A classic of modern Arab literature, Season of Migration to the North is dark, disturbing and unforgettable. It's the story of two men and a woman. The narrator, unnamed throughout the book, is a young man just returned to his native Sudan from England where he's been educated in poetry. As he readjusts to his village, he meets a man named Mustafa Sa'eed, a newcomer to town with a shady past that also includes a Western European education and career. Mustafa befriends the young man, tells him about his life and particularly about how his relationships with women have shaped him and the course of his destiny. Now, though, he's living a quiet life with a wife from the village. One day he disappears, leaving the narrator to look after his wife and children. Another local man decides to wed Mustafa's widow; she, however, has ideas of her own and what follows is tragedy and disillusionment.
Author Laila Lalami explicates the themes of the novel well in her beautiful introduction- colonialism and its lingering aftereffects, religion and the relationships between men and women. She also discusses the very interesting relationship between Salih and his translator Denys Johnson-Davies, characterizing it almost as one of collaboration. Salih has lived in the United Kingdom for many years and nevertheless still writes his books in Arabic but has worked closely with Johnson-Davies to produce works that sing in both languages. The book is shot through with lyrical passages rich with description of and affection for Salih's homeland. I love this description of the narrator's home:
This large house is built neither of stone nor yet of red brick but of the very mud in which the wheat is grown, and it stands right at the edge of the field so that it is an extension of it. This is evident from the acacia and sunt bushes that are growing in the courtyard and from the plants that sprout from the very walls where the water has seeped through from the cultivated land. It is a chaotic house, built without methods, and has acquired its present form over many years: many differently-sized rooms, some built up against one another at different times, either because they were needed or because my grandfather found himself with some spare money for which he had no other use...A maze of a house...if one looks objectively at it from the outside one feels it to be a frail structure, incapable of survival, but somehow, as if by a miracle, it has surmounted time.A metaphor for something else, maybe?
Sing though it does, there's no getting around the fact that Season is one dark book. If you read the other novella of his published by NYRB Classics, the delightful Wedding of Zein, be prepared for a very different experience. This book is not without its lighter moments but overall Season depicts a more conflicted, deeply tormented and deeply ambiguous landscape; the narrator is pleased with his education but returns home to find it useless. Once a point of pride, it now paints him as an outsider and someone ill-equipped to help his country. Meanwhile the people and the system the Europeans have left behind are mired in corruption and short-sightedness. And Salih depicts the problems associated with the status of women with insight.
Downer though it may be, I would still highly recommend Season of Migration to the North to anyone with an interest in African and/or Muslim fiction. No doubt it's a classic and a beautiful, poetic work in many respects. It's a short book that requires attention and rewards it, a literary book for a reader unafraid of a little sadness. It reminds me a lot of Atiq Rahimi, sort of like a less impressionistic version of The Patience Stone. It's a character- and setting-driven book about a country in transition and people trying to make sense of it all.
FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review.