Season of Migration to the North and Tayeb Salih Reviewed in Harpers

There is an excellent review of Season of Migration to the North by Robyn Creswell in Harpers (via Powell’s). The review goes beyond the typical East-West polemic that usually comes out in reviews (something I noted in my own review).

Many critics have noted that Season of Migration to the North is in some sense a rewrite of Conrad’s novella, whose symbolic pilgrimage it cleverly reverses. Rather than following a white man traveling upriver into the heart of Africa, where he indulges in a fantasy of primitivism, Salih sends Mustafa Sa’eed down the Nile and into the heart of Europe. There he masters the ways of the natives — Fabian economics, but also race-think — the better to subjugate them. These mirror images are ingenious, but it is possible to make too much of them. Postcolonial critics, who have set the terms for the reception of Salih’s novel in the English-speaking world, read it as a classic example of “the empire writing back.” Salih’s inversion of Conrad’s compass is taken to be an act of resistance, a critique of the imperialist perspective that Heart of Darkness is assumed to represent. But this reading slights the complexity of both works, as well as the relation between them. It makes Conrad’s racism, which is obvious and conventional, the keynote of his fiction. And it imputes a narrowly political agenda to Salih, whose primary concerns lie elsewhere. The central drama of Salih’s novella is not Mustafa Sa’eed’s journey to the heart of Europe but the confrontation between Sa’eed and the narrator, who, like Marlow, feels himself “captured by the incredible,” faced with a character too big for the otherwise realistic fiction he inhabits. It is Salih’s understanding of this dilemma, which is ethical and literary rather than straightforwardly political, that makes his reading of Conrad distinctive.

What makes the article worth the read, too, is the additional context  Creswell gives to Salih’s works. Since little of Salih’s works are in English the quotes from interviews and his journalism. What is particularlly interesting, is his take on fundamentalists, which Season would surely fall afoul of.

Salih once spoke in an interview of his sense that the past and future are in “a continual conspiracy against the now.” In his fiction, Salih often associates the agents of this conspiracy with orthodox Islam. A scene in The Wedding of Zein. To be published in a new edition by New York Review Books in February 2010. Salih’s first novel, makes this point. The tale is set in the same Nile-side community as Season of Migration to the North. The titular hero is a kind of village fool, and the story of his marriage to the village belle is, for the most part, a sunny fable. But in describing the feelings of the villagers toward their imam, Salih lets a pall drop over the landscape. It is the shadow of the future:

Each would leave the mosque after Friday prayers boggle-eyed, feeling all of a sudden that the flow of life had come to a stop. Each, looking at his field with his date palms, its trees and crops, would experience no feeling of joy within himself. Everything, he would feel, was incidental, transitory, the life he was leading, with its joys and sorrows, merely a bridge to another world, and he would stop for a while to ask himself what preparations he had made.