Friday, July 27, 2007

Season Of Migration To The North

It has been a while since I have wanted to write about this fantastic novel by the Sudanese writer Tayeb Saleh. Two years and two readings apart, this novel can be described as seminal, a kind of a post colonial answer or a response to Heart Of Darkness, only that this novel is not an apology but a re-examination of exile and migration.

Born in Sudan, Saleh moved to London and wrote this short novel in the sixties, a work that has been translated into numerous languages. Saleh is a novelist and a poet too. This novel has for long remained a classic and has in the past been declared as the most important Arabic novel of the last hundred years. Since I can only read the translated novel, which is written so beautifully, one wonders as always at the original magic of Arabic. And surprisingly enough, the novel is written in a modern language, devoid of pretensions and unlike other Arabic novels that somehow do not follow the structure of the novel in the Western European sense.

The story, told by a narrator in flashbacks from his own life mixed with following the fortunes of Mustafa Saeed, who having returned back from England to Sudan previously, finds parallels between his and Mustafa's life. Whilst in England, Mustafa, having become Moozie, uses his exotic charm to seduce women in England and driving some to despair. He gets married and in a scene of sexual imagery and violent tension, he kills his wife and, and later when back in Sudan, Mustafa disappears mysteriously in the Nile following a flood, having been in and out finally of an unhappy marriage. The narrator too has returned to Sudan from England and his own reflections and experiences are revealed in spasms of emotions, in surreptitious and enigmatic ways.

This is a novel about migration, of self imposed exiles, of clashes of culture, of thought, language and feelings and the language of feelings. But the clashes are not just external, they are internal too, forcing one to question one's place in a new culture, and the place one has left behind or only thought to have done. One cannot belong anywhere because the battles are fought inside, the doubts are within, the pain of dislocation is inside. The narrator's grief is in not being accepted on his return and his not accepting and his inability to reject his new past, that of an ex-colonial country, wherein he remained an outsider too, always. The dialogue is between the colonized and the coloniser, only the tragedy of discourse is within the same person, now no longer a subject but newly subjugated by his own fears.

There is politics here but then even a love poem has its politics and we expect Saleh to exhume this colonial stuff but the exhumation is a subtle one, going on inside the narrator torn between his pasts. The murder of the English woman has been interpreted as a revenge against colonialism and I think it is a kind of response if not revenge, though Saleh has denied it. The style is hauntingly lyrical, calling it only poetry is an injustice. Says the narrator about his lover in England.............. when she saw me, she saw a dark twilight like a false dawn. Unlike me she yearned for tropical climes, cruel suns, purple horizons. In her eyes I was a symbol of all hankerings. I am south that yearns for the north and the ice. There is a sense of belonging always, of his torn identity between the North and South, and Mustafa's return to the North is an affirmation of new found confidence and freedom, of reversing the flow of people Southwards, of the joys of freedom and the restrictions of life in the North. It is the narration of what has been called counter flows to colonialism, a reversal of Conradian journeys into the Congo, a return back.

To say that this novel is important is only to undermine it. The debates it evokes are as vital now as when it was written. We have been warned these days of clashes of religions and civilizations, colour and sex and languages and of course power. Yet , the most subtle clashes and the only important ones are those that take place inside our minds, where all battles and clashes are decided.
The narrator is towards the end waking from his nightmare, and he decides, he chooses. I quote this final, beautiful paragraph from this beautiful novel......

All my life I had not chosen, had not decided. now I am making a decision. I choose life. I shall live because there are a few people I want to stay with for the the longest possible time and because I have duties to discharge. It is not my concern whether or not life has meaning. If I am unable to forgive, then I shall forget.

11 comments:

Kizzie said...

I love the way you described it!
I loved it. I read it a few weeks ago and I want to read it again.

Philip palmer said...

I agree it's a wonderful book, and your comments are delicious and very thought-provoking.

But is Mustafa's murder of Jean Marsh only to be read as political metaphor? At one level, for my money, this is a like a Wilkie Collins shocker. Mustafa is a monster who leaves a trail of female corpses behind him; and Jean Marsh seems to seek death in his arms, like a virgin seeking the arms and teeth of Dracula.

Naturally I don't at all approve of husbands killing wives, or of men driving women to suicide; but I do adore the sheer monstrousness of Mustafa. I'm reading the book, I suppose, as crime fiction written by a prose-poet, and at that level it is extraordinary. Perhaps one comparison is with CONFESSIONS OF A JUSTIFIED SINNER, also a complex, elliptical classic, which allows us to savour what it is like to be a killer.

Although the novel has some overtly political content, I would question the idea that it's about colonial oppression. Wouldn't Mustafa have been a manipulative womaniser even if he hadn't gone to Europe? Isn't the tragedy of Hosna's end a tragedy in the Shakespearian sense, like the death of Desdemona, not an allegory of Sudan & England?

Naturally of course I'm not supposing that to read a text as allegory is to disallow the literal readings. (Some years ago I wrote a radio adaptation of the allegorical poem THE FAERIE QUEENE - and I adored the way it was possible to read the allegory, yet also BELIEVE the moment by moment events.)

But my contention, to be shot down in flames perhaps by those who know the text better than I do, is that if Salih had wanted to write an allegory of colonial guilt, he could have done so much more effectively with a different story. This, to me, reads like a novel written by a highly sophisticated man exploring the darker reaches of his own nature, and flirting with the notion of a deadly doppelganger whose active cruelty mocks the novelist's all-too-typical passivity. In other words, Mustafa may be a bastard; but he's never a BORING bastard...

I'm still baffled about Jean Marsh - why would she want to die? The novel doesn't tell us; which makes her character all the more haunting. Jean is a monster, a sociopath - but is that because she epitomises England, or because Salih wanted to write a shocking femme fatale who wills her own murder?

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