Thursday, August 18, 2011

Along the Nile in Sudan

Season of Migration to the North
Tayeb Salih

is full of pairings. There are the two main characters, two sets of deaths, the North and the South, Islam and non-believers, those in the government and those with influence in the villages. The novel centers around two men – Mustafa Sa’eed and an unnamed narrator. Both are Sudanese who spent time in London. The book follows these men, and explores their brief, but intense, relationship. They both spend time in the land of their colonizers, and believe that they can come back from their time abroad unchanged. That is not to be.

The book is difficult to read. Sa’eed is wholly unlikable, and honestly, a bit scary. He repeatedly tells us that he has no emotions, and we find out rather quickly he’s killed at least one person and is perhaps responsible for the deaths of several others. His victims aren’t exactly blameless paragons of virtue, but that doesn’t make their deaths any more palatable.

There’s also plenty of misogyny from the characters. There’s one scene where several village elders are sitting around, talking rather graphically about sex, comparing women, discussing the merits of female circumcision. I don’t feel that Salih was trying to exploit these issues, or celebrate them, but again, it just makes for difficult reading.

There is one scene in particular that shines with pure beauty. The narrator is traveling from his village to Khartoum. Along the way, the lorry in which he is riding stops for the night. The people rest, nourish themselves, and dance and sing with pleasure.
We formed ourselves into a large circle into which some of the younger men entered and danced in the manner of girls. We clapped, stamped on the ground, and hummed in unison, making a festival to nothingness in the heart of the desert.
Season of Migration to the North has been declared “the most important Arabic novel of the 20th century” by the Arab Literary Academy in Damascus. I agree this is an important work. The themes – colonialism, racism, are big ones, and they are handled well. Salih provides no easy answers. He makes you think about the legacy of colonialism, and points out its far-reaching and lasting effects. It feels timely now, even though it was originally published in 1966. But I felt a bit like Mustafa - I read this on an intellectual, not an emotional, level. I couldn’t say that I enjoyed it, but I am glad that I read it.

Note: Many thanks to 
M. Lynx Qualey over at Arabic Literature (in English) for promoting Arabic literature this summer, and year-round. 


Anonymous said...

Thanks for playing, and for a thoughtful post!

MJ said...

Thank you for hosting!

parrish lantern said...

This sounds a deeply thought provoking book & one that seems to blend beauty & horror in equal the fact that although your glad you read it, even if it wasn't enjoyable has me pondering, was this purely down to the prevalent male attitude or was that merely a part of the reason. I like a book that doesn't provide pat easy answers, So thanks for the introduction & I will try & search this one out.

Anonymous said...

Season is among my favorite African books. It's not an easy book at all. Your review illuminates all the issues within the book. Thanks. It pleases me to read that while you may not have enjoyed it, you are nonteheless glad that you read it. Book bloggers don't say this often enough. Thanks.

MJ said...

@parrish lanternI wouldn't say that it was necessarily a "male attitude." It was more that the things and situations described were difficult to read. Also, there were portions that were very stream of consciousness, and I don't usually like that style. I certainly recommend reading it yourself, though!

MJ said...

@kinnareads Thanks! I am glad that I read it, and I can see why it is so popular. I think it's good to stretch ourselves out of our normal reading comfort zones.