words follow me


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between savage mountains

The final image in Tayeb Salih’s imagistic 1966 novel Season of Migration to the North is of a man swimming in a cold river. The swimmer is the unnamed narrator of the book, a literary scholar recently returned to Sudan from the UK. Drifting along on the river, getting numb, falling into a dream state, he says, “I was halfway between north and south.” The story told in the novel, primarily the story not of the narrator but of a fellow Sudanese intellectual he encounters, is precisely keyed to this matter of being half-way.

The other man, Mustafa Sa’eed, is introduced at first as a quiet dweller in the same small village in Sudan as the narrator. This thoughtful man fits the languorous pace of the novel’s opening pages, and the pastoral air of immemorial rhythms in a small farming village is one in which each person’s contribution is “continuous and integral”. He is not, in fact, introduced as an intellectual, but as a stranger who, in the narrator’s absence abroad, had bought a farm in the village, married a local girl, settled among the indigenes. He is liked well enough, even if he’s found a little aloof; many in the village value his clear mind and practical approach to solving problems. That all changes one night when, in the presence of the narrator, Mustafa gets drunk and begins to recite English poetry. The following day, the narrator confronts him, and persuades him to divulge his story. Mustafa shares his past in a fragmented but matter-of-fact manner; it is a shocking tale, all the more so for hewing so close to normality.

Born in Sudan, robbed of his father at an early age, and raised by a stoic mother, he seized the opportunity for schooling offered him by a stranger. After distinguishing himself in Khartoum, particularly in the English language, he wins a scholarship to further studies in Cairo. From there, he makes his way to Oxford, and becomes a brilliant economist. But his brilliance and inflexibility have come at a price: his soul is deadened. A split develops in his personality. On the one hand, he lectures in economics at the University of London (where he is given a professorship at the scarcely believable age of 24), and on the other hand, he becomes a callous sexual predator. In particular, he seeks out young English women with Orientalist fantasies as his prey. These women are not entirely innocent. As one of them says to him, “I want to have the smell of you in full—the smell of rotting leaves in the jungles of Africa, the smell of the mango and the pawpaw and tropical spices, the smell of rains in the deserts of Arabia.” Given such easy pickings, Mustafa lies deliriously, and at one point, he lives with five different women all over London, under five different names. It ends badly for Mustafa’s women. Two of them commit suicide, another dies of indeterminate causes, and yet another is murdered—by him, and with her consent—in the throes of a sick sexual passion. He comes to trial for this last crime, but a clever lawyer gets him a light sentence at the Old Bailey. After seven years, he’s a free man. He returns to Sudan, and marries Hosna Bint Mahmoud, and she bears him two sons. All she knows is that he’s “from Khartoum,” that he’s a generous husband, and a generous father.

Season of Migration to the North has a feverish surface. Salih’s language (ably translated from the Arabic by Denys Johnson-Davies) is pitched between the laconic style of the high modernists and the allusiveness of Arabic literature. Especially notable is the expert use of metaphors derived from the natural world. Mustafa, recalling how he deceived his many lovers, and how they loved to hear clichés of Africa and the Arab world, is fond of repeating the phrase, “My store of hackneyed phrases is inexhaustible.” But Salih’s own language is anything but hackneyed. His images rise from the page with remarkable freshness.

Standing next to a girl in Hyde Park, laughing alongside her as they listen to a public speaker, eventually getting her to pay attention to him, Mustafa declares, “I felt that she and I had become like a mare and foal running in harmony side by side.” Elsewhere, the narrator is on a train travelling westwards across Sudan, “on a single track stretching across the desert like a rope bridge between two savage mountains.” The reader recalls how, much earlier, Salih had likened Cairo to a mountain, and London to another mountain. Now, the rope introduces the element of instability. Salih wrestles with the idea that, even for those who have scaled the mountains of Africa (however defined) and the West (in whatever conception), there remains an abyss between the two that can be literally maddening.

After Mustafa’s death (an apparent suicide), his wife, Hosna, is forcibly given in marriage to an old man in the village. She goes mad, and more deaths ensue. It almost unhinges the narrator who, by this time, has fallen in love with her. The contagion of Mustafa Sa’eed, who knew too much but who somehow got unmoored from humanity, spreads even from beyond the grave.

Season of Migration to the North is ultimately too wild to be a cautionary tale. This is no loss. It delves effectively into the fever of the post-colonial condition, particularly the perils of double-consciousness. It also has an unexpected vein of comedy.

A panel in 2001 named it the most important Arab novel of the 20th century. That seems a rather large claim, but what is not contestable is that the author, Tayeb Salih (who died last month at the age of eighty) was one of the most original literary minds in Africa. A new edition of the book, out in April of this year with a foreword by Laila Lalami, should introduce this fine novel to a new generation of readers.


Filed under: literature

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