A first reading of Tayeb Salih’s Season of Migration to the North can be a bewildering experience. The episodic manner in which the story is laid out means that important information about the characters and their past is left out, thus giving the reader a sense of being lost in a strange country where he has lost his bearings. In fact, the novel should probably be read in light of the ever-shifting political and cultural landscape of Sudan since 1899, the year in which the British took control. Salih’s book charts, through the experiences of its two central characters-the nameless narrator and Mustafa Sa’eed-two generations of the European-educated Sudanese elite through the period of domination by the British and into the early years of self-rule. At the time in which the book was written (it first appeared in Arabic in 1966), the country had just experienced yet another upheaval, the overthrow of the home-grown military government of General Ibrahim Abboud and the introduction of a parliamentary system. Salih writes in an introduction to the 2003 Penguin edition that “the general climate in Khartoum in those days was exhilarating. . . . For some reason my work became incorporated into this process of intellectual questioning.” This is, of course, not the end of the story, and since 1989, the Sudan has been ruled by the Revolutionary Command Council for National Salvation, a repressive Islamic government which has, among other things, banned the publication of “Season of Migration.”
Salih’s story, told in enigmatic spurts of narration, understandably leaves out much of this political background, a fact which can at times be frustrating to the reader struggling to understand inscrutable characters who are deliberately rendered with little concrete detail. Gradually one comes to see that Sa’eed and the narrator are two sides of the same character-also very close to the experience of Salih himself-the educated Sudanese from a humble rural background who goes to England to study and then returns to Sudan as part of the ruling class. When we begin to learn about Sa’eed, he appears to represent a negative, dark rendition of this experience, the foil of the optimistic, benevolent narrator. Sa’eed emerges as a person who has abused the colonial system, only to be abused and destroyed by it, and who has returned to the Sudan, bearing with him the rot and destruction he has come to embody. The narrator, in contrast, appears to be the model Sudanese citizen, perhaps an embodiment of the “new Sudan”-the independent republic which was declared in 1956-in which he serves as an official in the Department of Education.
But as the book progresses, it becomes increasingly clear that the model represented by the narrator is an empty, ineffectual mirage, unable or unwilling to exert any meaningful influence on the progress of the Sudanese people, and perhaps more importantly, on a more intimate level, unwilling to have an impact on the lives of those closest to him, to whom he has a moral and emotional obligation. His work at the ministry is completely divorced from the real needs of the Sudanese educational system, as a friend points out to him: “Let them build the schools first…and then discuss unifying education… They waste time in conferences and poppycock and here are our children having to travel several miles to school… What’s the use in our having one of us in the government when you’re not doing anything?” The narrator passively accepts the criticism; he is a knowing observer of the emptiness and corruption of the system he is a part of, reflecting to himself on “the new rulers of Africa, smooth of face, lupine of mouth, their hands gleaming with rings of precious stones, exuding perfume from their cheeks . . . expensive silk rippling on their shoulders like the fur of Siamese cats.” But his knowingness is no excuse for his passivity, and its consequences.
In the end, this passivity plays an indispensable role in the fulfillment of Mustafa Sa’eed’s dark destiny, the violent dénouement of this novel in which sexual violence is the at times gruesome, excessive metaphor for the clash between colonizers and the cultures they dominate, shape, and ultimately destroy. Observing (as always) the wreckage of a catastrophe he could have averted, the narrator realizes “All my life I had not chosen, had not decided. Now I am making a decision.” It is unclear whether this decision has come too late, and whether it will be the right one.
Marina Harss has translated work by Pier Paolo Pasolini and Sonia Rivera-Valdes and is currently translating L’amore Coniugale by Albert Moravia. She is a researcher at The New Yorker.