Season of Migration to the North was first published in Arabic in 1966 by the Sudanese writer Tayeb Salih. This NYRB edition was published in 2009 although the English translation by Denys Johnson-Davies was first published in 1969. It is a short novel at only 140 pages but it is a compelling story. It begins with the young narrator telling us of his return to Sudan after years spent studying in London. He has missed the village in which he grew up and he notices a man he doesn’t recognise. He is informed that this is Mustafa Sa’eed who has lived in the village for five years. Not much is known about Sa’eed even though he married Hosna Bint Mahmoud, the daughter of a local man, and he is involved in local activities.
The narrator eventually gets to talk with Sa’eed but he still doesn’t find out much about him. One time to the narrator’s astonishment, at at a drinking party a drunken Sa’eed starts to quote some First World War poetry in perfect English. On the following day Sa’eed tries to deny that it happened but after a few days he expresses a wish to speak to the narrator. He then tells his story to the narrator, starting with his childhood, growing up without a father, attending some of the first schools in Sudan. He felt as if he was an odd child:
Yet I had felt from childhood that I—that I was different—I mean that I was not like other children of my age: I wasn’t affected by anything, I didn’t cry when hit, wasn’t glad if the teacher praised me in class, didn’t suffer from the things the rest did. I was like something rounded, made of rubber: you throw it in the water and it doesn’t get wet, you throw it on the ground and it bounces back.
Sa’eed ended up going to school in Cairo and then university in Oxford. Whilst in England he became involved with several girls, most of whom subsequently committed suicide, but it was the elusive Jean Morris whom he began to obsess over, follow and eventually be convicted of killing.
After these tantalising glimpses into Sa’eed’s life the narrative returns to the present, the Nile has flooded, and Sa’eed has gone missing. It is presumed that he drowned in the flood, but his body is not recovered and it is soon revealed that a few days before his disappearance he had written a will stating that the narrator should be the guardian of his children. The rest of the story consists of the narrator’s involvement with Sa’eed’s wife, Hosna, and his children; this is interspersed with flashbacks to Sa’eed’s story of what actually happened in London with Jean. Both stories have climactic endings but there are some humorous episodes as well, for instance there is a brilliant section where the narrator drops in on his beloved grandfather and his guests who are in the middle of telling each other dirty stories, reminiscing and ribbing each other. Wad Rayyes is an ageing womaniser and Bint Majzoub is a hard-drinking, heavy-smoking woman of seventy who has been married eight times (Wad Basheer was her favourite husband though):
“In any event,” said Wad Rayyes, “as we stand today, I’m the most energetic one of you. And I’ll swear that when I’m between a woman’s thighs I’m more energetic than even this grandson of yours.”
“You’re a great one for talking,” said Bint Majzoub. “You doubtless run after women because what you’ve got to offer is no bigger than a finger-joint.”
“If only you’d married me, Bint Majzoub,” said Wad Rayyes, “you’d have found something like a British cannon.”
“The cannon were silenced when Wad Basheer died,” said Bint Majzoub. “Wad Rayyes, you’re a man who talks rubbish. Your whole brain’s in the head of your penis and the head of your penis is as small as your brain.”
Up until about a month ago I hadn’t heard of Tayeb Salih but now that I have I hope to read some more books by him. He wasn’t a prolific writer but there are a couple more that are available in English. Next up will be The Wedding of Zein, which is also published by NYRB and, if I can hunt down a copy, I will also read Bandarshah.