Season is full of pairings. There are the two main characters, two sets of deaths, the North and the South, Islam and non-believers, those in the government and those with influence in the villages. The novel centers around two men – Mustafa Sa’eed and an unnamed narrator. Both are Sudanese who spent time in London. The book follows these men, and explores their brief, but intense, relationship. They both spend time in the land of their colonizers, and believe that they can come back from their time abroad unchanged. That is not to be.
The book is difficult to read. Sa’eed is wholly unlikable, and honestly, a bit scary. He repeatedly tells us that he has no emotions, and we find out rather quickly he’s killed at least one person and is perhaps responsible for the deaths of several others. His victims aren’t exactly blameless paragons of virtue, but that doesn’t make their deaths any more palatable.
There’s also plenty of misogyny from the characters. There’s one scene where several village elders are sitting around, talking rather graphically about sex, comparing women, discussing the merits of female circumcision. I don’t feel that Salih was trying to exploit these issues, or celebrate them, but again, it just makes for difficult reading.
We formed ourselves into a large circle into which some of the younger men entered and danced in the manner of girls. We clapped, stamped on the ground, and hummed in unison, making a festival to nothingness in the heart of the desert.
Season of Migration to the North has been declared “the most important Arabic novel of the 20th century” by the Arab Literary Academy in Damascus. I agree this is an important work. The themes – colonialism, racism, are big ones, and they are handled well. Salih provides no easy answers. He makes you think about the legacy of colonialism, and points out its far-reaching and lasting effects. It feels timely now, even though it was originally published in 1966. But I felt a bit like Mustafa – I read this on an intellectual, not an emotional, level. I couldn’t say that I enjoyed it, but I am glad that I read it.