"When a young man returns to his village in the Sudan after many years studying in Europe, he finds that among the familiar faces there is now a stranger - the enigmatic Mustafa Sa'eed. As the two become friends, Mustafa tells the younger man the disturbing story of his own life in London after the First World War. Lionized by society and desired by women as an exotic novelty, Mustafa was driven to take brutal revenge on the decadent West and was, in turn, destroyed by it. Now the terrible legacy of his actions has come to haunt the small village at the bend of the Nile."--BOOK JACKET.
The book opens with an unnamed narrator arriving back in his village along the Nile after spending seven years in England earning a doctorate in poetry. His return is both a long-sought reintegration with his community and a chance to be a man of importance to his friends and family. He is surprised to find a stranger among them, Mustafa, a man without a past who has settled in the village as a farmer and married a local woman. Our narrator is a bit jealous of a stranger who knows more about current village affairs than he and is determined to learn more, especially after one night when Mustafa gets drunk and begins to recite English poetry with a perfect accent.
Mustafa, perhaps to pacify the narrator or perhaps recognizing a similarity between them, invites the narrator to his house and tells the story of his life. Mustafa’s story is also told in first person narrative and is occasionally broken by returns to the present. Tantalizing hints are dropped about a tragic love affair and murder, but it is not until the end of the book, years later, that the narrator is able to piece the entire story together. By this time, the narrator himself has suffered a horrific loss, but one caused by the inability or unwillingness to act, not by passion.
The entire book is based on imagery of the cold North and tropical South, the intellectual European and the passionate African, civilizing colonialism and superstitious natives. Yet, Salih repeatedly tells us that this is all a lie. Mustafa manipulates images and stereotypes of Africa for sexual conquest, yet he is the cold, imperious intellectual, and not the Othello he imputes himself to be. Colonialism is referred to as a disease that spreads and can never be cured, because it leaves behind a way of thinking and a language that influences post-colonial society.
Salih was lauded by a group of Arabic critics in 1976 as “the genius of the Arabic novel.” Writing in Arabic, he says, is “a matter of principle.” Fortunately, he worked extensively with the translator, Denys Johnson-Davies, to create an English translation that is lyrical and authentic. I have also read some of Salih’s shorter works, collected in the NYRB Classic [The Wedding of Zein and Other Stories], which are set in the same village. They too are beautifully written with an undercurrent of tension created by the idea of the Other and the stereotypes of the dominant sexual male and powerless, asexual (circumcised) female. With the erosion of traditions and polarization of religious ideology, Salih’s characters are adrift in a landscape that looks familiar but is studded with artifacts of colonization and the failures of post-colonial political policies. Between the beautiful language and the underlying ideas, it is no surprise to me that [Season of Migration to the North] was selected by a panel of Arab writers and critics in 2001 as the most important Arab novel of the twentieth century.
There are 2 main characters in the book. The first is the narrator, a nameless young Sudanese man who has returned to his village after being educated in the West. He returns to a land that is no longer ruled by the colonizers – the British, but their legacy remains and not only helps, but corrupts the native Sudanese. The help is seen in the progress made to ease daily life: water wheels become pumps, cars and trucks take the place of camels and donkeys. The harm is that the pattern for living for success (not just personal but for the country) has been changed from Sudanese to British: Learning English, worshipping statistics, meetings and conferences, buildings that are not able to be finished or supported.
The Sudanese pattern is the family, the tribe or village, and the wise council of the elders, who look to the past for answers. Life is slow and patterned on the Nile which flows by the village. It brings water that sustains life and that destroys (excessive flooding). It mixes all the drops together (people) which enhances their ability to get things done. It changes course as it encounters obstacles, but it keeps moving forward. Eventually it enters the sea (death) and the ‘river’ is lost.
The Sudanese who have brains and talent are educated beyond the village level, but only so they can become little bureaucrats and say ‘yes’ in English for the new masters of the country. Those natives who are smarter, richer, and more well-connected, who live the debauched life of rich Westerners (in comparison to the austere communal life of the Sudanese village on the edge of the river, surrounded on one side by fields and the other by desert).
The narrator returns to Sudan and his village, and he is still Sudanese, but he can see the cracks and the problems in a different non-Sudanese light. He doesn’t know what to do. Should he stay Sudanese and ignore the problems, or should he bring his British education to bear, and help them, but make them less Sudanese in the process and the end result? The book ends with him unable to decide which course to take, but it ends with him in the river asking for the help of the villagers, so they can decide together what is the best course to take. Letting each person take responsibility for the course and form of their own life.
The second main character is less successful at handling the cross cultural difficulty. He is also smarter, wealthier, and more capable intellectually, but he lacked any feeling for his roots, and ultimately for any person. He worshipped knowledge, and the life of the mind. His name was Mustapha and he was the first Sudanese to go abroad to study. He awed all he met with his ease of learning, and his intelligence.
He became a ‘suitable African’ in 1960s Britain because he was seen as a ‘Black Englishman’ and was adopted and made much of by the intellectual set. But since he had no connection to his roots, he had no ability to resist the temptation to act out the ‘noble exotic former savage’. He was particularly at risk with European women who wanted the thrill of the exotic. Lacking any real emotion he settled for sensation seeking, and spent his time stalking, using and eventually abandoning many women as sexual toys. Eventually he finds a woman who turns the table and he becomes both the stalker and the prey, the one begging for attention and the one who spurns the other. Lacking control he eventually kills the woman. He is brought to trial, sentenced to 7 years, and upon his release he returns to Sudan. He lands in the same small village as the narrator, marries, has 2 sons and tries to work within the village structure to make life better. He keeps his past secret and attempts to blend Sudan/Britain, North/South, education/tradition. He dies and they are not sure if he drowned accidentally in the flood or if he committed suicide. He had wrapped his life up, given instructions to his wife, and the care of his wife and sons to the narrator just before dying.
The narrator is unable to act properly because it is not traditional to let your widow do as she wants with only an outside male (narrator) to consult. Mustapha tells the narrator to let her do as she wishes. The wife and the narrator have been influenced by the West. The village meanwhile operates on tradition. The widow has a father and brothers who expect to make important decisions for her. They agree to a marriage offer from an old wealthy man in the village. The widow does not wish to remarry. The narrator does not stand up for her rights, and for his own part in the decision making process. The marriage is forced on the widow and tragedy ensues. The narrator is left alienated from his people and his past. He tried not to force the European way on them, but his letting tradition take its course has fatal consequences to lives he could have saved.
He finally confronts the full extent of Mustapha’s Westernization: his secret room. It is an upscale British drawing room locked away behind a steel door at Mustapha’s house. It contains dark wood, stained glass, marble, statuary, paintings, photos, and walls and walls of books (all European). It was Mustapha’s temple, a place where he could pretend and worship all that he could never really be in the flesh. The Brits only accepted him like a trained monkey – a novelty, and the Sudanese would not understand or value the room and the history and culture that filled the room. Mustapha was never able to integrate the two cultures. The narrator feels the same inability, but eventually it is his connection to the humanity of his village and his emotional connection to his roots that let him take a different path from Mustapha, at the last minute.
Both the narrator and Mustapha end up with a body count. Mustapha killed his European wife, and his behavior led to several suicides. His inability to be truly European, his lack of grounding in his own culture let him act capriciously with the fate of others. The narrator's attempt at being the same person after his education as before, let him act traditionally, but it still resulted in death. Like the river he needed to change course to deal with the obstacle, but he is not strong enough to do so in time to prevent tragedy.
The book has been compared to Heart of Darkness in reverse. It also references Othello. It is a very short, very well written story that presents the dilemma of change and growth using outside cultures, and does so on a human level. You can see the impact on the lives of the characters.
The Book Report: A young Sudanese man, away in England studying for a university degree, returns in some disgrace to his native Nile-side village to lick his wounds. Mustafa, the village Scheherezade, tells the amorous adventures that were his years in the then-colonial power of England. A tragedy occurs, and life isn't the same. Or is it? Will it be? The last three pages of the book are a breathtakingly lovely statement of that question.
My Review: Published in 1966, the English edition I read was translated and published in 1989. This book is hailed far and wide as THE post-colonial novel of east-west relations.
The Sudan has, since the book came out, imploded and become a colossally failed state. It makes me a lot less able to think about the world presented here as relevant to any kind of relations, except those of the past to the imagined present.
But gawddam is the translated text beautimous! The sentences are complex, and lovely, and the images painted across the canvas behind my eyes alternated between photorealistic idealized lacquered miniatures and Rothko-esque swathes of emotionally charged color. It sweeps the reader off his feet and plops him into the middle of a lot of sex scenery. That was the rub (!) for me, as I foreswore womenfolk as sex partners a number of years ago, and one would need to like the experience of heterosexual intercourse to appreciate fully (!) the salubriously salacious sexuality of Mustafa.
I kept wanting him to finish up already and talk about the good stuff.
Of which this is an example, from the end of the book:
I entered the water as naked as when my mother bore me. When I first touched the cold water I felt a shudder go through me, then the shudder was transformed into a sensation of wakefulness. The river was not in full spate as during the days of the flooding nor yet was it at its lowest level. … I left him talking and went out. I did not let him complete the story. … My feet led me to the river bank as the first glimmerings of dawn made their appearance in the east. I would dispel my rage by swimming.
Economical, evocative, and in the context of the tale being told, perfect as what they are...valediction.
Yeah, who actually talks like this? It's hard to take any of Salih's points seriously when his characters' dialogue is so contrived. Maybe it sounded less stupid in Arabic. One of the worst reading experiences of my life in any case.
The novel is two stores - one, the story of a young Sudanese student sent to study in England in the twenties and convicted of murdering his English wife while still in London, and a second, forty years later, of how the same man's second wife kills her second husband and then herself. Despite the rather sensational details of both stories, neither is terribly compelling.
The writing in this book is beautiful, and Salih describes his landscapes, his settings and his scenery, in beautiful, vivid detail. He devotes less attention to his characters, however, and despite everything the reader learns about Mustafa Sa'eed, he remains a mystery to the reader and, I think, even to the narrator.
Part of the reason for this is perhaps that the novel is a political one, in many ways, concerned with the expectations of Europe and Africa vis-a-vis each other and very self-consciously wishing to subvert those expectations. It is a novel concerned with power and perception and with the ironic intersection between reality and nightmare that is life in Sudan. Where I think the novel loses me is in its decision to attempt to subvert expectations by fulfilling them, if that makes any sense - to use Othello as a touchstone of and symbol for offensive European romanticization of the other, the colonized, and then to play that very drama out all over again with Mustafa and his first wife. It does this in a very self-conscious way that makes the story hard to view as a story rather than as merely a vehicle for putting forth a particular view of the world.
I didn't dislike this, but it wasn't as mind-blowing an experience as I'd been led to believe it might be. I do think Salih's writing is beautiful, and I'm interested in learning more about his work, but I would not recommend this as an enjoyable read, even though parts of it are very funny and dry.
The prose is beautiful; it always helps to bring out the beauty of the natural language when the author is part of the translation.
So, all I will say is that if it takes me MONTHS to get through a 169 page book....well, then there's something wrong.
Our narrator tells the story of Mustafa Sa'eed, a brilliant Sudanese student who heads to Europe and repays the conquest of Africa with his own conquest of women -- in a line that will always stick with me, he says he is going to "liberate Africa with my penis." The encounters end disasterously for the women and our narrator has a hard time reconciling the mild mannered farmer he knew with the Sa'eed of the past.
I really enjoyed the story as it unfolded.
This book is set in 1960's Sudan and centres around a local man returning to his village on the Nile flood plain after being educated in the West. On arrival home, where all the village turns out to greet him as a returning hero, he discovers a mysterious stranger Mustafa Sa'eed living there. No one in the village seems to know much of Sa'eed's background other than the fact that he was born in Khartoum. The narrator soon discovers that Sa'eed like himself was educated and had lived in the West, in particular in London where he had got something of a reputation as being a ladies' man until he falls under the spell on one particular woman with whom he becomes obsessed.
The moral of the story revolves mainly around the clash between Eastern and Western cultures and more importantly the role of women within it. In the West women are seen as free willed able to see whomever they like whereas in the East they are described as mere chatels to do men's bidding. But for me the story overall seemed rather flawed at this point.
Sa'eed portrays himself as a great lover but one who feels no emotional attachment to those Western women he beds but rather, to me at least, it seems that he has gotten involved in some pretty extreme sexual fantasies or fetishes. Whilst the idea of a woman taking her own life rather than live with a man who was not of her own choosing is understandable, it seemed strange that several Western women would take their own lives just because a relationship had broken down, 1 maybe but 3 I'm not so sure especially if the tales of the sexual revolution of the swinging 60's is to believed.
The descriptions of village life in the Sudan were fascinating and enlightening, I particularily enjoyed the notion of the people coming alive during the night, where truckers and bedouins get together for an impromtu party only to go their own ways at daylight. There are also hints of the damage wrought on the country by colonialism.
This is a book that had it not been on the 1001 list I would probably never heard of let alone read and is described on the blurb as 'among the six finest novels to be written in modern Arabic literature'.Not for me I fear. Whilst it was a quick and fairly easy read,I found the ending a little disappointing and overall it just didn't really gel for me, a bit like roast beef without the Yorkshire puddings or toast without dripping. OK but not great.
So, all I will say is that if it takes me MONTHS to get through a 169 page book....well, then there's something wrong.
Sa'eed had left his home as a child, to be educated by the English first in Cairo, then in London. He had studied at Oxford and gained fame for his economic theories, but remained an exotic oddity, a savage or a god, never the person in-between. The poetry of Salih's writing illustrates the gap between the English and Arabic cultures; it is distant and beautiful, almost biblical.
As the narrator discovers more about the mystery of Sa'eed, the tension builds. The final tragedy has its roots not only in Sa'eed's past, but in Arab culture itself.
Almost until the very end I thought this was a wonderful book, but the revelation of Sa'eed's English downfall was too reminiscent of D. H. Lawrence. Even so, the book is well worth reading.