Tayeb Salih: Season of Migration to the North

January 6, 2022

     I can’t now remember where I came across the review which aroused my interest in this novel, by a Sudanese writer, first published in 1969. It’s a challenging read, powerful and perplexing. I’m happy to admit that, as an inhabitant of the first world, I find novels from African and Asia difficult reads at times, in the sense that they come from and are about cultures and lives that are so different from the ones I’m familiar with from my privileged European perspective. And yet, I’m curious to know more.

This is the story, set about a century ago, of two Sudanese men who spend time in Britain – their country was a colony of ours at that time, the ‘Anglo-Egyptian Sudan’. Both eventually return home; one having had a decent education, becomes a minor government official; the second is rather odder: falling in love with the western lifestyle, he realises he is exotic to western women and leads a wild life seducing and abandoning them, and eventually murders one he had married. He escapes hanging and eventually returns to the Sudan, seeking anonymity… after a fashion. The lives of the two men are inevitably intertwined, given their common background.

That’s the plot in a nutshell, that fails to do the wider story justice, as there is much broader reflection on the nature and effects of colonisation, on both coloniser and colonised, on the mutual incomprehension and on the ultimately destructive connection. It is hard to avoid the picture of Sudanese lives blighted by contact with Britain.

The storyteller is happy to be back in his homeland, but has become not quite a stranger in his home village but someone now different from everyone else, and all his friends and neighbours are inevitably curious about the strange land across the sea where he has lived. The other man seeks him out, befriends him, and evidently has a secret which he eventually shares partially before being lost in a Nile flood, leaving the narrator to piece together the rest. There was a weird unworldliness about him, a man without feelings or emotions, only focused on the intellect; he leaves behind a curious locked room in his house, which the narrator eventually visits: it is a shrine to Britain and things British.

It’s well-written, with sudden bombshells lobbed in that create both suspense and astonishment; the narrative thread shifts in time and focus, blurring the flow, slowing us down and forcing the reader to reflect. What, exactly, is the message here? The insidiousness of rule by another race and nation which regards itself as superior percolates through everywhere, and the inevitable corruption which follows in its wake is also laid bare.

It’s a challenging novel – as I mentioned at the start – perhaps particularly to the western reader who knows himself to be perhaps not a target, but certainly implicated in the blame, perhaps also because it comes from a place that we as westerners are not, and cannot, be a part of; there is no sense of comfort or tranquillity available to such a reader. I can’t pretend I’ve exhausted everything the novel has to say on a first reading, and so I expect to be re-reading it quite soon. If you’re up to be rattled, I recommend this one.

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