Another book I grabbed from the “international authors” section of my public library is Tayeb Salih’s modern classic Season of Migration to the North. Originally published in 1969, Salih’s concise yet layered novel follows the complicated and tragic lives of not one but two Sudanese men. The novel starts with the nameless narrator, a young man who has returned to his native village after years of academic study in England. As he reconnects with his relatives and other Sudanese he encounters the mysterious Mustafa, an initially reserved man with an emerging command presence. Eventually the enigmatic Mustafa reveals to the narrator his hidden past. After a promising start as a young student in one of the local schools, he travels to Cairo and eventually England to pursue both his studies and his sexual conquests. After living the life of a bohemian libertine his reckless ways eventually catch up with him. Found guilty of murdering his English wife, he’s soon imprisoned as well as rejected by the same progressively minded English society that formerly courted him. After completing his lengthy sentence and traveling around the world, he returns to Sudan, marries a local woman and starts a family. Back in Sudan he lives his life as one who has seen the larger world and now wants little, if any part of it.
In 2001 a panel of Arab writers and critics selected Salih’s book as the most important Arab novel of the 20th Century and I would have to sympathize with them. While exploring the relationship between ruler and ruled, modern and traditional as well as First World and Third World, echos of other great works permeate his novel such as Shakespeare’s Othello, Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Camus’ The Stranger. Leavened also with a dash of ancient Greek tragedy, the Arabian Nights and even a hint of Frantz Fanon and Aime Cesaire, Salih has created an excellent novel.