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Eloquent Phantom: Tayeb Salih’s search for an elusive present

Season of Migration to the NorthSeason of Migration to the North by Tayeb Salih

Reviewed by Robyn Creswell
Harper's Magazine

Realism, that capacious mainstream of European and American fiction, is only one of the many currents and countercurrents that run through the Arabic novel in its short but turbulent history -- one in which existentialism, melodrama, satire, and allegory all crowd for position. Why realism has never been dominant isn't an easy question to answer, but part of the explanation may lie in the configuration of the Arabic language itself. Written Arabic, fusha, stands at a remove from the quotidian worlds of family, street, and workplace, where a colloquial language is used (the various dialects of Arabic bear roughly the same relation to the written language as contemporary English does to that of the King James Bible). Almost all Arabic novels are written in fusha, which cannot but establish a certain distance between the elevated medium of description and the mundane events it describes -- in other words, between style and content. If realism is chiefly concerned with the representation of consciousness, with the rough-and-tumble of the everyday and what Henry James once called its "more or less bleeding participants," then it is no surprise that realism has been only one experiment among many in the laboratory of Arabic fiction.

It is true that the most imposing of all Arabic novels -- Naguib Mahfouz's Cairo Trilogy -- is a work of realism, abuzz with the manifold particulars of old Cairo and its inhabitants. But Mahfouz may be the exception rather than the rule (and even for him realism was a passing phase). Many of the most exciting and intelligent Arabic novels -- Emile Habibi's The Pessoptimist, Gamal al-Ghitany's Zani Barakat, Elias Khoury's Gate of the Sun -- are in some sense anti-realist. Lacking an easy commerce with the vernacular of the moment, these novels look for forms and subject matter in the literary tradition itself: not only the Arabic tradition of One Thousand and One Nights, the medieval maqamat, and classical history, but also the tradition of the West, from Voltaire to Faulkner. These are novels with a rich, at times almost suffocating, sense of their heritage. Rather than rush into realism's vivid and palpable present, they tarry with ghosts.

Season of Migration to the North, by the Sudanese novelist Tayeb Salih, is full of such specters. Published in Beirut in 1966, the novel was immediately recognized as a classic, and, as Laila Lalami notes in her introduction to the new edition by New York Review Books, it has also enjoyed an unusually "happy life in translation." Like all of Salih's fiction -- he wrote three other novels and a handful of short stories -- Season of Migration to the North is remarkably compact, really a novella rather than a novel. But woven into the brief text is a dense tracery of allusions to Arabic and European fiction, Islamic history, Shakespeare, Freud, and classical Arabic poetry -- a corpus that haunts all his writing. Salih, who died this past February in London, packed an entire library into this slim masterpiece. It is literature to the second degree. And yet it is anything but labored. Rather, it is alive with drama and incident: crimes of passion, sadomasochism, suicide. It is a novel of ideas wrapped in the veils of romance.

The unnamed narrator of the story is a young man from the north of Sudan who returns to his native village after seven years of study in Britain. It is the late 1950s; Sudan is on the cusp of independence. The narrator has spent much of his time abroad imagining the people and places he left behind. Back home, he tries to convince himself that its drowsy landscape of riverbanks, palm trees, and thudding water pumps is where he belongs: "I felt not like a storm-swept feather, but like that palm tree, a being with a background, with roots, with a purpose"; and then again, as though reassuring himself, "I am not a stone thrown into the water but seed sown in a field." The metaphors are studied. They suggest a bookish nostalgia -- the narrator spent several of his years in Britain "delving into the life of an obscure English poet" -- rather than real rootedness.

Among the crowd that welcomes the narrator home is a stranger, an older man with a mysterious smile. This is Mustafa Sa'eed, who arrived in the village five years earlier, taking a local woman for his wife. During a communal drinking session one evening, the narrator overhears Sa'eed reciting to himself, "with an impeccable accent," a poem by Ford Madox Ford. The narrator, who supposed himself the only English speaker in this remote village by the Nile, and certainly the only expert in British poetry, feels his idyll drop away. It is a scene out of Poe, this uncanny recognition of oneself in a stranger:

Had the ground suddenly split open and revealed an afreet standing before me, his eyes shooting out flames, I would not have been more terrified. All of a sudden there came to me the ghastly, nightmarish feeling that we -- the men grouped together in that room -- were not a reality but merely some illusion. Leaping up, I stood above the man and shouted at him: What's this you're saying? What's this you're saying?

Sa'eed does eventually tell the narrator his story, a fantastical tale- within-a-tale about a great mind put to murderous uses. Sa'eed was an intellectual prodigy whose success at school took him from Khartoum to Cairo and eventually to interwar London, still the cynosure of this colonial world. There, he is adopted into the circles of Britain's bohemian left. He gives lectures on classical Arabic poetry, fits his room out like a jewel box a la Delacroix -- "There were small electric lights, red, blue, and violet, placed in certain corners; on the walls were large mirrors, so that when I slept with a woman it was as if I slept with a whole harem simultaneously" -- and casts himself as a dark-skinned Casanova. His conquests, all white women, line up for parts in this orientalist charade. But Sa'eed's adventures have a gruesome finale. He eventually marries a woman who taunts him with her infidelities. He kills her in a fit of passion and is convicted of murder. (The echoes of Othello are conspicuous.) His sentence completed, Sa'eed returns to Sudan hoping to find peace in a village where no one will know him.

Sa'eed disappears soon after telling his story, apparently a suicide, and the narrator spends the rest of the novel trying to fill the many gaps in Sa'eed's narrative. He meets with men who were Sa'eed's peers at Gordon College in Khartoum, or who encountered his legend at Oxford. Their versions are not always credible, and some are flagrantly in contradiction. One school friend remembers him as a stooge of the imperialists, whereas a former student paints him as a leader in the anticolonial struggle. The narrator claims to have gathered these stories at random, the fruit of his travels across the country as a schools inspector. "I would hope you will not entertain the idea," he pleads with his readers, "that Mustafa Sa'eed had become an obsession that was ever with me." But of course we do entertain the idea, and it is the mystery of this obsession, at once obvious and disavowed, that gives Salih's novel its weird urgency.

"Do you see him? Do you see the story? Do you see anything? It seems to me I am trying to tell you a dream -- making a vain attempt, because no relation of a dream can convey the dream-sensation, that commingling of absurdity, surprise, and bewilderment in a tremor of struggling revolt, that notion of being captured by the incredible." This is Marlow, the narrator of Conrad's Heart of Darkness, despairing -- with his usual prolixity -- over the limits of what words can convey. What Marlow wants us to see is the kernel of his own tale-within-a-tale: the figure of Kurtz, the ivory trader who has turned his back on Europe and made himself a savage chieftain in the middle of the Congo. But Kurtz is never quite visible because Marlow cannot make up his mind about him -- whether he is "an emissary of pity" and "a remarkable man," or else an explosion of the id, not a man at all but a nightmare or a tremor of romance. As the latter, the symbolic burden he is made to bear ("all Europe contributed to the making of Kurtz") is too great for the conventions of realism. We can't see him clearly because he is indeed a figure of dream.

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.

To appreciate how distinctive it is, we might recall the reading of Conrad by Salih's contemporary V. S. Naipaul. The biographies of Salih and Naipaul have a number of convergences. Both arrived in Britain from the colonies soon after World War II; both worked early in their careers for the BBC (the Caribbean Service for Naipaul, the Arabic Service for Salih, who once credited his work in radio for the economy of his prose); both wrote novels about the sexual fascination of white English women with foreign black men (an enthrallment that always ends in violence: this was Naipaul's theme in Guerrillas as well as his essay on Michael X); and both were deep readers of Heart of Darkness.

In an essay written in 1974, Naipaul praised Conrad's "honesty": the austere virtue of a writer "who is missing a society" -- how Naipaul had come to define his own predicament as well -- and so makes do with what the Polish novelist called a "scrupulous fidelity to the truth of my own sensations." Naipaul's Conrad is an artist with perceptions rather than ideas, whose best work is precise and reportorial, starved of encumbering abstractions and ideologies. He admires Conrad's habit of basing his fictions on "incidents from real life," on newspaper stories or his experiences at sea. His best characters -- most of them minor, vivid, and unpleasant -- are not literary types but "much more real, and still recognizable in more than one country." Yet once Conrad strays from these factual donnees, Naipaul complains, "he does not . . . involve me in his fantasy." This is true, he says, of Heart of Darkness: "the story of Kurtz, the upriver ivory agent, who is led to primitivism and lunacy by his unlimited power over primitive men, was lost on me." The admission points both to the acuity of Naipaul's reading and to its limitations. He discovered (or invented) a Conrad most readers had not known was there but who is now part of the myth: a chronicler of "half-made societies that seemed doomed to remain half-made," a writer without illusions. But the discovery is also a diminishment. For Heart of Darkness without Kurtz is Conrad without romance.

Romance, fantasy, the incredible: these keywords of Conrad are anathema to Naipaul, as they were to many of Conrad's contemporary critics. Romance acknowledges and even exaggerates its own literary nature. A heightened form of artifice, it is always in danger of falling into melodrama or camp. Naipaul's appeal to sensation is his way of avoiding this trap. So long as a writer cleaves to the truth of his perceptions ("The world is what it is"), his writing cannot be tainted by cliche. Salih handles this anxiety in a different way. Rather than make a fetish of the factual, Salih fills his novella with allusions. And rather than ignore or feign incomprehension of the romance that he finds in Conrad, he makes it an explicit subject for his fiction.

Romance is Mustafa Sa'eed's native habitat; he luxuriates in its cliches. Sa'eed's mirror-lined room in London is full of Arabic books in ornate script, Persian carpets, and prints of "boabab trees in Kordofan, naked girls from the tribes of the Zandi, the Nuer and the Shuluk, fields of banana and coffee on the Equator, old temples in the district of Nubia." Sa'eed arranges his bibelots like so many booby traps for the unwary adventurer; he is the prop master of these effects and not their puppet.

The narrator is alive to all this romance. There is something heroic about Sa'eed's Don Juaning through the capital of empire, ensnaring his prey in their own racist fantasies and promising to "liberate Africa with my penis." But Sa'eed's playacting is as limiting as it is liberating. The stereotypes he embraces threaten to make him a parody of himself. The narrator recognizes this, dismissing as "a melodramatic phrase" Sa'eed's declaration to his former masters: "I have come to you as a conqueror." Later, he decides that Sa'eed's life has been nothing more than "a farce."

The narrator's skepticism tells us that Season of Migration to the North is not itself a romance but more like an attempt to measure the attractions of romance, and to gauge the difficulty of doing without it. The narrator's difficulty stems from a sense of his own belatedness. Wherever he goes, he finds that Mustafa Sa'eed has been there before him. Sa'eed was the first Sudanese to be sent abroad on scholarship -- also the first to marry an Englishwoman -- and the legend of his success at Oxford is one the narrator knows he can never match. But Sa'eed has also spoiled his homecoming. There is a cruel humor in the narrator's discovery that someone he assumes to be a village peasant can recite English poetry more fluently than he can. What he feels toward Sa'eed is a latecomer's resentment. Faced with the older man's heroic example, however flawed, his own life seems second-rate, imitative, unpoetic.

There is an episode at the end of the novella that neatly captures this emotional jumble. It is another scene of literary rivalry. Before killing himself, Sa'eed designates the narrator caretaker of his family and property -- a coerced complicity. Among the papers he inherits, the narrator finds a page of verse in Sa'eed's own hand, a conventional lament about lost love and the hardships of travel (the great themes of classical Bedouin poetry). "A very poor poem," the narrator sniffs, too reliant on "antithesis and comparisons." The text is unfinished, however. It ends with a Quranic figure of humiliation but leaves an ellipsis where the answering figure of demonic defiance should be. Perhaps Sa'eed was unable to find a phrase to fit the meter and rhyme. The narrator reflects for a moment, then erases the last line and replaces its incomplete antithesis with a figure of repetition: "Heads humbly bent and faces turned away." A line, he reflects, "no worse than the rest."

The narrator's judgment of the poem mirrors his judgment of the writer. He thinks Sa'eed is too reliant on the worn-out tropes -- the romantic stereotypes -- of the colonial world. That is a Manichaean world of antitheses: West and East, civilization and savagery, Self and Other, humiliation and defiance. The narrator wants to believe that world is no more, and in some ways he is right (Sudan has achieved independence, after all). But his gesture of finishing Sa'eed's poem, of crafting a phrase to fit the form, makes for a more melancholy acknowledgment. It suggests that the past constrains the present in subtle ways. The narrator can choose his words, but they must match a pattern he did not choose.

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.

Against the constraints of the past and the joy-sapping sermons of the imams, Salih's fiction returns again and again to the abundance of the pres ent, the incidental, the transitory. There is a strong current of mysticism in his work, an attempt to still the flux of time into moments of ecstasy. Salih often interrupts his stories, as though pausing for breath, with scenes of celebration: births, weddings, feasts. These moments of joy are liable to break out at any moment. They are inclusive and impromptu, reflective of Sudan's popular Sufi traditions rather than the rituals of mosque and minaret. These festivities belong to a different calendar than the one used by clerics, in which each tick of the present acquires its meaning only on the Day of Judgment. In Salih's third novel, Bandarshah, it is instead the fullness of the moment -- its fleeting self-sufficiency -- that we hear in the shouts of wedding celebrants. Their ululations restore to the landscape all the poetry that the imam's warnings had drained away:

The trilling cries of joy from the women surged and gushed forth, echoing in and around the mosque. They were carried by the winds of summer, which circulated in the courtyards, the alleyways, the fields, above the tops of the date palms, the acacia, the sant, the haraz and sayyal trees, above the esparto and the tamarisk and the ushar bushes, and across the Nile.

"Is there any equivalent to the poetry of Arabs in its yearning for the homeland?" The question comes in the midst of a series of articles Salih wrote in late 1988, when he made a trip back to Sudan. Salih's journalistic writings, which run to nine volumes, have not been translated. He had not lived in the country of his birth since 1953, the year he left to work in Britain. Writing for al-Majallah, a London-based weekly, Salih described a country he barely recognized. In Khartoum, he found lines everywhere: lines for gas and foodstuffs; lines for visas at the embassies; lines of migrants trying to escape the civil war between north and south. Also lines of poetry. Wherever he went in his homeland, Salih found that the poets had been there before him. The sight of women waiting on a breadline in the middle of the night recalls to him the verse of an eleventh-century poetess, who described the skittishness of Meccan gazelles forced out of their sacred precincts. At the airport, crowded with would-be emigrants, he sees a woman whose skin color tells him that she is of the Beja tribe. This recalls to Salih the greatest of classical poets, al-Mutanabbi, fleeing Egypt on the back of a Beja camel whose swiftness he immortalized in verse.

Poetry, for Salih, is the language of nostalgia -- the nostalgia we feel for places that are before our eyes and yet remain difficult to recognize. This language has a magic of its own. It can make present, if only for a moment, what has vanished: people, voices, elements of the landscape. (Proust writes, "I need only, to make them reappear, pronounce the names Balbec, Venice, Florence, within whose syllables had gradually accumulated the longing inspired in me by the places for which they stood.") Poetry can make present to us even those places we have never known, using words we hardly understand. This is one of the lessons Salih draws from the story of Yahya bin Talib al-Hanafi, a poet of the eighth century, whose verses he recalls while sitting in the unhappy airport lounge in Khartoum. Before he was a poet, al-Hanafi was a trader in the Arabian Peninsula. Overly generous in his affairs, he acquired a debt he couldn't pay back and so fled north to Khurasan, in present-day Iran, where he composed poems about the places he left behind. One of these poems reached the ears of the Caliph Haroun al-Rashid in Baghdad. Salih cites these lines (my translation):

Before I die, will I smell the scents of Khuzama and look again on Qarqara?
Before I die, will I drink the waters of al-Hujayla and heal my sickness?
Tamarisk trees of the valley! My heart is heavy with you and unconsoled.
Tamarisk trees of the valley! Travel has wearied my companions. Is there a place to rest in your shade?
I want to rush toward you -- but a heavy debt lies in the way and turns me back.
I talk to myself about you, for I cannot return to you and sadness has made a home in my heart.

Khuzama, Qarqara, al-Hujayla -- the names must have meant as little to Haroun al-Rashid, at home in the citified luxuries of Baghdad, as they mean to us. And yet, Salih reports, the caliph wept on hearing these verses. He sent money to pay off al-Hanafi's debt, but the messenger arrived too late. The poet had already died.

Few modern novelists have been so attuned as Tayeb Salih to the poetry of the past, so intelligently aware that the novel is a latecomer to literature. At the heart of his fiction -- lyrical, allusive, unconsoled -- is this sense of belatedness, a mood that is not nostalgia but is instead a kind of unreconciled yearning for the present. The narrator of Season of Migration to the North begins the novel believing that he is like that palm tree, "a being with a background, with roots, with a purpose," but ends up, in the final scene, treading water in the middle of the Nile, crying out for help, unable to reach the far bank or to go back. One suspects that for Salih there is no real alternative to rootlessness, and no place to be but the middle of the river.

Robyn Creswell is a doctoral candidate in comparative literature at New York University. His article on Mahmoud Darwish appeared in the February issue of Harper's Magazine.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. Season of Migration to the North Used Trade Paper $6.95

One Response to "Eloquent Phantom: Tayeb Salih’s search for an elusive present"

    cocker fab August 7th, 2009 at 6:18 am

    Excellent review, informative and descriptive and even though I do not entirely agree with his reading of "Heart of Darkness" or Naipaul for that matter it doesn't matter at all.
    Made me put this book on the wish list.

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