There were several great contenders in translation for Sudan. What swung it for Tayeb Salih’s Season of Migration to the North was the fact that it was named the most important Arab novel of the 20th century by a panel of Arab writers and critics in 2001.
My curiosity was further piqued by the author’s introduction in my Penguin Modern Classics edition. Far from the usual mixture of modest thank yous and self-deprecation, his discussion of ‘this onerous and not entirely felicitious [sic] pursuit of novel writing’ was more than a little disgruntled in tone.
Salih had good cause for feeling peeved: despite the recognition his novel has received in recent years, its journey into the world-literature canon was by no means straightforward. Banned in many Arab countries because of its graphic scenes, the 1966 book got a patchy reception – the Times Literary Supplement ‘haughtily dismissed the novel as “episodic” which the reviewer said was a common weakness in all Arab writing’. Worse still for Salih’s purposes, the book was published in many countries without a single royalty being paid to the author. A million copies were printed in Russia, for example, but, because the country was not a signatory to the Berne convention at the time, the writer did not see a single rouble of the profits.
Not surprisingly, such injustice left Salih with a rather ambivalent attitude to the experience of being published:
‘And so the book went on its way, as books do, almost separate from me. It gets banned from time to time in this country or that and then it is unbanned; it is permanently banned in all the Gulf States. It is loved and hated and attacked and praised. It is taught in universities and doctoral and masters theses are written on it. That ought to make me happy and so it does in a way.’
Beginning with the return home of a young Sudanese man after seven years studying English literature in Europe, the novel tells the story of Mustafa Sa’eed, a strangely charismatic figure who has moved into the village while the narrator was away. Claiming to come from humble beginnings somewhere near Khartoum, Mustafa displays unusual astuteness in village affairs. But it isn’t until the narrator hears him let slip a line of English poetry late one night that he begins to uncover Mustafa’s mysterious past, unfolding a tale of murder, passion, alienation and rootlessness that will consume him and shake the village to its core.
Salih is one of those rare writers who can combine the specific and the universal in a single, compelling whole. Whether he is sending up the villagers’ naive questions about the cultural quirks of Europeans or capturing the arrogance of the young narrator, convinced that ‘the 10 million inhabitants of the country had all heard of [his academic] achievement’, he constructs characters and situations that are at once individual and yet recognisable to readers everywhere.
This comes to a head in Mustafa Sa’eed, an extraordinary creation who is at once a product of his time and influences and a unique person, moving through the world and making his own sometimes brutal and perverse choices. Indeed, the narrative is careful to resist any pat generalisations the reader may be tempted to draw from the story about the interaction of Arab and Western culture. ‘Whatever my life has been it contains no warning or lesson for anyone,’ says Mustafa, recalling how he wanted to jump up to contradict his advocate’s conclusion at his Old Bailey murder trial that he was ‘a noble person whose mind was able to absorb Western civilization but it broke his heart’.
In fact this human tendency to read people of other cultures too simplistically is something Mustafa boasts of having exploited during his many liaisons with women in London. He reveals that he encouraged them to think of him as Othello and related ‘fabricated stories about deserts of golden sands and jungles where non-existent animals called out to one another’. ‘My store of hackneyed phrases is inexhaustible,’ he tells the narrator.
Ironically, of course, while pulling the stuffing out of the quest for the essence of a culture, the novel is hugely evocative of both 20th century Britain and Sudan. Whether he is describing a student party in Chelsea or an impromptu desert feast on the road to Khartoum, Salih’s writing is arresting, inventive and rich. In addition, the insights the book provides into issues such as female circumcision, delivered during an earthy discussion with the fearless village gossip Bint Majzoub, and the legacy of colonialism which has turned the population into ‘lies of [their] own making’, are fascinating.
Occasionally the time shifts and narration-within-narration mean that it is hard to locate yourself in the flow of the story. However, far from seeing this as the ‘episodic’ problem that so irritated the TLS reviewer, I found it complemented the sense of rootlessness that colours many of Mustafa’s choices.
Put simply, this is a towering achievement: a mirror-world where lies are truth, destruction is tenderness, and home is alien territory. It’s the sort of book that makes you wish the author were still alive so that you could go and find him and shake his hand. Brilliant.
Season of Migration to the North by Tayeb Salih, translated from the Arabic by Denys Johnson-Davies (Penguin, 2003)