Ahram Weekly November 2003
Denys Johnson-Davies' translation of Tayeb Salih's Season of Migration to the North in 1969, three years after it first appeared in Arabic, set the Sudanese masterpiece on a path of resounding success and triggered a series of translations into almost all major languages. Last month the novel's international reputation was confirmed further, and its author canonised, when it became the first Arabic book to appear in the Penguin Classics series. Below the translator's introduction to the 1989 edition
Season of Migration to the North, a novel written in Arabic by someone almost unknown at the time, quickly became something of a cult work. It is now a book which is featured in university courses and about which doctorates are written. No other modern Arabic work of fiction, not even any of the novels of the recent Nobel prize winner, the Egyptian Naguib Mahfouz, has achieved the literary status of Season. Its ability to transcend language and culture barriers is evidenced by the fact that it has been translated into languages as diverse as Norwegian and Japanese.
Season has been variously described as an "Arabian Nights" in reverse, or as a story of a modern-day Othello who seeks to turn the political tables on the West by bedding as many of its women as he can. It is also, of course, one of the few intelligent novels written by a Western or non-Western writer about the East-West conflict. Complex and structurally sophisticated, Season tells the story of Mustafa Sa'eed, a brilliant young Sudanese student who is sent to England to complete his education. In England he seeks to wreak his vengeance on the colonialism of which he is a product by exploiting the fascination he possesses for a series of women he seduces. His long years in England end in dramatic disaster. Later he chooses to make a new life in a small Sudanese village at a bend in the Nile, where he marries a local woman, tills the expanse of land he has bought, and brings up a family. Here, at the beginning of the novel, a young villager who has just returned from his studies in England meets Mustafa Sa'eed, finds out about the older man's tragic and dramatic past and not unnaturally is fascinated by someone in whose footsteps he appears to have been treading. Thus the nameless narrator sets about the task of telling Mustafa Sa'eed's story -- and, in doing so much of his own. The events of that story, broken up in terms of time and place, occur in the main in the beautifully evoked Sudanese village and in the London of between the two world wars.
Season has also been described as a schizoid novel, for the picture given to the reader of the characters, in particular Mustafa Sa'eed and the young narrator, is seen through the eyes of these two deceptively similar narrators. By introducing a Conradian narrator, who on reflection is perhaps the "hero" of the book, the author presents his reader with two self-perceptions. Neither of these perceptions, as we know from reading such authors as Henry James, need necessarily be trustworthy or truthful. Tayeb Salih, not a writer who feels any necessity to speak about his writing, once said at a lecture in Beirut that in Season he had created "a conflicting world in which nothing is certain, and, formalistically, two voices to force the reader to make up his/her own mind". Whereas few readers would fail to see that Mustafa Sa'eed, with all his amorous conquests, has led a life of self-indulgence and lies -- the word "lie" is recurrent throughout the book -- it is less easy to make a judgement of the narrator. Of Mustafa Sa'eed an Arab critic said that "instead of directing his intellect towards improving the south, he fell a victim to an illusion of conquering the north." If Mustafa Sa'eed can be said to have fallen a victim to intellectual arrogance and a lack of heart, the young narrator, with his years spent in England acquiring a doctorate in English literature, is equally unsuccessful in serving the interests of his recently freed country and in becoming a self-fulfilled person. Much of the subtlety of the novel becomes apparent only when the reader is able to distance himself from the voices of both Mustafa Sa'eed and the narrator and makes up his own mind about these two complex characters.
One of the outstanding characteristics of Season is its sheer readability. It is therefore interesting to learn that Tayeb Salih has first set out to write a straightforward thriller and "had no idea about the twists and turns the story was going to take". The novel remains one that possesses the structural tightness, pace and excitement of the best of thrillers. His narrative skill is well shown in the way in which, like a Dashiell Hammett or a Raymond Chandler, he lays clues and whets the appetite for "twists and turns" yet to come. A striking example of this is his mention, on the first few pages of the book, of Mustafa Sa'eed's room of red brick with green windows and a rectangular roof like the back of an ox, which is attached to his village house. It is only towards the end of the book that the narrator enters this room, as though into an Aladdin's cave, in the hope of finding something that will solve for him the riddle of its owner's life. Another instance is to be found in the short passage about Mustafa Sa'eed as a boy travelling on the train from Khartoum to Cairo and meeting a priest. Mustafa Sa'eed informs us that the priest tells him something to which at the time he did not pay much attention. When we are not told then and there what this something is, we as readers either forget about the remark or conclude that the author himself has forgotten about it. But, four pages later, Mustafa recalls that the priest had said to him: "All of us, my son, are in the last resort travelling alone." Again and again in the novel there are references to journeying, to voyages by land and sea, and to the fact that people, like the scenery, are merely landmarks one passes on one's way.
Season is filled with brilliantly memorable set-pieces short descriptions of minor characters (take, for instance, the narrator's lively old grandfather who, nearing his hundredth year, is like the bushes of the desert that defeat death because they ask so little of life, or the loving Mrs Robbinson, wife of the English Arabist living in Cairo, upon whose shoulder Mustafa Sa'eed weeps in his hour of defeat, and the vignettes of village life that bring to the whole unfamiliar background a vivid reality.
The concept of movement to be found in the title -- migration it should be remembered has special significance for the Arab Muslim whose calendar begins from the date of the Prophet's "migration" (or hijra) from Mecca -- is a basic theme throughout the novel. None of the novel's set-pieces is more powerful than the extended description of the overland desert journey undertaken by the narrator from his village to the capital, Khartoum.
At the end of a day's driving under a merciless sun, "just as a caravan of camels makes a halt, so did we ... I threw myself down on the sand, lighted a cigarette and lost myself in the splendour of the sky. The lorry was nourished with water, petrol and oil, and now there it is, silent and content like a mare in her stable... While I, lying under this beautiful compassionate sky, feel that we are all brothers: he who drinks and he who prays and he who steals and he who commits adultery and he who fights and he who kills. No one knows what goes on in the mind of the Divine. Perhaps he doesn't care. Perhaps he is not angry. On such a night as this you feel you are able to rise up to the sky on a rope ladder." Gradually, out there in the bare desert, they are joined by other lorries until they become "a large caravan-serai of more than a hundred men who ate and drank and prayed and got drunk". Then the vehicles are formed into a circle and their headlights trained onto an expanse of desert where the men dance and clap and stamp to the music from a transistor radio. They are joined by Bedouin from the neighbouring ravines and foothills, "and the night and desert resounded with the echoes of a great feast... a feast without meaning, a mere desperate act that sprung up impromptu like the small whirlwinds that rise up in the desert and then die." At dawn the feast breaks up, the Bedouin return to their ravines, the engines are revved and the headlights veer away "from the place which moments before had been an intimate stage and which now returned to its former state -- a tract of desert".
At the end of this passage the word "stage" points to another of the thematic threads running through Season -- the large number of images relating to the theatre and acting. Life is unreal, life is the assuming of roles and masks in the pageant into which we are precipitated at birth and in which an attempt must be made to create something meaningful and coherent. Both Mustafa Sa'eed and the narrator are conscious of man's inner desire for a worthwhile role in life, also of the wish to be understood by others. And yet, when all the philosophising has been done with, what, as Mustafa Sa'eed says, is the alternative? Life is there to be lived, and this, quite simply, is what the narrator discovers in that final poetic chapter that serves as an epilogue to the novel.
Another important element in Tayeb Salih's writing, one that is missing in most of modern Arabic literature, is his humour and sense of the ridiculous. Many Arab readers have been shocked by the frank eroticism of some of the novel, especially the long scene, surely one of the most delightful in all fiction, in which four elderly villagers, among them the much married and outspoken woman Bint Majzoub, reminisce bawdily about the joys of sex.
Tayeb Salih's writing has attracted enthusiastic appraisals from such writers as Kingsley Amis and John Berger, and on its appearance in English translation; Season of Migration to the North, was chosen by the fiction critic of London's Sunday Times as her favourite novel of the year. Described as a piece of writing that narrows the gap between prose and poetry, it is one of those few novels that demand to be read more than once.