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Season of migration to the North by Tayeb…

Season of migration to the North (1966)

by Tayeb Salih

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Tayeb Salih was born in a village in Sudan, but left the country at the age of 24 to pursue higher education. Despite never returning to Sudan permanently, or perhaps because of it, he writes with extreme insight about post-colonialism and the schisms between the Self and Other caused by the remains of colonial influence. Generally accepted as his masterpiece, [Season of Migration to the North] combines oral storytelling traditions with European literary forms. Moving back and forth through time and conversations, a story unfolds that is as gripping as a sexual thriller, yet is beautifully written and as full of ideas as an essay on North African identity in the 1960s.

The book opens with an unnamed narrator arriving back in his village along the Nile after spending seven years in England earning a doctorate in poetry. His return is both a long-sought reintegration with his community and a chance to be a man of importance to his friends and family. He is surprised to find a stranger among them, Mustafa, a man without a past who has settled in the village as a farmer and married a local woman. Our narrator is a bit jealous of a stranger who knows more about current village affairs than he and is determined to learn more, especially after one night when Mustafa gets drunk and begins to recite English poetry with a perfect accent.

Mustafa, perhaps to pacify the narrator or perhaps recognizing a similarity between them, invites the narrator to his house and tells the story of his life. Mustafa’s story is also told in first person narrative and is occasionally broken by returns to the present. Tantalizing hints are dropped about a tragic love affair and murder, but it is not until the end of the book, years later, that the narrator is able to piece the entire story together. By this time, the narrator himself has suffered a horrific loss, but one caused by the inability or unwillingness to act, not by passion.

The entire book is based on imagery of the cold North and tropical South, the intellectual European and the passionate African, civilizing colonialism and superstitious natives. Yet, Salih repeatedly tells us that this is all a lie. Mustafa manipulates images and stereotypes of Africa for sexual conquest, yet he is the cold, imperious intellectual, and not the Othello he imputes himself to be. Colonialism is referred to as a disease that spreads and can never be cured, because it leaves behind a way of thinking and a language that influences post-colonial society.

Salih was lauded by a group of Arabic critics in 1976 as “the genius of the Arabic novel.” Writing in Arabic, he says, is “a matter of principle.” Fortunately, he worked extensively with the translator, Denys Johnson-Davies, to create an English translation that is lyrical and authentic. I have also read some of Salih’s shorter works, collected in the NYRB Classic [The Wedding of Zein and Other Stories], which are set in the same village. They too are beautifully written with an undercurrent of tension created by the idea of the Other and the stereotypes of the dominant sexual male and powerless, asexual (circumcised) female. With the erosion of traditions and polarization of religious ideology, Salih’s characters are adrift in a landscape that looks familiar but is studded with artifacts of colonization and the failures of post-colonial political policies. Between the beautiful language and the underlying ideas, it is no surprise to me that [Season of Migration to the North] was selected by a panel of Arab writers and critics in 2001 as the most important Arab novel of the twentieth century. ( )
12 vote labfs39 | Jan 5, 2014 |
This is a beautifully written book, by Sudanese author Tayeb Salih, tells the multi-layered stories of two men that had studied in Europe (the north) and returned to Sudan. The narrator, at the beginning of the story, has just returned to his village after completing his studies in England. In his village is a stranger leading a seemingly simple, traditional life. But the narrator learns he, too, has spent years studying and teaching abroad. The stranger tells his story to the narrator one night but the reader only hears some of it. The rest is related by the narrator over several years as incidents in his own life call to mind the stranger's story. This structure allows the author to depict two different paths taken, two different methods of responding to the experiences of alienation in England and the changing social structures of post-colonial Sudan. It is a novel about how all human beings are fundamentally the same, and yet can lead vastly different lives with different consequences. ( )
  ELiz_M | Apr 6, 2013 |
Republic of the Sudan.

A little gem of a novel, perhaps overladen with symbolism and parallelism, but not significantly worse for that. This lovely story stands the typical post-colonial narrative on its head and is biting and disturbing while also deeply engaging, complex while still a fast and enjoyable read. ( )
  OshoOsho | Mar 30, 2013 |
'I'll liberate Africa with my penis.' Now there is a quote you won't read everyday so surely this must be a menorable book, mustn't it? Well maybe!

This book is set in 1960's Sudan and centres around a local man returning to his village on the Nile flood plain after being educated in the West. On arrival home, where all the village turns out to greet him as a returning hero, he discovers a mysterious stranger Mustafa Sa'eed living there. No one in the village seems to know much of Sa'eed's background other than the fact that he was born in Khartoum. The narrator soon discovers that Sa'eed like himself was educated and had lived in the West, in particular in London where he had got something of a reputation as being a ladies' man until he falls under the spell on one particular woman with whom he becomes obsessed.

The moral of the story revolves mainly around the clash between Eastern and Western cultures and more importantly the role of women within it. In the West women are seen as free willed able to see whomever they like whereas in the East they are described as mere chatels to do men's bidding. But for me the story overall seemed rather flawed at this point.

Sa'eed portrays himself as a great lover but one who feels no emotional attachment to those Western women he beds but rather, to me at least, it seems that he has gotten involved in some pretty extreme sexual fantasies or fetishes. Whilst the idea of a woman taking her own life rather than live with a man who was not of her own choosing is understandable, it seemed strange that several Western women would take their own lives just because a relationship had broken down, 1 maybe but 3 I'm not so sure especially if the tales of the sexual revolution of the swinging 60's is to believed.

The descriptions of village life in the Sudan were fascinating and enlightening, I particularily enjoyed the notion of the people coming alive during the night, where truckers and bedouins get together for an impromtu party only to go their own ways at daylight. There are also hints of the damage wrought on the country by colonialism.

This is a book that had it not been on the 1001 list I would probably never heard of let alone read and is described on the blurb as 'among the six finest novels to be written in modern Arabic literature'.Not for me I fear. Whilst it was a quick and fairly easy read,I found the ending a little disappointing and overall it just didn't really gel for me, a bit like roast beef without the Yorkshire puddings or toast without dripping. OK but not great. ( )
  PilgrimJess | Feb 21, 2013 |
Though a translation, this is one of the most beautifully written books I’ve read in a long time - It’s also one of the most violent and disturbing. Written in 1966 soon after Sudan’s independence from Great Britain, it is a searing critique of the impact of colonialism and the re-assertion of power (and revenge) by the conquered over the conqueror. Even more stunning is that the author depicts this power struggle not just between nations but between cultures, races and (most surprisingly) gender. The struggle for power is symbolized by the relationships between the main character and the various women in his life and during the novel’s denouement, the struggle is depicted as a rape with horrible consequences for all involved.

The story is told by an unnamed narrator who returns to his Sudanese village along the Nile after having studied poetry in England. His description of his return is heartbreakingly beautiful and as he assures the curious villagers that the English are much like them, he also tells the reader how comforting it is to be home and how alien life in England was for him. He describes his homecoming as being like “a palm tree, a being with a background, with roots, with a purpose.”

Among the villagers is a stranger to the narrator. The stranger, Mustafa Sa’eed and the narrator develop a kind of conflicted relationship when Sa’eed admits that he too, had spent many years “in the North”, studying in England. It is Mustafa and his life both in the Sudanese village and in England that drive the story and that characterize the relationship between “North and South” – Empire and colony.

Though the narrator acknowledges progress made in his village due to British influence, the bond between the two countries is poisoned by the unequal nature of the relationship. This is extended to and symbolized by Sa’eed. For example, Sa’eed’s home in England is described in detail and is decorated with relics from his homeland. Conversely, his Sudanese home has a locked annex which the narrator ultimately enters to find a typically English reading room with not “a single Arab book”. By locking and hiding the this room from the villagers, Mustafa is making a statement about the influence his British time has on him.

Events in the village confirm for the narrator that he too, cannot reconcile North and South. This internal and external conflict reaches a breaking point and the narrator does ultimately come to terms with it. Whether or not he can go forward with his new understanding is left open to the reader’s interpretation.

This is a beautifully written, disturbing book that, though short, takes time to fully digest. ( )
  plt | Jun 9, 2012 |
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» Add other authors (16 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Tayeb Salihprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Johnson-Davies, DenysTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Lailami, LailaIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed

References to this work on external resources.

Wikipedia in English (1)

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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0435900668, Paperback)

A beautifully constructed novel set in the Sudan.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:46:00 -0400)

(see all 4 descriptions)

"When a young man returns to his village in the Sudan after many years studying in Europe, he finds that among the familiar faces there is now a stranger - the enigmatic Mustafa Sa'eed. As the two become friends, Mustafa tells the younger man the disturbing story of his own life in London after the First World War. Lionized by society and desired by women as an exotic novelty, Mustafa was driven to take brutal revenge on the decadent West and was, in turn, destroyed by it. Now the terrible legacy of his actions has come to haunt the small village at the bend of the Nile."--BOOK JACKET.… (more)

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NYRB Classics

Two editions of this book were published by NYRB Classics.

Editions: 1590173023, 1590173422

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