Season of Migration to the North by Tayeb Salih
Publisher: African Writers Series
Genre: Historical / Political Fiction
Rating: 4 Stars
After years of study in Europe, the young narrator of Season of Migration to the North returns to his village along the Nile in the Sudan. It is the 1960s, and he is eager to make a contribution to the new postcolonial life of his country. Back home, he discovers a stranger among the familiar faces of childhood—the enigmatic Mustafa Sa’eed. Mustafa takes the young man into his confidence, telling him the story of his own years in London, of his brilliant career as an economist, and of the series of fraught and deadly relationships with European women that led to a terrible public reckoning and his return to his native land.
But what is the meaning of Mustafa’s shocking confession? Mustafa disappears without explanation, leaving the young man—whom he has asked to look after his wife—in an unsettled and violent no-man’s-land between Europe and Africa, tradition and innovation, holiness and defilement, and man and woman, from which no one will escape unaltered or unharmed. (Source: Goodreads)
I feel like I need to re-read this book. Slower, more intentionally. I want to pause and reflect on all the metaphorical meanings and symbolism.
The book begins with the narrator having returned to his home Sudan after 7 years of study at Oxford. He is nostalgic, educated, more knowledgeable and optimistic about newly independent Sudan. At his homecoming, he notices a strange face in the crowd that piques his curiosity. This strange face belongs to Mustafa Sa’eed – an enigmatic, equally well educated but arrogant Oxford returnee. Through their interaction, Sa’eed opens up about his trysts in England and the events leading up to his imprisonment and eventual return to the narrator’s small village at the bend of the Nile. During his time in England, Sa’eed was intent on seducing and ravaging English women and those who fell in love with him and his ‘exotic nativeness’ all met tragic ends.
Sex appears to be at the centre of this narrative, both in the literal and metaphorical sense of it. Sa’eed and the narrator could also very well be representation of post-colonial African countries and how they relate or chose to engage with their former colonial masters. Sa’eed the arrogant country that is intent on revenge and ‘using’ the West as her country had been used and ravaged as seen through his defiant acts and the eventual murder of his wife. And the narrator, the complacent country torn in between her traditional values and western influence - aspiring to progress but not really knowing how to do it and not willing to make choices.
At a time when most post-colonial literature had an outward-in focus, I am quite impressed that Saleh opted to use an introspective angle. The books asks subliminal but important questions; How do we as newly independent nations choose to engage with the colonial masters post-independence? And is it possible to establish relations with former colonial powers? Do we approach these relations from an arrogant, entitled perspective that would ultimately lead to our self-destruction or a more subdued one?
The beginning and the end of the book are powerful. In the end, the narrator himself had to make a choice. As African countries, we had to make choices, tough choices post-Independence- on whether we were to become combative or collaborative in ways that would benefit us. Complacency, as shown by the narrator, was not an option, you either choose to swim with the current or drown.
An important book that I highly, highly recommend.
4 Star Rating.