By: Tayeb Salih
Immersed in the world between worlds, our recently European educated Sudanese narrators, returns to his homeland and the village of his birth. Armed with knowledge and a broadened worldview, he displays the naivety of the young and the grief of the transient. A new figure in his village, the suave, equally well-educated but far darker figure of Mustafa Sa’eed takes the young narrator into his confidence. After Sa’eed’s disappearance/read possible suicide, the narrator is left with the task of caring for Mustafa’s independent wife and his children. Couched in the ephemeral realms of literary fiction, poised at the edge of evoking a painful universality, Season of Migration to the North spellbinds with its pseudo-surrealistic language, but ultimately proves too big and unwieldy for its own management. This book means something, is talking of something deep and something tragic involving post colonialism in a bitter postmodern world. The relationship between text and meaning is so fraught with complication (yes, throwing some Deconstruction in there for good measure) that the baffled reader is left feeling, frankly, quite stupid for not having risen to the same heights as the narrative which long ago has left the reader empty and gasping in the dust of a stunning, yet failed, attempt.
I hate reading (and not “getting”) literary books, especially those with the intimidating “modern classic” label. An English major in college who later went on to get an MA in writing and works in yes, writing, it just makes me feel plain dumb not to truly understand a book, especially when all of the other reviewers are praising it. And Season of Migration to the North is beautiful. Some of the descriptions, especially towards the end have an Arabian Nights feeling mixed in with fractured imagery from the modern world colliding with the traditional. The language is, itself, a pleasure to read and while the characters may not inspire the sentences, Tayeb Salih’s beautiful, elegant visual phrases are in a class of their own. The original work, written in Arabic and claimed to be the quintessential Arab book, is a translation (translator Denys Johnson-Davies) and the majesty of the translation makes readers long for the ability to read the original.
But this is where my love and praise ends, I’m afraid. Even back in my college days when I was sitting in a special invite-only English class about literary theory, I admit that I never truly “got it.” No, I don’t see why Stanley Fish’s sports car is relevant or why Derrida is so inspired by Saussure. I can throw the fancy terms around. I can give you the Wikipedia translation of what they mean. Some of them, such as postmodernism, even have a bit of wit and verve to them. But ultimately, to me it always comes down to the world the text creates and not what a clever scholar can make it say. If you have to prove the text’s meanings through years of study and analysis, applying ideas that the author him or herself did not intend, then the story fails. Plain and simple. Yes, yes, take away my pompous English major honors. They are wasted on me. This novel, like so many before it, gets the “great” classic badge because it is obtuse and fascinated with itself to the point of over archiving while understating. It’s just . . . a mess.
I’ll admit, the conclusion almost swung my opinion. The drama of the language – beautiful! What it meant – well, all psychobabble really. Why does our main character try to kill himself? Because at the end of a literary novel you need to be dramatic! Why is Mustafa elevated to such mystical proportions and what does all the sensuality and frank sex have to do with anything – its literary people. It’s shocking, and down to earth, while being so completely elevated that a scholar (Laila Lalami) needs to preface the tale with an introduction explaining what everything means and what happens in the narrative. And yes, after reading the story, novella really, I had to go back and read the intro so I could fill in the blanks and apply the significance of the work I had just read.
The collision of the old world and the new world, specifically the world of Africa with the world of the West (its former oppressors) is discussed among the characters in ways that don’t feel real to the village. The villagers themselves, sitting around and talking – some weird psycho-sexual babble that is meant to pass for “regular person speak” and introduce the flavor of the liminal village, evokes boredom. The effort is straining, especially in the beginning of the story and the fascination of the character with Sa’eed inexplicable and unfounded, as are his extreme emotional reactions.
The conclusion, however, does forgive a world of transgressions because finally the narrative becomes comfortable with itself. Specifically, the sequence in the desert where people gather together to dance in the beams of their pointing Jeeps is a fantastic imagine to accurately represent merging worlds. This moment feels authentic and real, jubilant and strange. This moment truly works and the beauty of the language amplifies the desert imagery which gets readers away from the cramped quarters of the village to the surrealism that the narrative excels at. It’s almost enough, combined with the elegant introduction, to make me want to read Season of Migration to the North again, in one sitting, to soak up all that I missed. Because of this, it’s difficult for me to like or dislike the book. I waver somewhere between its potential and its flawed actuality. Perhaps its very effect on me is the greatest mystery of all, especially in my love/hate relationship between the story and characters (unreal/unlikable) and the images and language (sublime and beyond classical). Can you really recommend a book based on what it aspires to say?
- Frances Carden