Season of Migration to the North – Tayeb Salih

Tayeb  Salih was an accomplished novelist from Sudan who had carved out an identity for himself in the canon of world literature.  His important works include The Wedding of Zein and the season of migration to the north.  Among these, I’ve read the season of migration to the north and found it really interesting. I felt like sharing some snippets of thoughts with all the readers out there.

I hope you all are aware of the towering masterpiece in world literature, Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. This is an astounding novel with a fair share of criticisms as well.  It was written at a time when the concept of colonialism was at its peak. A renegade sailor by the name of Kurtz go wayward, in the present-day Congo, and another man Marlowe pursues him only to be ushered into a world full of  chaos, uncertainties and mysteries. The storytelling used here is perfect and I have certain reservations about the topic Conrad had selected. Nevertheless, this is an all-time classic.

Postmodernism deconstructed many of the remaining literary ethe, thus heralding a new atmosphere of questioning everything. The remnants of colonialism were attacked brutally and writers were always in search of new ways and modes of storytelling. Many writers, who had hitherto enjoyed the status of literary idols, were attacked and criticized. And in this context, we have to understand the works of writers such as Tayeb Salih as the bulwarks against the sweeping remains of all sorts of colonialisms.

From a little village in Sudan, from a family of peasants, Salih had a good education. He was well- versed with European literature and this clearly reflects in his writings. Arguably one of the greatest writers of Sudan in the 20th century, Salih still enjoys considerable fame. He wrote in Arabic and was one of the frontrunners of modernism in Arabic literature.

Last week, I finished his epic work, this short novel called ‘Season of the migration to the North’. It was a good read.  Although this is such a short novel, it is packed with much suspense and intrigue. This is a direct counter-attack to Heart of Darkness by Conrad, and it is a must-read for everyone who would like to know more about Arabic literature.

The story takes place in an obscure, nameless village in Sudan. The narrator has returned to Sudan after a long stint in Europe as a student.  There, he meets a mysterious man named Mostafa Saeed. No one knows about his whereabouts in the village. Clearly intrigued, the narrator starts pursuing him. Initially indifferent to the narrator’s overtures, Saeed finally relents and starts to tell his story. A brilliant student, Saeed was brought up entirely by his widowed mother.  He is sent to Cairo and then to England for studies, and there he meets various sorts of people. He carries out a mission of having romantic liaisons with numerous white women, and many of them would commit suicide.  He is charged with murders, which he fiercely refused to accept. Then after serving his sentence, he returns to Sudan, and somehow reaches the narrator’s village, which was unknown to him.

There he marries a woman named Hosna, and actively participates in agricultural activities.  One day he dies, and before that he tells the narrator that he should take care of Hosna and his two children. The story progresses when Waddi Reyes, a friend of the narrator’s grandfather, wants to marry Hosna.  An old man, famed for his sexual escapades, Reyes is in love with Hosna.  The narrator thinks it is his duty to take care of Hosna and the children, and he now has a job in the Sudanese Civil Service. When he returns, he hears the sad news of the demises of both Hosna and Reyes. Hosna had allegedly committed suicide, and also had killed Reyes.   The narrator is clearly distraught and visits the home of Saeed again, and in his imaginings, he feels envious of this mysterious person. The story ends when he jumps into the river in a muddy state of mind but survives.

The writer is clearly a master of the Stream of consciousness style. The ponderings of the narrator are philosophical and the narrative is clearly simple. He does not believe in verbiage, and it reflects in his writing. There is a strong undercurrent of a kind of humanism as well, as we can see the writer locks horns with the towering figure of Conrad. If for Marlowe, Africa was a dark place, for the narrator it is a land filled with clever fables, runnels of mysteries and stories.  Like the legendary Philosopher, Edward Said, he turns the tables on the oppressors, through the caricature of the brilliant, hapless Mostafa Saeed, and the portrayal is a human one.

If you want to read a great African writer, this could be your best bet.

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