Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 10, 2018

Season of Migration to the North, by Tayeb Salih, translated by Denys Johnson-Davies #BookReview

Season of Migration to the North (1966) is not the first book I have read from Sudan, but it is unquestionably the most famous one.  It is featured in some editions of 1001 Books; it was named as the most important Arabic novel of the 20th Century by the Arab Literary Academy in 2001; and its author Tayeb Salih (1929-2009) was considered a candidate for the Nobel Prize.  Given a second life in 2009 when Season of Migration to the North was reissued for the influential NYRB Classics series, the novel was first brought to my attention by enticing reviews at Reading Matters, and Intermittences of the Mind, and then it was included in Radio National’s (now defunct) Africa Reading Club.  And although it is a difficult book to make sense of, it is well worth reading for those of us who would like to understand more about the culture of the growing Sudanese community in Australia.

When I say that it is a difficult book ‘to make sense of’, I don’t mean that it’s hard to understand what’s happens in the novel.  The plot is reasonably straightforward: in the 1960s, in an unsettled period in his home country of Sudan, an unnamed narrator returns home to his village.  He has been studying literature in the UK, and he is hoping to make a difference in his newly independent homeland.  He expects to find everything much the same in this small village where everyone knows everyone else, and spends his first days at home revisiting the places of his youth, catching up with relations and renewing old friendships.  But he soon discovers a recent arrival to the village, an enigmatic stranger called Mustafa Sa’eed, and to his astonishment one day this man starts reciting English war poetry in a perfect English accent.  It turns out that he had studied abroad too.

Eventually, in a story within the story,  Mustafa comes clean with the dirty secrets of his hidden past.  In England he had become a notable economist, destined to help his country emerge into nationhood, but – resentful of the way he was constantly exoticised by women – he pandered to their Oriental fantasies, with disastrous results.  Reinforcing the stereotype of the ‘Dangerous Black Man’  he murders one of these women,  but he is given only a light sentence in a bizarre trial reminiscent of the trial of Meersault in Camus’ The Outsider.  He is not really on trial for what he has done, he is on trial for being disassociated from the culture in which he finds himself, and for his lack of emotion.

No sooner has all this been revealed than Sa’eed abruptly disappears, leaving the narrator confused and angry, because – in a breach of village traditions – Sa’eed has bequeathed responsibility for his wife and two sons to him, rather than to the wife’s father and brothers.  This infantilising treatment of a woman is one of many moments in this novel to make a feminist bristle…

There is also a much quoted episode where the men of the village gather together to drink and gossip and boast about their conquests.  Women know that many men do this behind our backs but it is always unpleasant to come across it in fiction, because it makes it harder to ignore the fact that this smutty objectification of women happens in real life (and perhaps even among the apparently nice men that we know or have to work with).  But this behaviour is not hidden in the novel.  It is overt: there is even a token woman present.  There is an obvious temptation to interpret this and other misogynistic sequences as indicative of the way a different culture openly treats women with contempt, but the issue os not addressed in the otherwise excellent introduction by Leila Lalami.  (Kim calls it out in her review, noting that the line between sexual violence and eroticism does feel blurred in places, and the book, unsurprisingly, has been condemned in the past for being pornographic).

It was not until I listened to the discussion at Radio National that I began to grasp the postcolonial purpose of the misogyny:  (see here, starting at 13:00).  Salih himself in a 1997 interview talks about how his novel was an early example of identifying Orientalism, showing how people look at each other through a haze of stereotyping of the Other and there are misunderstandings on both sides.  One of Michael Cathcart’s guests, Prof David McKinnon expands on this in his explanation of what postcolonial literature exposes: by inverting the tropes of a book like Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, it shows us that one culture has an apparatus for describing the means of representation of the Other  – they own the narrative and they get to tell the stories in their own terms.  So, if I understand it correctly, in this episode,  an exaggerated cast of men represent the condescending coloniser exploiting and belittling the colonised (women).  It is significant then, that the token (old i.e. desexed) woman remains silent on the matter of female circumcision; she joins in some of the bawdy talk because she thinks she is accepted by the men and can share their narrative, but when it comes to the mutilation of women’s bodies, she is silenced.  The narrative is theirs: there is no place for a narrative that the men cannot share because they do not know or understand the Female Other.  This scene exposes the way that Sudanese might delude themselves that they are accepted as equal but the truth is that Europeans do not even know about, much less understand Sudanese traditions and therefore these traditions are excluded by the dominant narrative.

The narrator is a moral contrast to Sa’eed, not only in his determination to grant autonomy to a woman who wants to remain free, but also in his awareness of shared humanity.  Early in the novel he responds to curious questions about Europe by saying:

As best I could I answered their many questions.  They were surprised when I told them that Europeans were, with minor differences, exactly like them, marrying and bringing up their children in accordance with principles and traditions, that they had good morals and were in general good people.

‘Are there any farmers among them? Mahjoub asked me.

‘Yes, there are some farmers among them.  They’ve got everything – workers and doctors and farmers and teachers, just like us.’  I preferred not to say the rest that had come to mind: that just like us they are born and die, and in the journey from the cradle to the grave they dream dreams some of which come true and some of which are frustrated; that they fear the unknown, search for love and seek contentment in wife and child; that some are strong and some are weak; that some have been given more than they deserve by life while others have been deprived by it, but that the differences are narrowing and most of the weak are no longer weak.  I did not say this to Mahjoub, though I wish I had done so, for he was intelligent; in my conceit I was afraid he would not understand.  (p.5)

But as Leila Lalami points out in the introduction, there is no rosy conciliation between modernity and tradition in the novel.  The narrator with his PhD in poetry does not fit easily back into village life, and there is irony in his attendance at a Pan-African education conference in a glitzy modern building where they meet for days and days to standardise the curriculum – when there are not enough teachers and schools to teach it.  The hopes and dreams of independence are frustrated by corruption and greed because, says Salih, the colonisers trained their replacements to think as they do.  In the Guardian obituary of 2009 Salih is quoted as saying “I have redefined the so-called east-west relationship as essentially one of conflict, while it had previously been treated in romantic terms,” and that’s certainly true.  It’s not an optimistic picture, which today, more than 50 years after the book was written, seems all the more devastating given the long postcolonial history of Sudan’s civil war and its spawn in the ongoing civil war in South Sudan.

Author: Tayeb Salih
Title: Season of Migration to the North
Translated from the Arabic by Denys Johnson-Davies
Introduction by Laila Lalami
Publisher: NYRB Classics, 2009, first published 1966 in Arabic, 1969 in English in the Heinemann African Writers Series
ISBN: 9781590173022
Source: Personal library, purchased from Fishpond, $16.25 AUD

Available from Fishpond: Season of Migration to the North

 


Responses

  1. Maybe this will be the year I finally read this. I have had it for several years now and every review renews my excitement but something else gets in the way…

    • Oh Joe, please do, it is such a complex novel and I would so love to see your take on it…

  2. I enjoy the vibrancy of African writing and should read more. The closest I have got to this book is the much more recent Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor, an allegory of the situation in South Sudan including the treatment of women. I am widening my sources for audio books so hopefully will come across Salih.

    • I’ve read some terrific books from Africa… mostly from Ghana and Nigeria, but lately I’ve been coming across some from other countries too. Quite a few of the ones from Nigeria have trod the path of tradition versus modernity and how that impacts on women, which unsurprisingly when written by women shows us women forging careers for themselves but still being stuck with the housework and the responsibility for the children!

  3. Thanks for your insightful review Lisa. It’s amazing just how much Salih managed to get into such a short book.

    • It is, isn’t it? I find I can read an entire chunkster and learn nothing new at all, and then a little book like this – only 139 pages- is revelatory.

  4. Great book I’m going try add a few more African books this year currently read one from Sierra Leone

    • I don’t think I’ve ever read one from there. It can be hard to find out about books from Africa, the Caine Prize is only for short stories, and the other prizes seem to come and go when the sponsor leaves.

  5. This is a must read this year. Great review.

  6. Great review, Lisa. It’s such a complex, complicated novel, and throws up so many issues, topics and discussion points, that I felt my review only ever touched the surface of what Salih was writing about. I think if I read it again I would find other things I had missed first time round. (Thanks for the links to my review, BTW.)

    • Thank *you* for recommending it, I had a little chuckle when I saw that I’d commented on yours about giving it to myself for Christmas:)


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