In a recent post I wrote about the passing of Tayeb Salih, author of Season of Migration to the North. Here’s what I wrote about that book in A Basket of Leaves:
Season of Migration to the North is a brief, graceful, and powerful novel about the collision of cultures, and the destructive potential of cultural fantasies and stereotypes. Edward Said, the eminent Palestinian writer and academic, has called it “among the six finest novels to be written in modern Arabic literature.” Among other things, it is an investigation of Said’s concept of Orientalism, the fascination of the “mysterious East” for Westerners of a certain kind — in this case impressionable young English women.
The tale begins as if told out loud to a group of listeners. “It was, gentlemen, after a long absence — seven years to be exact, during which I was studying in Europe — that I returned to my people.” The narrator has been drawn by a “great yearning” to return to his village in the northern Sudan, at a place where the Nile bends to the east. As he settles into village life, he is surprised to meet Mustafa Sa’eed, an educated man who is mysterious about his past, though he admits that he comes from the outskirts of Khartoum and claims to be a businessman who has turned to agriculture. After drinking too much with friends one night, he recites an English poem from World War I, and the narrator realizes there is more to Mustafa than he has let on.
Eventually Mustafa tells the narrator the story of his life. Like him, Mustafa had been a young man of promise: intellectual, and inclined to think himself superior to ordinary Sudanese. He goes to Oxford to study economics and falls in with a bohemian crowd. Mustafa cultivates the image of the exotic African, furnishing his room with pink curtains, mirrors, swansdown cushions, sandalwood and incense, and a variety of “pungent Eastern perfumes, lotions, unguents, powders, and pills.” Essentially a cold man, Mustafa seduces and abandons a series of idealistic young women, driving several of them to suicide, until he meets Jean Morris, a woman whose sexual allure and urge to self-destruction react with Mustafa’s own obsessions to culminate in a different kind of tragedy.
When Mustafa disappears from the village, the narrator draws closer to Mustafa’s wife, an educated Sudanese woman, and gains access to a locked room that contains more of the man’s secrets. In grappling with the meaning of Mustafa’s life, the narrator is forced to consider the meaning of his own. What has he gained from his years in Europe, and what has he lost? Is Sudan his true home any longer, or is he an alien in his own country? Did Mustafa begin to believe in the part he played while in Europe, and has the narrator fallen into the same trap? Is it too late to turn his life in a more productive direction than Mustafa has done? Along with a nostalgic and closely observed account of life in a Sudanese village, the author conveys the heartache of a man caught between two worlds.