There and Back Again
by Tayeb Salih, translated by Denys Johnson-Davies 1969, NYRB 2009
reviewed by Seana Graham
Having already been deemed a classic of Arabic literature, Season of Migration to the North was chosen by a panel of Arabic writers and critics in 2001 as the most important Arab novel of the 20th century. This short but packed tale, which originally appeared in Arabic in 1966, has two protagonists. One is the nameless narrator who has recently returned to his native village in Sudan after seven years of study in Europe in order to take his place in the governing class of the society. But he is soon intrigued and distracted by a stranger who has settled in the village and who, unlike the other villagers, puts no questions to him about the Europeans he has dwelt among. Mustafa Sa’eed, it turns out, has also made this journey north and back again.
Salih himself migrated to Britain but continued to place his fiction in the communal village life of the Northern Sudan of his youth. Season of Migration draws on both the hope of the period in which Salih wrote, when military rule had just been overthrown and a parliamentary government was being tried, and on the darker currents of Arab-African identity, both in a colonized culture and in exile in a foreign land.
On some levels this is a deceptively simple tale, and though Mustafa Sa’eed’s story is mysterious and in some ways unfathomable, the puzzlement doesn’t reside in the prose, which is straightforward enough. In commenting on this book in a GoodReads discussion, I noted that there was a fairy tale aspect to the story, particularly in the Mustafa Sa’eed character, who has been a child prodigy and continues to easily accomplish anything he sets out to do—at least until he runs afoul of the law. But further reading on Salih’s work has led me to see how it is not only in the countless literary allusions that Salih acknowledges his antecedents, Conrad and Shakespeare to name but the most obvious, but in the form of the narrative itself. As an illuminating essay by Robyn Cresswell makes clear (see link below), the novel is a form that the Arabic world borrowed belatedly from the West, but there were other narrative forms that already existed in Arabic culture. In some ways, the novel becomes a frame for older ways of telling.
One of the most amusing–and surprising–scenes is that of a group of old men sitting around and telling bawdy tales. The surprising element is that there is an old woman, Bint Majzoub, sitting in their midst and holding her own very well. A woman having this much liberty to speak in a group of men was not something I expected to encounter in Arab literature from 1966–not, at least, in a story set in a traditional village. The novel goes on to tell of a darker and more tragic relationship between a man and woman, and these lighter and darker parts of the story sit uneasily beside each other.
Another unusual aspect of the book is the close collaboration of the author and his English translator. In Arabic there is literary speech and then there is the quite different colloquial speech and one of the challenges was to wed these two in a seamless way in English. In the introduction to the NYRB edition, Laila Lalami also tells us that the Salih and Johnson-Davies discussed the possibilities of keeping certain passages in the English version which had been deemed too erotic to pass the censors in the Arabic edition, but finally decided that the novel should be uniform in both editions. But of the excised passages Lalami tells us that Johnson-Davies has written, “Somewhere among my papers, I possess these particular passages, written out in Tayeb’s hand.”
Let’s hope that these passages still exist, and that someday the book can be read as it was originally intended.