Books covered in this dual review:
• Secret Son, Laila Lalami. Algonquin Books. 304pp, $23.95.
• Season of Migration to the North, Tayeb Salih (Denys Johnson-Davies trans.). NYRB Classics. 139pp, $14.00.
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It’s not as if Lalami is unaware of how to artfully dramatize and describe these cultural and political issues: just see her informative introduction to Tayeb Salih’s Season of Migration to the North, recently reissued by NYRB Classics. Originally published in 1969, Season was famously selected by a 2001 literary panel as the greatest Arabic-language novel of the 20th century, and it is often listed as one of the classic postcolonial works in any language. Independent of any academic qualifiers, however, this short novel deserves to be read for its gorgeous prose (translated by Denys-Johnson Davies, with help from Salih), its narrative intensity, and the economy with which Salih renders all sides of the 20th-century relationships between colonial powers and their Third World victims.
Lalami helpfully contextualizes how Season’s disorienting structure, built on extended conversations and monologues by speakers other than the narrator, acknowledges a debt to Arabic verbal culture while, by virtue of being a novel, simultaneously assuming a historically European form. Beginning with this formal duality, Season is built on a series of similar symbolic pairings, each of which are enriched by Salih’s excellent writing and his insightful arrangement of metaphors.
Season begins as the unnamed narrator—like Salih, a Sudanese man who studied English literature in London—returns to his village on the Nile and discovers a new resident, Mustafa Sa’eed, has moved in and become a prominent member of the town. Sa’eed has likewise spent time in the U.K., and, prompted by this shared experience, he confesses to the narrator that he in fact killed a woman while over there. He narrates his history of sexual exploits and eventual incarceration with startling detail, leaving a permanent mark on the narrator that only grows once Sa’eed disappears from the village, leaving the narrator in charge of his wife and two sons.
The relationship between these two men, despite their similar backgrounds, resembles that between colonial and indigenous cultures; Sa’eed, with a “mysterious” smile, arrives to the village unannounced, forces his eloquent way into the narrator’s own story, and, through an act of violence, implicates his converser unwillingly in an ongoing history beyond his control. But Salih doesn’t allow for a one-sided victim/oppressor narrative; instead, he ably explores the ways in which such a relationship enlightens the narrator as much as it scars him: the narrator gains a wife and sons from Sa’eed, all of whom he cares for lovingly, even as the seeming randomness of his charge (and the eventual fate of his wife) underline his disorientation as a person who’s navigated between East and West for most of his adult life.
Salih’s evocation of the interplay between these worlds is consistently complex and beautiful. It is a cliché for Western readers to refer to fiction from the developing world as “dreamlike,” but Season is indeed that, since the narrative develops in cycles and through symbolic motifs. The narrator doubles back to Sa’eed’s confessional throughout the book, illustrating its continued effect on his worldview.
Similarly, Salih elasticizes the physical world by constantly reminding us of ongoing cycles of decay and rebirth. At a village festival, the narrator observes the elder Wad Hayyes among his friends and notes, “Tomorrow they would be on their way. Tomorrow the grandson would become a father, the father a grandfather, and the caravan would pass on.” When he earlier hugs his grandfather, the man’s odor “is a combination of the smell of the large mausoleum in the cemetery and the smell of an infant child.” And when Sa’eed—who exploits and exaggerates his own otherness in order to seduce as many astonished English women as possible—actually achieves genuine sexual and emotional intimacy with a partner, the experience defies physical definition: “When I grasped her it was like grasping at clouds, like bedding a shooting star, like mounting the back of a Prussian military march.”
These images consolidate space and time, stretching our spatial perceptions and endowing this short novel with an implausibly oceanic scale. Fittingly, Salih’s two framing symbols are both water-related: the Nile, which bends and changes shape while ceaselessly flowing past the village; and the boat trip between England and Africa, which for both the narrator and Sa’eed possesses an incredible metaphorical weight. Sa’eed recalls his inaugural trip:
[W]hen the sea swallowed up the shore and the waves heaved under the ship and the blue horizon encircled us, I immediately felt an overwhelming intimacy with the sea. I knew this green, infinite giant, as though it were roving back and forth within my ribs. The whole of the journey I savored that feeling of being nowhere, alone, before or behind me either eternity or nothingness.
The sea tossing inside a man’s chest as the man himself is surrounded by sky, the desire for both oblivion and eternity—the exploration of new cultures summons, in both Sa’eed and his author, a poetic restructuring of physical reality. When Sa’eed disembarks and begins over-exoticizing himself for sexual gain, his metaphor changes to that most rigidly structured of transportation modes; he repeats, mantra-like, “The train carried me to Victoria Station and to the world of Jean Morris,” the woman he later kills.
In Season of Migration to the North, Tayeb Salih asserts the complexity of both Eastern and Western cultures by showing how characters who move between them have experiences that defy even physical stability. The book’s violence, disappointments, and misunderstandings occur whenever these characters fall back on clichés, whether it’s Mustafa Sa’eed’s sexualized murder of a British woman or the narrator’s early recognition that his idealized remembrances of family and home causes “something rather like fog [to rise] up between them and me the first instance I saw them.” To reduce any culture to clichés or still metaphors, Salih argues, is to forget the universalities that bind us together; or, as the narrator reminds a villager who asks if the English have farmers among them, to forget that
just like us they are born and die, and in the journey from the cradle to the grave they dream dreams, some of which come true and some of which are frustrated; that they fear the unknown, search for love and seek contentment in wife and child; that some are strong and some are weak; that some have been given more than they deserve by life, while other have been deprived by it, but that the differences are narrowing and most of the weak are no longer weak.
The themes and scope of Salih’s book are ambitious enough, particularly for its short length; his achievement is to have found the linguistic and metaphorical depth to express them so beautifully.
John Lingan is a writer living in Baltimore, MD. He is the managing editor of Splice Today.
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