lunes, 17 de agosto de 2009

Season of Migration to the North

Season of Migration to the North [Mahsim al-Hijra ila ash-Shamal] (NYRB Classics, 2009)
by Tayeb Salih (translated from the Arabic by Denys Johnson-Davies)
Sudan, 1966

"It was, gentlemen, after a long absence--seven years to be exact, during which time I was studying in Europe--that I returned to my people. I learnt much and much passed me by--but that's another story." (Season of Migration to the North, 3)

Some postcolonial punk recalled this book from me less than a week after I'd checked it out from the library, but he/she might have actually done me a favor by forcing me to read it sooner than I'd intended. Sort of a reverse Heart of Darkness, Season of Migration to the North is a superb short novel that wowed me with its bravura storytelling and its odd, somewhat feverish air. The journey begins when the unnamed narrator returns to his quiet village on the banks of the Nile after spending seven years studying English poetry abroad. One night during a drinking bout, the narrator is astonished when he hears an enigmatic newcomer from Khartoum himself reciting World War I verses in a perfect English accent. How did two British-educated Sudanese intellectuals wind up in the same desolate wadi? And what does the mysterious newcomer have to hide hanging out here in the sticks? The two questions that obsess the narrator begin to take on a haunting quality when Mustafa Sa'eed, the man from Khartoum, confesses to having killed a white woman in Britain and having caused others to commit suicide over him after leaving them abandoned in his romantic wake. Bizarre? Yes. But Salih (1929-2009) is such a master of narrative that both the trajectory of the plot, essentially composed of two equally compelling and intersecting storylines set decades apart in time, and the behavior of the characters practically demand your attention. As befits a work that at least one major critics' group has anointed as the best Arabic novel of the 20th century, Season of Migration to the North of course offers much more than just a gripping plot and an iconic character, Mustafa Sa'eed, who vanishes one day only to linger on as a sort of phantom of memory that torments the narrator with his very presence. The novel is studded with surprising images--the octogenarian grandfather whose unique smell "is a combination of the smell of the large mausoleum in the cemetery and the smell of an infant child" (61), the drought that prompts the narrator to complain that "such land brings forth nothing but prophets" (90). It's also insistently and at times defiantly oral in nature, as when Mustafa Sa'eed repeatedly mumbles "my store of hackneyed phrases is inexhaustible" (30, 34) and "the train carried me to Victoria Station and to the world of Jean Morris" (26, 27, 29) when explaining his techniques for sexual conquest and the mad love affair that would bring him face to face with the British justice system. Salih's poetic qualities notwithstanding, the work is probably most famous for offering its readers a look at the Empire from the point of view of the other side of the table--an "Arab-African" POV (33) in which colonialism is characterized as both a sexual battlefield and an infectious germ that poisons both the oppressor and the oppressed. While I'll leave those rather complicated topics for somebody with more time on their hands to try and suss out, suffice it to say that Season of Migration to the North was as much of a revelation to me as Walser's grand Jakob von Gunten was back in July. Outstanding. (

Tayeb Salih

"Season of Migration to the North isn't the first book in which a writer of color has decided to 'write back' to the empire, of course. Ngugi wa Thiong'o's The River Between (1965), Camara Laye's The Radiance of the King (1954), and Aimé Césaire's A Tempest (1969), for instance, can all be seen as attempts to subvert European colonial discourse. But Season of Migration to the North is unique among these books in that it is written in the author's native language, rather than the colonial one. Indeed, Salih stands out among African writers of his generation for his insistence on continuing to use Arabic in spite of having lived the majority of his life outside the Sudan. ('It's a matter of principle,' he once told an interviewer.)" (Laila Lalami, "Introduction" to Season of Migration to the North, xiv-xv)

9 comentarios:

  1. I have read one book by the person who did the into, Laila Lalami. Her book was good, this one...we'll I'll just say I don't do too hot with books that are really strange and hard to follow. It does sound interesting, maybe for day when my little boys are grown up and I need some excitement in my life? Ha!

    Great review, as always.

  2. Your excitement about this book is catching. I'll have to see if I can find it. Thanks for the review!

  3. I've been debating whether or not to order this book; because of your review, I definitely will do so and am looking forward to getting to read it. Thanks for reviewing it.

  4. *Bethany: I wouldn't want to push this book on anybody who prefers lighter fare, but I should clarify that it's not hard to follow at all. Lalami's introduction was good, too, a funny coincidence since I think I first read about her over at your blog. ¡Saludos!

    *Sarah: I'm glad I was able to convey my enthusiasm for the book, so thanks for that particular comment. It's a quick read but full of surprises. Cheers!

    *Hedgie: I think I mentioned to you before what a big fan I am of the NYRB Classics books I've seen, but this was one of the highlights so far (along with Robert Walser's Jakob von Gunten). Anyway, thanks for the comment--hope you enjoy the book. Happy reading!

  5. Wow, I'm intrigued. It sounds tightly and compellingly told - even the brief excerpt at the beginning of your review made me want to read more. I know almost nothing about African/Sudanese literature, so thanks doubly for this, Richard!

  6. This is in my TBR list. I hope to read it one day... if I can find it...

  7. Hola, Richard!
    Este libro sí que lo anoto. Parece interesantísimo.
    Saludos y un gusto leerte siempre.

  8. A reverse Heart of Darkness? I like the sound of that.

  9. *Emily: I, too, know little about African/Sudanese lit unfortunately, but this was a very cool book by anybody's standards. Hope you get a chance to check it out someday!

    *Stefania: I'd noticed it was on your list when I was mentally preparing my review. The book's very easy to find here in the States, but I guess that doesn't make it any easier for you over there in Italy and the U.K. Good luck with your search!

    *E.R.: ¡Hola, amigo! Sí, resulta que el libro es muy genial. Y tengo entendido que los cuentos de Salih son buenísimos también (a lo mejor estén disponibles en castellano). Mil gracias por tu comentario. ¡Saludos!

    *E.L. Fay: It's much more than that, of course, but I kind of liked the thought of that too (it's a very interesting piece of work). Happy reading!