Season of Migration to the North by Tayeb Salih
This was our July choice for book group, picked by a new member to our group who is Sudanese and was keen to introduce us to what is regarded as a classic of Sudanese literature and one of the most important Arabic novels of the twentieth century.
This short novel didn’t have an easy journey into print. It was published in 1966 at a time of great political and cultural change in Khartoum where Salih worked for the BBC. It was condemned by most factions there and in the introduction to this edition, Salih bemoans the fact that he has scarcely received any royalties from it – as a banned book it was mostly distributed underground. It did, however, get attention outside Sudan, being translated into twenty languages. Notably, the English translation by Denys Johnson-Davies published in 1969 has stood the test of time.
Our narrator, a young man returns home to his village on the banks of the Nile in Sudan after seven years studying and living in London. He notices a new man in the village; Mustafa Sa’eed who married one of Mahmoud’s daughters and has been there for five years now. The narrator’s interest in Mustafa is increased when one night, when they had all been drinking together, Mustafa starts quoting war poems in perfect English. A few days later Mustafa comes to talk to the narrator and tells him his story, about how he’d gone to school in Cairo and on to London to study where he had affairs and two of the English girls committed suicide. Mustafa became obsessed with another English girl, Jean Morris, and she was to be his downfall… After all that ensued, he escaped back to the Sudan and tries to live a normal life.
The narrator goes on to tell how Mustafa later disappears, presumed drowned in the Nile’s flooding, but he had left a will asking the narrator to take care of his wife and sons. There are some bitter scenes as Hosna’s father tries to marry her off again to an older man. Throughout there are flashbacks to Mustafa’s life in London.
This short novel has many sides, framed within an evocation of life in a Sudanese village by the Nile in the 1960s.
Women knew their place unless they were old and much-married like Bint Majzoub, who at seventy and having seen off eight husbands has the right to sit with the old men drinking and smoking. There was one really uncomfortable scene, which I’m not going to quote from, where the old men were all joking about female circumcision. It’s fair to say that the objectivisation of women made it difficult for the women in our book group to appreciate the humour – although Bint gives as good as she gets, commenting on the men’s prowess or lack thereof. She is a magnificent character.
One of the themes we discussed at length was how the author, having experience of the West himself, was trying to subvert the idea of being exotic – the Occident vs the Orient. Mustafa came to London to conquer the West. He is the Arab lover that drives women wild, until he meets his nemesis in Jean Morris. His life in London and after contrasts totally with the narrator’s. The narrator returns home a prodigal son, welcomed back to become a respected high-school teacher of pre-Islamic literature. Mustafa returns to hide from his past. This is really Mustafa’s story rather than the narrator’s; he subsumes himself in much of the novel – it is not always clear whether it is Mustafa or the narrator talking in some of the philosophical discussion that makes for a large part of the text.
While I can’t say I enjoyed this short novel, it was fascinating and certainly provided much to discuss in our book group. (6/10)
I should certainly seek out more African and Arabic literature to read – and indeed have found a newly published short novel by another Sudanese author which sounds like an African version of Miss Hargreaves! (my review of that here). Watch this space for Telepathy by Amir Tag Elsir.
For another view on this novel, do visit Jonathan’s post, who coincidentally read the book at the same time we did.
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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below (Affiliate link):
Season of Migration to the North (Penguin Modern Classics) by Tayeb Salih. Paperback, 192 pages including preface.
Telepathy by Amir Tag Elsir, pub Bloomsbury, paperback 176 pages.
Miss Hargreaves (The Bloomsbury Group)