Season of Migration to the North is a difficult book to forget, one that posses difficult questions in the relations between the developed world and those from outside of it. A brief book, the economy and mystery create a view of the developed world that is troubling at best and hopeless at worst.
Season follows is the story of two men who have gone to study England from Sudan and have returned to after extended stays. The narrator is a young bureaucrat in Khartoum who spends part of his time in his native village where his parents and wife lived. One day he meets Mustafa Sa’eed who had been a professor of economics in England and has retired to the same village where he has married, had children, and become a respected member of the community. Mustafa Sa’eed, though, is a man with a dark and mysterious past and he slowly tells the narrator about his life in England where he would spend his free time sleeping with English women. He turns himself into the idolized African with incense and African artifacts in his apartment, and tells stories of lions and elephants so he can find English women to take back to his apartment. His interest is purely predatory. He doesn’t care about them. Instead, he uses them, turning their projections of what Africa is into a means to take what he wants. Ultimately, he comes to grief when he murders his lover, a woman who hates him yet wants to be around him. He is put on trial where it comes out that he not only has murdered his lover but two other women have committed suicide because of him.
Sa’eed doesn’t tell the narrator all of this at once. Instead, the narrator hears part of the story and he is curious but ambivalent and doesn’t purse his history. When Sa’eed dies in a flood of the Nile he leaves the narrator the care of his house and family. In the home that the narrator has inherited is a room that Sa’eed let no one enter and suggests that it holds his secrets. The narrator, though, doesn’t examine it and the mystery of Sa’eed permeates the novel.
Once Sa’eed has died the novel begins to play with the traditional and the western influence. In one particularly funny scene the elders of the village, including one woman, talk about the joys of sex. The conversation revolves around all the various wives and husbands the elders have had and how they have divorced just to sleep with someone new. One elder talks about the dozens of wives he has had and how he slept with them. At the same time the only woman of the group reminisces about her husbands in a sexual manner. The group is at once free of English and western notions that marriage is supposed to be permanent, and yet at the same time the conversation is rooted in Sudanese notion that gives relatively little freedom to women, although the elder woman does suggest these roles aren’t quite so fixed.
For the narrator everything is proceeding as usual until the man who has bragged about all the wives he had decides he must marry Sa’eed’s widow. The narrator, who is responsible for Sa’eed’s family, won’t give his consent unless she wants to marry him. She doesn’t. The man insists she marry him, because it is not right for her to live alone. The narrator’s father suggests to the narrator that he should marry her so the man can’t, but he won’t do that either. In the end he returns to Khartoum to return to work. The man goes to the woman’s family, gets permission to marry and before he can sleep with her she commits suicide. It is a devastating event and the village is destroyed by it. Thus, if Sa’eed took his revenge in England, then England has its revenge in Sudan.
Throughout the novel there is a back and forth between the west and the traditional in Sudan. On the one hand Salih creates two characters who are alienated by their experience in the west. They have left Sudan and become something different, which not only sets them apart in the village, but sets them apart in the west. Each has taken on a role in the west, but the role doesn’t integrate them, it leaves them empty. Yet they are still attached to the west. Sa’eed constructs a private room in his house that is the perfect replica of an English study. Sa’eed, especially, is shaped by the duality of his lives and that duality, the feeling of emptiness in the west leads him to the cunningly profligate life in London. He uses women out of a vindictiveness as if to prove sarcastically that if this is what you think I am, then here you have it.
Neither the narrator nor Sa’eed can let go of what they learned, though. The narrator imports a western sensibility into the decision about Sa’eed’s wife. It seems clear that by tradition she would have been married off much earlier, yet he hesitates. However, Season is not a novel that wants to say the west is better, and the narrator is not interested in fighting for Sa’eed’s wife, he just thinks if she is not interested then she should be free not to marry. This conflict between the way of life in the village and that in England manifests itself as rage in England and scandal in Sudan. In each case the narrator and Sa’eed marked by their experiences abroad.
Season is a complicated novel and the issues are more than just sexual. Focusing on the relationships between Sa’eed and the women, though, creates scenes, those of the bedroom, that are easily transported between cultures. Moreover, the taboos Salih addresses create fundamental conflicts between all the characters that profoundly show the issues between the different cultures. Yet the use of the women in England seems slightly off. The women are not full characters, which makes sense since Sa’eed is only using them, but to have two kill themselves over him and the third use him as a means of suicide, Salih seems to using shallow caricatures at best. The silly notion that they are going to kill themselves over him seems to use some of the simpler cliches about women. While the women are not central characters, their suicides are the weakest part of the book.
Season is an impressive book despite its few weaknesses. It was for good reason that Arabic critics selected it as one of the best books of the 20th century in Arabic.