As this classic novel by Sudanese author Tayeb Salih opens, the narrator is returning to his village after seven years studying in Europe. During the narrator’s time away, a man named Mustafa Sa’eed came to live in the village, and the narrator is alternately irritated and fascinated by him. Soon he learns that Mustafa has also studied in Europe, and Mustafa’s account of his years in London reveal to the narrator the shadow side of the relationship between Africa and the West.
Mustafa is a brilliant man, but a cold one. His coldness allows him to pursue his education with a single-minded dedication. And when he reaches London, it allows him to pursue women with the same single-mindedness, and with no thought for how his actions would affect the many women he brings to his bed. He uses his race to lure women in, building on the myth they had in their minds of the exotic African man. Here he reflects on an early encounter with one of his conquests:
The Nile, that snake god, has gained a new victim. The city has changed into a woman. It would be but a day or a week before I would pitch tent, driving my tent peg into the mountain summit. You, my lady, may not know, but you—like Carnarvon when he entered Tutankhamen’s tomb—have been infected with a deadly disease which has come from you know not where and which will bring about your destruction. My storehouse of hackneyed phrases is inexhaustible. I felt the flow of conversation firmly in my hands, like the reins of an obedient mare: I pull at them and she stops, I shake them and she advances; I move them and she moves subject to my will, to left or to right.
Mustafa’s story leaves the narrator haunted, unable to figure out his place in the world in light of the revelations Mustafa shared. When he first arrived home, he had a sort of starry-eyed view of Westerners being just like the Sudanese, with only minor differences. But after hearing Mustafa’s story, he loses his idealism and his moorings.
This short novel takes on some heavy issues: racism, post-colonialism, sexism. And never does Salih make the obvious choice. In every instance, there are complexities. Frequently, both sides end up having power and not having power. It’s not balance exactly; it’s not shared power. It’s people on each side taking what they can. The women Mustafa seduces have the status and sexual freedom that come with being modern-day Western women, but they cede their power to Mustafa and end up losing themselves. Mustafa takes all the women he wants, but he ends up living a lie—either as a vicious werewolf or a misunderstood victim of Colonialism. Both views are correct—and incorrect—because both are incomplete.
The handling of sex is also fascinating. Most of the women are treated as little more than objects, but that’s because we see most of them through Mustafa’s eyes. When we see them apart from Mustafa, their strong personalities leap off the page. One older woman in particular is precisely the opposite of the stereotypical demure Muslim woman. She’s brash and sexual and holds her own with the men, seizing her place even within the patriarchy. But other women are not so bold, or so lucky. And it was clear to me that in Salih’s eyes, their plight is a tragedy.
And I must say a word about the writing. Salih’s prose, translated from the Arabic by Denis Johnson-Davies, is gorgeous. There were passages I read over multiple times just to revel in the beauty. Here, for instance, is a lovely passage in which the narrator compares life to a caravan:
Life in this caravan is not altogether bad. You no doubt are aware of this. The going may be hard by day, the wilderness sweeping out before us like shoreless seas; we pour with sweat, our throats are parched with thirst, and we reach the frontier beyond which we think we cannot go. Then the sun sets, the air grows cool, and millions of stars twinkle in the sky. We eat and drink and the singer of the caravan breaks into song. Some of us pray in a group behind the Sheikh, others form ourselves into circles to dance and sing and clap. Above us the sky is warm and compassionate.
There were a few points where I thought that the story was hard to follow, and the prose was every now and then unnecessarily (and distractingly) elaborate. But these moments were the exceptions. In general, I found this to be a compelling read, one I imagine I’ll want to revisit.
Other Bloggers’ Views
Caravana de recuerdos: “a superb short novel that wowed me with its bravura storytelling and its odd, somewhat feverish air.”
This Book and I Could Be Friends: “Season of Migration is an excellent, eloquent study of -isms: post-colonialism, racism, and sexism. But it is hardly the didactic protest novel it probably could have been in less capable hands.”
A Striped Armchair: “It’s jam-packed with ideas for readers to unravel … At the same time, the book is page-turning”