I’ve been trying to keep my focus on fiction and film from the North African/Middle Eastern countries where the 2011 uprising are taking place, wanting to understand what we hear in the news with more background, more nuance.  However, when I run across five or six Arabic writers who put Tayeb Salih’s 1967 Season of Migration to the North in their lists of 10 must read books from the Arabic I think it’s OK for a brief detour.  When I read in Laila Lalami’s introduction that a group of Arab critics declared in 1976 that Salih “was the genius of Arab literature,” and that Season has been translated into 30 languages, I think the detour will be rewarded.

As I read, however, I find myself puzzled.

The narrator, never named, has just come back to his village at a bend in the Nile in southern Sudan, north of Kartoum after 7 years in  Europe, and his dreams of home seem to be true.

I had longed for them, dreamed of them, and it was an extraordinary moment when I found myself standing amongst them.  They rejoiced at having me back and made a great fuss…

Reabsorbing all that he missed he comes upon a mysterious man, new to the village — not a native– but who has married one of the village women and is a diligent farmer and participant in village affairs.  After several passing encounters  the narrator is stunned one day to hear the man, Mustafa Sa’eed, reciting English poetry, some of which he, himself, had studied.  Clearly Sa’eed is not who he has been taken to be.  After another meeting or two, in which Sa’eed is reluctant to share his past, he begins to tell of his hidden years, and so begins the story within the story.

We hear that he was born in Khartoum and very early showed a “mind like a knife.”  All learning, languages and mathematics came easily to him.  He was sent by his grade-school teacher to a school in Cairo, where he was taken in by a British couple.  Soon he went to England in the years between the two wars, where he excelled, but fell into preying on English women.

I would do everything possible to entice a woman to my bed. And then I would go after some new prey.  My soul contained not a drop of sense of fun…

Several of the women committed suicide after they discovered the flimsiness of his attachment.  One of them, the last one, Jean Morris, he killed. He was tried and spent some years in prison and after more years of wandering returned to Khartoum.  It was from there he arrived in the village, a man with no past.  He took a wife and had two boys.  To all appearances he was a model man, generous in his help to others, innovative in solving village problems.

Before his story is fully revealed, to us,  Sa’eed disappears during one of the forty-year seasonal floods of the Nile.  Everyone , including his wife, Hosna, and two children, assumes he has drowned.  Strangely he has left a note to the narrator asking him to be the guardian for the boys, and keep them from indulging their own wanderlust, as he did — to his later shame. In his house is a locked room to which only the narrator has a key and in which answers are expected to be found.

With his death, his wife becomes eligible for marriage and is asked, after the mourning period, by several, whom she refuses.  One old man in particular is obsessed with her.  Her father and brothers  –her guardians, despite her once-married state–  insist that she accept him.  She declares to the narrator that if  they force her she will kill both the old man and herself.  And so she does.  The narrator finds,  when her memory is attacked by villagers, including a good friend of his, that he himself had been in love with her, even though married.  Had he taken her as a second wife, as she pleaded with him to do, the killings wouldn’t have happened. So, he has failed her.

In mouning, and trying to understand himself and Mustafa Sa’eed, he at length opens the locked room and finds an almost perfect replica of the English life Sa’eed had fled:  wall to wall books, an English fire place, photos of him and each of the women we have heard about, with the exception of Jean Morris, the last one, whom he had married, and murdered.  We hear the final filling in of their story, and the day of her killing, which she seems to have begged for

I put the blade-edge between her breasts and she twined her legs around my back . Slowly I pressed down. Slowly.  She opened her eyes. What ecstasy there was in those eyes!

What we have at first reading is a pretty intriguing mystery story — which Salih has said was his only intention when he began.We have an interesting tale of cultural crossings, both good and bad.  We have a sense that the narrator and Mustafa Sa’eed are in some sense, doubles of each other.

Was it likely that what had happened to Mustafa Sa’eed could have happened to me? He had said that he was a lie, so was I also a lie?  I too had lived with them [the English] But I had lived with them superficially, neither loving nor hating them.

Yet there are still puzzles when we are finished.  The mystery, at its most basic is not solved.  We don’t know if Mustafa Sa’eed is in fact drowned, or has committed suicide.  The letter he left to his countryman the narrator, implies that he could no longer resist the wanderlust which had already distorted his life.  And yet, Jean Morris, as she had called him to stab her also says Come, Come with me.  Don’t let me go alone! And so the wanderlust he writes of in the letter could be, in fact, notice of his suicide.

We don’t really know, with the detail we expect in comparable mysteries, why he killed Jean Morris.  The reasons seem to float in the strange attraction between them.  We “understand”  in a “meta” sense, but not in details of passion we find are familiar with in crime and mystery novels.  I don’t think we “get” them psychologically as people we might know.   The final act is as erotic as it is fatal.  Something is going on here that is not fully on the page.

And then most mysteriously is the closing chapter.  After spending a long night in Sa’eed’s transplanted English room, and revealing to us the story of the murder, after swearing twice to burn the room down, and not doing it, the narrator goes to bathe in the Nile.  At first the swimming is refreshing and good.

I continued swimming and swimming, resolved to make the northern shore.

But then the river and the noises on it begin to change. His limbs begin to get heavy. He can not make out which way is which.

Turning to the left and right I found I was half-way between north and south.  I was unable to continue, unable to return.

He feels the river pulling him down.

In a state between life and death I saw formations of sand grouse heading northwards.  Were we in winter or summer?  Was it a casual flight or a migration?

And then with a mighty surge he pushes his body half out of the water and shouts, Help!  Help!

Thus ends the book.

We realize as we puzzle this out, that we don’t just have a good yarn that we can close the pages on and feel satisfied.  There is a lot more than a simple murder mystery packed into these 136 pages.  If we want to get hold of it we are going to have to return and work through again.

We’re going to have to get some help, as well.   Season of Migration to the North was written in 1967 about a village where two men meet, sometime in the 1950s — just about the time Sudan was granted full independence from Great Britain and Egypt — though this is not spoken of in the novel.  The narrator has just returned after seven years in England.  Mustafa Sa’eed had been in England from some 30 years earlier, during and after WW I, according to dates on his passports.  So the story within the story was 30 years in the past relative to the narrator, 40 years to the writer, and 90 years to we readers.  Much has changed; much no doubt has remained the same. Nevertheless, we have to be careful about projecting our views backwards to the two eras contained in the story, the first of which was a time of colonial relations between the two countries with rising nationalism among the Sudanese intelligentsia.  The time of the encompassing story in the village is immediately post-colonial.  The behavior of both men, in England and on their return, is likely to be tied to their experience of those years.

It is worth mentioning as well, that Tayeb Salih himself, left the Sudan in 1952 for England, part of the generation that was to be educated to govern the newly liberated country.  He remained in Europe for most of his life until his death at age 90, in 2009.  He married a Scottish woman in 1965.  All of his major writing was done there. Though he never stopped feeling related to the country of his youth, he accepted himself as one who contained values from both.  In the 1990s he published an article titled “Where did these people come from?” a criticism of the new Islamist rulers in Khartoum.

The importance of Season of Migration to Arabic and World literature can be measured in part by the praise it has received and continues to receive by those who make literature and culture their lives.  From Edward Said, who called it “one of the 6 most important works of Arabic fiction” to essays ,  public panel discussions, radio shows,  chapters of books, and  entire books taking it apart, looking at the nuance and themes.

There are two murders:  The first in time is detailed at the end of the book.  An African man kills a British woman who seems to participate, and desire, the blade, as a carnal act.  The second in time is revealed first in the book:  an African woman kills an African man, and then herself, no longer willing to behave in traditional ways as a possession passed from male to male.  Sexuality, regardless of legal status of the relationship, must be consensual or it is rape; she will not be raped.

Two men return to the village from different eras in England.  One has lived a lie for 30 years, as he himself says.  He has killed and he has been in prison.  The other studied an obscure English poet and whatever his love for the village of his birth has become an educational functionary in Khartoum and only visits two months of the year.  He cannot admit his love for the the village woman, nor bring himself to follow tradition and take her as a second wife, thus saving her.

One man seemingly dies in the flood waters, the other recognizes that he wants to live, trapped between north and south in the same river, and cries out Help Help!

Commentators have marked Salih’s recognition of human equality.  His prose does not burn with a post-colonialist fever.  There is good in both countries, and in both people.

The coming of the British – was not a tragedy as we imagine, nor a blessing as they imagine,. It was a melodramatic act which with the passage of time will turn into a mighty myth

As one writer put it, in a Guardian, U.K obituary:

Salih refused to settle for a simplistic denouncement of colonialism. In Salih’s world, everything remains uncomfortably ambiguous. It is this ability to evade all fixed labels that accounts for the novel’s longevity. Salih manages to put his finger on the root of our intertwined fates. The novel is also equally critical of parochialism and the hardships endured by women in traditional society.

Salih himself is reported:

… to have 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”

Others have compared Salih to Chinua Achebe, particularly his well known “Things Fall Apart.” and to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, “stood on its head,” in which instead of two men, one telling the other’s story, going up the Congo to the heart of darkness we have two men, one telling the other’s story, going up the Thames to the heart of darkness.  Hear particularly Bruce Robbins at the PEN Center discussion of  Salih.

The translation in this re-issued New York Review edition is the same as earlier editions, by Denys Johnson-Davies, has been universally praised.  Edward Said had said of him that he was the best translator of Arabic literature then working.  I mostly agree.  Translating from any language/culture is a tough job to take on; how much more so from one further removed from our own experience.  Yet almost entirely the prose flows nicely and the images are palpable to us:

…I pursued her for three years. Every day the string of the bow became more taut.

…I deceived her, seducing her by telling her that we would marry and that our marriage would be a bridge between north and south, and I turned to ashes the firebrand of curiosity in her green eyes.

“…his voice, like dead fishes floating on the surface of the water, used to float out.

Johnson-Davies was British, so there are Anglicisms that sometimes trip an American reader, though perhaps this is just a confusion: the scent of half-ripe corn cobs and the aroma of lemon trees.” Cob, in American English is what is left after the corn is eaten.  We would smell the half-ripe corn, or stalks of corn, not the cobs.

So I am still puzzling… the mark of an important book, one that invites us to puzzle, and keeps us feeling that is worth our while to keep on, that the questions come not because of the author’s carelessness but because he too has questions that must be answered.

Clearly, this is a lot of weight for such a slender novel,  too much to be more than suggested in a brief review such as this, which can really only try to intrigue you into reading it, understanding that it is one of the few hundred of books in the world that will repay with re-readings.  The questions it will pose may lead to further reading and research and thereby deepen your appreciation  of the writing and the writer, as well of the times and place they speak of.