BOOK REVIEW: SEASON OF MIGRATION TO THE NORTH, BY TAYEB SALIH (1966)

Screen Shot 2017-05-19 at 08.30.31In Naughty Dog’s 2013 videogame The Last of Us, a fungus turns people into zombies. It latches itself onto your brain and, as it grows, it alters your behaviour, ramping up aggressiveness, making you instinctively attack uninfected humans. Season of Migration to the North is like this fungus. I wasn’t going to write a review of it, because it’s the sort of rich, multi-layered story that you probably have to read several times and at several different moments throughout your life to 100% fully “get”, and because it’s a bona fide classic, translated into 20 languages and selected by a panel of Arab writers and critics, in 2001, as the best novel ever written in Arabic. So it’s nothing to be trifled with. But I just couldn’t get it out my head. After I finished it yesterday, I had trouble focussing on my work, I tried moving on to a new book but couldn’t, and I quickly descended into crankiness. But as soon as I put pen to paper to plan out a draft of a review, I felt relief. The book latched itself onto my brain, altered my behaviour, ramped up my crankiness, and compelled me to write something about it.

The novel opens with the unnamed narrator’s return to his native village on a bend of the Nile, in the Sudan. It is the Sixties. The narrator, who has just spent several years studying in England, notices someone new among his relatives’ neighbours: a quiet, mysterious man named Mustafa Sa’eed. After a strange incident, the narrator decides he must know everything about this new neighbour; sensing some kinship with the younger man, Mustafa decides to tell him his life story. It turns out Mustafa, too, had been educated in England–indeed, for a while he was a rising star in London’s academic circles. But he was also a serial seducer of women… and all the women who crossed his path met a tragic demise. Mustafa was imprisoned for seven years for the murder of his wife, and spent the rest of his life trying to atone for his crimes.

Screen Shot 2017-05-19 at 08.32.29Like the zombies in The Last of Us, and like me reading this book, Mustafa, too, has been infected. In his case, the disease is colonialism. No matter how many schools, roads and railways the English may boast they have built, no matter how sharp Mustafa’s mind becomes in English universities, the legacy of colonialism will always be a poisonous one: “The ships at first sailed down the Nile carrying guns not bread, and the railways were originally set up to transport troops; the schools were started so as to teach us how to say ‘Yes’ in their language. They imported to us the germ of the greatest European violence, as seen on the Somme and at Verdun, the like of which the world has never previously known, the germ of a deadly disease that struck them more than a thousand years ago.” Mustafa, corrupted by this “civilising” project, can’t help but take its poison with him to England: “Yes, my dear sirs, I came as an invader into your very homes: a drop of the poison which you have injected into the veins of history.” And his seduction of white women is the way he spreads this poison–a character actually quotes him boasting “I will liberate Africa with my penis”.

It’s not entirely clear to me whether this is an act of anti-colonial revenge, or whether Mustafa is merely compelled to corrupt because he himself was corrupted–again, like a zombie. It’s interesting, though, that his seduction methods rely on Orientalist fantasies: he takes women to an elaborate bedchamber smelling of sandalwood and incense, decorated with ebony and ivory, silk and Persian rugs, and encourages messed-up roleplay in which he is the women’s black god, or they are his slaves, or he is Othello and they are Desdemona.

Screen Shot 2017-05-19 at 08.32.03I am just scratching the surface here, both in terms of the book’s plot and in terms of its themes. As I said in my opening paragraph, this is a very, very rich book. I wouldn’t call it inaccessible: there’s a pleasing earthiness to Salih’s prose style and Denys Johnson-Davies’ translation, with recurring phrases reminiscent of oral storytelling, lovely vignettes and descriptions of village life, and an abundance of simple but clear and affecting similes and metaphors (someone is happy “like a child that sees its face in the mirror for the first time”, and the roofs of houses in England are “vaulted like the backs of cows”). The sentence structure is never less than immaculate. But the novel also plays with the way it reveals key information: Mustafa tells the story of his life in the second chapter, but, as the book progresses, it becomes clear that the narrator didn’t reproduce it faithfully, as snatches of sentences come back to haunt him in the years following that night, until the floodgates open in the penultimate chapter and we get to read a fuller version of the story in a sequence of long, feverish paragraphs. Indeed, as the novel moves towards its climax, it becomes more and more unsettling and weird, with sexual desire and the threat of violence tinging everything, from the relationships between the villagers to the novel’s very imagery–the setting sun is like a pool of blood, and the scorching desert heat makes the narrator think of “two wide-open white thighs”.

I’m not sure I’ve given this novel justice. I suspect I’ll read it again in a few years and be embarrassed by this post. But, as I said, I can’t help writing about it, and what I’ve written is the best approximation of the tangled thoughts and feelings I have in my head right now. I hope you’re intrigued enough to read it–it’s a very good book, more than deserving of its reputation. And once you do, leave a comment, and tell me what you thought.

Trigger warning: Contains an episode of sexual violence (not involving Mustafa or the narrator). The reader gets two indirect descriptions of it in quick succession: first the characters hear it, then they witness its aftermath. The latter is quite graphic and disturbing.

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