My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Like Nightwood, this is another short, intense, intricate, and beguiling modernist novel that I read much too fast in graduate school and have long wanted to revisit. Salih’s novel (published in Arabic in 1966, in English translation in 1969) was not even assigned to me in any course, but I read it because it was such a frequent reference point in discussions of postcolonial literature.
The story, briefly: the nameless Sudanese narrator happily returns to the village on the Nile River in which he was reared after seven years of study in England, where he earned a doctorate in English poetry. The narrator loves his natal community and has longed for it, but when he returns he finds that a mysterious older man, Mustafa Sa’eed, has settled there with a wife and two children. Sa’eed also lived for a time in London, where he was a university lecturer and an economist; however, as he reveals to the narrator, he devoted most of his time to seducing English women by playing on their racist Othello stereotypes about Arab, African, or Muslim men. He drove many of these women to suicide until he met his match in Jean Morris, a woman as manipulative as himself, whom he eventually murdered. After serving a prison term and then wandering the world, he settled in the narrator’s village with his new family; this life does not satisfy or pacify him, though, he dies—perhaps by suicide—in the Nile. He charges the narrator with caring for his wife and children, which soon proves difficult as one of the older male villagers decides he wants to take Sa’eed’s wife, Hosna, for his own. The narrator, a bureaucrat who spends most of his time in Khartoum, is powerless to stop this, and the tragedy that ensues throws him into suicidal self-doubt about his own position in the world, caught between tradition and innovation, Europe and Africa.
Such a summary is inadequate insofar as it does not capture the novel’s poetic and recursive structure: narrated non-linearly, the story proceeds according to the narrator’s encounters with people and situations that disclose the story to him. He hears out Sa’eed’s confession in the second chapter, but returns to it in memory later so that we learn the outline of the story before we learn its details; similarly, the present-day plot-line, focused on the fate of Hosna, comes to a climax before the London-set past narrative, climaxing in Jean Morris’s murder, does. All of this is narrated in slow, dense, sensory-rich prose that is obviously meant to be lingered over rather than hurried through. Inspired by Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Salih turns the earlier novella’s fragmentary lyrical structure to his own purposes, reversing the direction of the journey (north rather than south) if not the locus of the darkness (both Conrad and Salih see the darkness as inhabiting everyone everywhere, rather than being an African or European property).
In Culture and Imperialism, Edward Said eloquently explains the relevance of this classic novel to postcolonial theory:
And in Tayeb Salih’s Season of Migration to the North, Conrad’s river is now the Nile, whose waters rejuvenate its peoples, and Conrad’s first-person British narrative style and European protagonists are in a sense reversed, first through the use of Arabic; second in that Salih’s novel concerns the northward voyage of a Sudanese to Europe; and third, because the narrator speaks from a Sudanese village. A voyage into the heart of darkness is thus converted into a sacralized hegira from the Sudanese countryside, still weighted down with its colonial legacy, into the heart of Europe, where Mostapha Said, a mirror image of Kurtz, unleashes ritual violence on himself, on European women, on the narrator’s understanding. The hegira concludes with Said’s return to and suicide in his native village. So deliberate are Salih’s mimetic reversals of Conrad that even Kurtz’s skull-topped fence is repeated and distorted in the inventory of European books stacked in Said’s secret library. The interventions and crossings from north to south, and from south to north, enlarge and complicate the back-and-forth colonial trajectory mapped by Conrad; what results is not simply a reclamation of the fictive territory, but an articulation of some of the discrepancies and their imagined consequences muffled by Conrad’s majestic prose.
All the same, this is a bit misleading, not least because Salih’s prose is as majestic and ambiguous as Conrad’s. Salih represents the Sudanese countryside as weighted down with more than just a colonial legacy; he indicts its pre-colonial legacies too, as the narrator expresses helpless indignation at the village’s patriarchal sexual relations—polygamy, female circumcision—which, he is careful to show, are enforced as much by its women as its men. More importantly, Said, in granting the novel a politics legible to the bureaucracies of the postmodern academy, denies it a metaphysics. The postcolonial theorist, in hock to Marxism and poststructuralism, is not allowed to discuss either nature or the supernatural.
Yet it’s not clear that colonialism is the source, as opposed to the context, of Mustafa Sa’eed’s actions. By his own testimony, before he could know much of his country’s political situation, “I had felt from childhood that I—that I was different—I mean that I was not like other children of my age: I wasn’t affected by anything…” When his defense attorney tries to exonerate him of murder by saying that “his mind was able to absorb Western civilization but it broke his heart”—a patronizing anticipation of what postcolonial theory will more decorously posit of the hybrid—Sa’eed comments, “It occurred to me that I should stand up and say to them, ‘This is untrue, a fabrication. It was I who killed them. I am the desert of thirst. I am no Othello. I am a lie.'” Sa’eed is not Othello not only because Othello is a colonial trope but because he is Iago, whom Othello suspects of being a devil. The word “satanic” often occurs in conjunction with Sa’eed; the narrator likens him to an afreet.
I thought as I re-read it that this novel might be less a re-writing of Conrad’s proto-modernist and revisionist imperial romance than of those other characteristic texts of the English fin de siècle: urban gothics in which a menace from the East journeys to a European capital to prey on its women—Bram Stoker’s Dracula, George de Maurier’s Trilby, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (whose villain is not literally from the East but is metaphorically racialized). Salih’s political recasting of this modern narrative suggests that such born-bad devils are as aberrant and shocking in the East as in the West, and that the West has many such devils of its own (e.g., Jean Morris). Googling reveals that I am not the first to think along these lines—see this doctoral dissertation, which compares Season of Migration to the North at length to Dracula—and it is perhaps more promising to take the novel’s supernatural hints seriously, instead of ignoring them in favor of the kind of materialist analysis that always finds it hard to account for motives irreducible to politics and economics.
Nor does Salih imply that politics will solve the problems he raises. He largely represents politics in the novel as a pageant of mismanagement and hypocrisy that is not really capable of reforming society’s genuine defects, both those left behind by colonialism and those that pre-existed it. By contrast, all of the novel’s redemptive or idyllic moments are associated with the natural, from a striking chapter that culminates in a desert revel after night has lifted the day’s heat to the narrator’s early gathering of strength from the sight of the river:
I want to take my rightful share of life by force, I want to give lavishly, I want love to flow from my heart, to ripen and bear fruit. There are many horizons that must be visited, fruit that must be plucked, books read, and white pages in the scrolls of life to be inscribed with vivid sentences in a bold hand. […] No, I am not a stone thrown into the water but seed sown in a field.
Unlike Sa’eed, the narrator is capable of feeling a wholeness with his environment and community, a continuity in time with the people and places that have made him. This is what Sa’eed’s narrative of violent disruption and discontinuity throws into doubt for him. When Sa’eed is first traveling northward, a fellow passenger, a priest, tells him, “‘All of us, my son, are in the last resort travelling alone.'” If the novel has a message, this is it: that English and Sudanese people, Christians and Muslims, men and women, are all struggling through their existential journeys, the difficulties of which might partially be alleviated if some political pressures—whether European dominance in Africa or male dominance in European and African homes—could be lessened. As the narrator thinks in the midst of a desert journey:
The war ended in victory for us all: the stones, the trees, the animals, and the iron, while I, lying under this beautiful, compassionate sky, feel that we are all brothers; he who drinks and he who prays and he who steals and he who commits adultery and he who fights and he who kills. The source is the same.
But strip away politics, and we are still left with the mystery of a man who feels himself apart and who tears his world apart, a force that not even the continuum of nature, to say nothing of the management of the politicians or the postcolonial theorists, can tame.