Fiction – paperback; Penguin Modern Classic; 169 pages; 2003. Translated from the Arabic by Denys Johnson-Davies.
How people bridge two diverse cultures, the impact of colonisation on Africa by the British, and the ways in which women are treated in both the East and West, are the main subjects of this Arabic language book, which was first published in 1966 as Mawsim al-Hijra ila al-Shamal. Banned in the novelist’s native Sudan for many years, it was translated into English in 1969, named as “the most important Arabic novel of the 20th century” by the Arab Literary Academy in 2001 and listed in Peter Boxall’s 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die.
I read it as part of #DiverseDecember and found myself completely drawn into the story of a Sudanese man, Mustafa Sa’eed, an intellectual prodigy courted by aristocrats and intellectuals alike, who loses all sense of decorum when he moves to London (after being educated in Cairo) in the 1920s. After committing a string of appalling crimes and serving a sentence for murder, he returns to the Sudan to lead a quiet, understated life with a wife and two young sons in a remote village by the Nile, in the hope that he can start afresh where no one knows his past history.
But when a young man from the same village returns home after many years living in London and befriends him, Mustafa can’t help but tell him about his exploits in the West. What follows is a no-holds barred confession about a life of sexual decadence, a tale which is, by turns, compelling, shocking — and powerful.
An arrogant man’s tale
The story is narrated by the young unnamed man who befriends Mustafa, but large chunks of it are told in Mustafa’s arrogant and conceited voice. Occasionally we meet other characters — many of whom are distinctive, if slightly two-dimensional — such as Wad Rayyes, the old man with a huge sexual appetite, and Bint Majzoub, an old uninhibited woman who smokes, drinks and swears “like a man”.
The prose style is crisp, clear, concise, but there’s a poetical beauty to it, too. The author is particularly good at scene setting, so you feel very much as if you are there, living in the village on the banks of the Nile:
I wandered off into the narrow winding lanes of the village, my face touched by the cold night breezes that blow in heavy with dew from the north, heavy too with the scent of acacia blossom and animal dung, the scent of earth that has just been irrigated after the thirst of days, and the scent of half-ripe corn cobs and the aroma of lemon trees. The village was as usual silent at that hour of the night except for the puttering of the water pump on the bank, the occasional barking of a dog, and the crowing of a lone cock who presently sensed the arrival of dawn and the answering crow of another.
Season of Migration to the North is one of those rare books that is quick and easy to read but is so ripe with meaning and metaphor that I could never possibly unpick it without reading it several times over. Indeed, I raced through it in a matter of hours, so I am positive much of the subtle nuances about colonisation and the differences between Arab-African and European cultures went over my head. That said, some elements did feel dated: an Arab man wreaking his vengeance on the West by simply sleeping with promiscuous women, for instance, appears relatively tame by today’s standards.
But what did jump out at me was the sexual violence that characterises women’s lives, whether living in the West in the 1920s, or the East in the 1960s, and which runs like a menacing undercurrent through the entire narrative. (Mind you, the line between sexual violence and eroticism does feel blurred in places, and the book, unsurprisingly, has been condemned in the past for being pornographic.)
In fact, the book has a menacing tone throughout, the kind of tone that gets under the skin and leaves the reader feeling slightly uncomfortable, as though you’ve been given a seat at a dining table with the devil. This all-pervasive feeling comes to a head at the climax of the novel, which is rather gruesome and bloody but entirely memorable. This is not a fun read, but an important and powerful one.