Naked Lunch in Tangier
Mapping Burroughs’ Interzone
“The present novel is an attempt to create my future. In a sense it is a guidebook, a map…”
This was Burroughs writing from Tangier in late October 1955, and the map — used here to describe the as-yet unrealized worlds of his work-in-progress, “Interzone,” later transformed into Naked Lunch — is a metaphor that runs throughout his work all the way to The Place of Dead Roads (where a literal map precedes the text) and The Western Lands, his final guidebook and Book of the Dead.
It’s surely no coincidence that Burroughs’ last novel ends, immediately before quoting T.S. Eliot’s lines about temporal closure (”Hurry up, please. It’s time.”), with reference to the closure of one particular drinking spot from the past: “In Tangier the Parade Bar is closed. Shadows are falling on the Mountain.” Long after he lived there, Tangier meant something special to Burroughs. But of course, Burroughs’ mapping is far from conventionally representational, and Naked Lunch presents a deliberately disorienting deconstruction of known or even knowable times and places. So any project to map the scene of its writing runs the risk of being not only reductive but positively anti-Burroughsian — making his chaotic fictional cartography seem reassuringly grounded in the familiar physical world, rather than a scrambled, collagist coding and projection of possible new ones. This is a necessary caveat to these Tangier Maps.
There And Not There
One of the most striking features of Naked Lunch in the popular imagination and in critical reception is the force with which it is associated with Tangier. Almost everything ever written about Burroughs’ masterpiece insists on the connection, and of course it is central to David Cronenberg’s contentious but very influential film adaptation. Burroughs worked on Naked Lunch in several other cities — chiefly, Copenhagen and Paris — and his text is infused with the flavour and descriptions of many places — from New York City, where the narrative begins and ends, to the Southern United States, Mexico, South America, and fantasy locations such as Freeland and Interzone — but the link to Tangier is inevitable: this was the inspiration and stage for the better part of Naked Lunch’s creation.
And yet, for a book written in Tangier, the fact remains that Naked Lunch has far more direct representations of North America than North Africa. Apart from the “Market” and “Ordinary Men and Women” sections, Burroughs seems to have relatively little to say about the city where he lived and wrote for four years. We assume it is there, but on closer inspection it’s hardly there at all.
Or rather, to grasp its real importance to Naked Lunch, we need to look beyond the locations of Burroughs’ Tangier towards the logic they suggested — which is to say, towards not anything represented in the text but towards the form of representation itself. Paradoxically, the secret of Interzone is everywhere in Naked Lunch, in its baffling juxtapositions, jump-cuts, lacunae, obscurities, and repetitions, in its frustrating blank spaces and seductive dead-ends. The process of mapping Interzone begins with physical places, but will never end there . . .
His Tangier years (January 1954 – January 1958) are a familiar scene to anyone remotely interested in Burroughs, and are vividly documented in his letters from that time, and yet there are surprising gaps in the record, a lack of detail about even the most basic facts.
For example, there’s no shortage of accounts and pictures of the Villa Muniria, where Burroughs lived for his last two years in Tangier, and which has now become a standard tourist attraction — but there’s almost nothing about the three other places he stayed during his first two years. Anyone wanting to know where on the map of the city those places were or what they looked like will look in vain — unless they go to Tangier and do their own detective work.
For almost a decade — from the mid-1980s until the early ’90s — that’s precisely what I myself did, and what follows is an incremental illustrated journey through the Tangier of the Naked Lunch years. It covers both the key biographical encounters — such as Burroughs’ first meetings with Brion Gysin and Paul Bowles — and some of the locations around the city that inspired Interzone. Since this is as much a personal journey as anything else, it also intersects with the project that drew me back to Tangier over and again — a mission to map and photograph the labyrinthine medina that Burroughs first entered in January 1954.
Those years survive as glimpses of a past time itself in search of a past almost already gone, its denizens fading out into sepia-toned photographs or turned to dust: dim recollections of an evening with Gavin Lambert on the Old Mountain, of brief encounters with Hamri and Choukri at the Café Haffa (or was it the Café de Paris?) and afternoon teas with Paul Bowles watched over by the suspicious eyes of Mohammed Mrabet, of sitting in the Socco Chico with Ira Cohen and Terry Wilson, or that day in the American Bookshop with Iain Finlayson (then researching his book City of the Dream) interviewing Madame Gerofi together in our terrible French — and the puzzled looks of unknown Moroccans as I walked the alleyways of their medina in the early morning light, tracing my path in a notebook, a young wandering soul walking in someone else’s old phantom footsteps . . . That cartographic project was abandoned in a leather trunk and left all these years to gather dust, which I take as a salutary reminder that all mapping is selective and partial and therefore necessarily incomplete — and certainly no way to master the textual geography of Naked Lunch. The Tangier Maps that follow will, I hope, invite others to contribute additions or corrections, or just to confirm that certain spaces will always remain an inscrutable blank…
(Text: Oliver Harris)