Unsure how to react……

This is my review of Season of Migration to the North (Penguin Modern Classics) by Tayeb Salih.

This beautifully written translation (so presumably the original language is also beautiful) can be read in one sitting, although rushing it is likely to mean getting less out of it. Most vivid for me are the descriptions of life in a remote village on the floodplain of the Nile, and the terrible heat of the Saharan sun. I particularly like the scene at nightfall in the desert, when it was at last cool enough for people to come alive, so that, nomads and travellers alike, were drawn together in an impromptu feast of eating and dancing.

However, I think the aim of the story is to explore the interaction between "western" and North African Islamic culture. In some ways it seems to me quite dated: published in the 60s, it describes a Britain that was still imperialist, very class divided and far less "multicultural" and concerned with issues of sexual and racial equality than is now the case. So, what I take to be one man's fictional taking of vengeance on the west by seducing and betraying unstable English women seems in some ways less shocking than the current real situation in which disaffected muslims may be driven to terrorism. "The Reluctant Fundamentalist" is more relevant now.

I do not fully understand this work. The ways in which talented people from developing countries may suffer or be damaged by colonisation seemed to me to get muddled up with the individual drama of a Mustafa, a flawed, even psychopathic individual who gets drawn into sexual violence for reasons which may have little to do with the arrogance of westerners encountered – some of whom were good to him, plus there is the contrast of the narrator who seems able to cope with the cultural shock of being educated in the west.

The climax of the book in which the narrator enters the locked room to find Mustafa's ultimate secrets seemed to me to be exaggerated and ludicrous.

In the end, I am left a little disappointed, since the book begins with such promise. The final chapter is an interesting allegory, in which perhaps the Nile – powerful life giver yet also potential destroyer is likened to "alien western culture".

I can see that this book can give rise to stimulating discussion e.g. about the position of women – their abuse in both "north" and "south" – as Salih chooses to make the division, the respective values of different cultures – even what the novel is really about. However, I could wish that the author had not chosen to focus so much on the sexual relations between apparently disturbed individuals.

⭐⭐⭐ 3 Stars

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