lost and alienated--the Arabs are unthinking, instinctual, and presented merely as impenetrable foils for the Western protagonists to act out their neuroses and self-destructive urges. The Westerners immerse themselves in an Orient that is sensual and deadly.
So much for "The Sheltering Sky." Then recently I picked up another Bowles book, "A Life Full of Holes," which is the transcription and translation of the life story of Driss Ben Hamad Charhadi, a friend of Bowles'. I found it a very fresh, very strong work--a fascinating historical document of life under colonialism for a poor Moroccan boy struggling to survive in Tangiers, and a really gripping narrative, told in a voice that avoids explication, analysis or commentary and is all the more narratively suspenseful and emotionally moving because of that. It is also almost the opposite of "The Sheltering Sky," in that here the point of view is entirely "indigenous," there is no exoticizing and projecting, and it's the Western characters (the narrator meet and works with several) who are presented, not as stereotypes, but certainly as hard to understand.
Bowles went on to repeat this kind of collaboration, writing several books based on the stories of Mohammed Mrabet, which I am now very eager to read. This type of collaboration, or ventriloquism, has also been used by other authors--notably Dave Eggars did in his recent acclaimed "What Is The What," the story of the life of the Sudanese Valentino Achak Deng. It raises obvious questions about the power dynamics between Western authors and their non-Western co-authors/subjects, but the results can nonetheless be excellent.