In Words Without Borders, Marina Harss reviews one of my favorite novels, Tayeb Salih’s Season of Migration to the North (1966).
A first reading of Tayeb Salih’s Season of Migration to the North can be a bewildering experience. The episodic manner in which the story is laid out means that important information about the characters and their past is left out, thus giving the reader a sense of being lost in a strange country where he has lost his bearings. In fact, the novel should probably be read in light of the ever-shifting political and cultural landscape of Sudan since 1899, the year in which the British took control. Salih’s book charts, through the experiences of its two central characters—the nameless narrator and Mustafa Sa’eed—two generations of the European-educated Sudanese elite through the period of domination by the British and into the early years of self-rule. At the time in which the book was written (it first appeared in Arabic in 1966), the country had just experienced yet another upheaval, the overthrow of the home-grown military government of General Ibrahim Abboud and the introduction of a parliamentary system. Salih writes in an introduction to the 2003 Penguin edition that “the general climate in Khartoum in those days was exhilarating. . . . For some reason my work became incorporated into this process of intellectual questioning.” This is, of course, not the end of the story, and since 1989, the Sudan has been ruled by the Revolutionary Command Council for National Salvation, a repressive Islamic government which has, among other things, banned the publication of Season of Migration.