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NYRB Classics: Season of Migration to the North and Alone! Alone!

June 11, 2010

Last month, Spotlight Series did a tour featuring small publisher NYRB Classics. I’ve admired that press for awhile, so I eagerly jumped on board and decided to read one fiction and one nonfiction selection (as I did for the first Spotlight tour, and as I intend to do for the just-announced upcoming tour featuring Graywolf Press). Then, the blogging black hole that was my life in May interfered, and I had to bow out of official participation. But that didn’t stop me from reading my two choices, and it certainly won’t stop me from talking about them today! ;) Let’s start with the novel, shall we?

Season of Migration to the North by Tayeb Salih

Oh my goodness. Originally published in Arabic in 1966, Season of Migration to the North already reads like a classic. It’s jam-packed with ideas for readers to unravel…progress, gender, colonisation, fate, intellectualism, ‘village idylls’…it felt like every page brought its own challenge for my brain to play with. At the same time, the book is page-turning; it’s structured as a story-within-a-story, which I love, and jumps back and forth in time and narrator with great panache. I honestly wanted to know what would happen in each of the two main stories. The two narrator’s voices were each spot-on, and really the style throughout was pitch perfect. Listen to the opening sentence:

It was, gentlemen, after a long absence-seven years to be exact, during which time I was studying in Europe-that I returned to my people.

Or this passage, which is so beautiful and true it would make a perfect literary tattoo:

I want to take my rightful share by force, I want to give lavishly, I want love to flow from my heart, to ripen and bear fruit. There are many horizons that must be visited, fruit that must be plucked, books read, and white pages in the scrolls of life to be inscribed with vivid sentences in a bold hand.

And the characters are unforgettable, both male and female. All of that wrapped into such a slim book: I’m tempted to tell you all to go get it, spend the afternoon reading it, and then come back here so we can have a long chat. Because I promise you: you’ll want to talk about it afterwards!

The part of the book I found the most challenging centered around women. Salih is Sudanese, and the ‘modern’ storyline occurs in a small village along the Nile. Our narrator grew up there, but he know lives in Khartoum and only visits the village on occasion. In a powerful scene, he’s party to a ribald conversation amongst some of the village elders: a handful of men and one outspoken woman (who’s definitely my favourite minor character of the book). I’ve had to return this to the library already (and I’m not desperately coveting a copy for my shelves), so I can’t share with you the scene directly, but it was neat to see a woman talking so frankly and amusingly about sex. One of the men fancies himself a ladies’ killer, so there’s a kind of banter back and forth, and then suddenly the topic of female genital mutilation arises. For those of you who don’t know, while the extremity of FGM varies from place to place, a young-ish girl (usually between 8 and 10) is held down while at the very least her clitoris is cut off (this is all usually conducted by the adult women). In some places, the inner labial lips are also removed, in others infibulation is practiced. This means that all external genitalia (the clitoris, the inner labial lips, and most of the outer labilial lips) are removed, and then what’s left of the outer lips are sewn together, leaving a hole about the size of a pencil through which urine and mentrual blood passes. I’m telling you this because in Sudan, FGM usually means infibulation. And here’s what’s interesting…in the conversation, the ladies’ man says it’s more fun to have sex with women from other places, where either FGM isn’t practiced or is ‘less extreme’ (I hate to even use that phrase, because how does one compare intensity levels for removing the clitoris and thus all means of orgasm or sexual pleasure?). The topic obviously wasn’t discussed with the horror most ‘Westerners’ would express, but it did feel like a bit of a condemnation. However, even in Nigeria and Egypt (two of the countries I know were mentioned), there is a cultural practice of removing the clitoris, so I still wasn’t sure what to think. You know? Late in the ‘modern’ story, something happens that seems to show Salih has a progressive side towards women’s rights and especially their independence to marry or not marry as they wish. That being said, the second storyline, told by ‘Mustafa,’ a stranger to the village, revolves around him using weak British women for sex and then leaving them so heart-broken they turn to suicide. While it’s easy to read this as a comment more on colonisation, I still felt uncomfortable seeing so many women reduced to objects or symbols. Since Mustafa was telling the story, though, I believe the objectification rested with him and his character, as opposed to Salih. This didn’t necessarily make reading it any more pleasant, but it did justify it, for me at least. Can you sense the murkiness I feel on this aspect of the book? My wrestling with it made my experience of the book less enjoyable, but it didn’t diminish the book’s worth in my eyes.

I didn’t feel a similar inner battle over the issues of colonisation raised in the book. Mustafa is the primary engine of this; he tells his story of being a smart, poor kid from Sudan who ends up going first to Cairo and then to London to become a ‘famous’ economics professor who simultaneously seems to spend most of his energy sleeping with white British women. He basically learns how to turn British prejudices about the ‘exotic’ to his advantage, and he talks about seducing girls with stories of imaginary animals running across the harsh, evocative landscape of his childhood. Throughout his narrative, he’s portrayed as lacking something vitally human, a kind of warmth towards his fellow species that leaves him all cold intellect…as a young boy, he doesn’t know how to connect with his schoolmates and doesn’t even seem bothered by his friendlessness. And once he’s an adult, while he must enjoy sex (why else seduce so many women?), he never feels any emotional attachment to the women, and I don’t think he even sees it as a way to connect so much as a way to use and dominate. None of the women he encounters are ever shown as real human beings, although the only one to resist him does have more complexity about her than the others. As I mentioned in the above paragraph, it’s all too easy to read this as a metaphor for colonisation. But even while Salih is exploring this, he never makes it a black-and-white issue…nuances and complexities are explored, and he leaves up to the reader to try to figure out what’s being said.

You know what? I’m simply finding it too difficult to try to get into these issues without the book in front of me. So for now, I’m going to throw in the towel. But I fully intend on rereading this, and I would LOVE to have a few people to talk about it with. And since I don’t have a book club in r/l, I’ll invite anyone who’s interested in reading it with others to leave a comment on this post. Then perhaps I can e-mail you all, and we can figure out a day to have an e-mail chat about it? I’d honestly be willing to reread it tomorrow, so I’m hoping there’s at least a bit of interest. :) Also, a few days ago I found this great list of recommended Arabic-in-English-translation lit ( thanks to stu) and 9 of the 14 contributors selected Season of the North as one of their top five. It was easily the most popular single book, so that might help give you the push to read it! Especially since that list is part of an Arabic Summer Reading Challenge that just asks participants to read one of the listed books to be entered at the end of summer in a drawing for a package of books. It’s a win-win-WIN situation! ;)

Alone! Alone! by Rosemary Dinnage

I’m already far over my intended word count, and I haven’t even discussed my nonfiction selection yet! I’ll try to be brief(er). Alone! Alone! is an essay collection: Dinnage has written many book reviews over the years, and this book collects her reviews of biographies of women. However, that’s not the way it’s marketed and until I read the introduction, I was under the impression that the essays had all been written specifically about women from various walks of life who experienced loneliness. I believe that my expectations had a lot to do with my initial disappointment…while Dinnage’s writing is lovely and precise and intellectual, I found the link to loneliness in many of the essays tenuous at best. The only real connection between the (white, mainly twentieth-century) women is that all were in some way well-known enough to have biographies written about them, which Dinnage then reviewed. Additionally, most of them had at least one trait that left them outside of mainstream society…either troubled sexuality, or an odd way of looking at the world, or a rebelliousness towards a ‘woman’s proper place’…you get the idea. If I had begun it knowing this, I think I would have simply sat back and loved the book, instead of constantly trying to seek out the loneliness and wondering why some of the essays were more about famous men than the women connected to them. And now that you know this, I’d highly recommend them! The wonderful thing about a collection of reviews of biographies is that, as a reader, you really get each person’s life distilled down, so it’s easy to decide which ones interest you the most. And since each essay is a review, you have a built-in recommended book for further information! For me, reading Dinnage was like tagging along as a university student when a favourite professor took a visiting speaker out to tea. By keeping my mouth shut and my ears open, I could learn a lot in the give-and-take between two intelligent people on a range of interesting subjects. If that appeals to you, I highly recommend giving Alone! Alone! a try.

All in all, both of my NYRB Classics books left me more thoughtful, and challenged me to truly engage while reading. The next time I’m in the mood for an intellectual read, you can bet I’ll be searching my library catalogue for more books by this press. And the physical books they publish are so lovely that, when I have more of a disposable income, I’d love to have more than a few gracing my permanent shelves.

Have you read any books published by NYRB? Would you recommend them?

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37 Comments leave one →
  1. winstonsdad permalink
    June 11, 2010 6:14 am

    thanks for mention eva :) i see you ve picked couple i ve picked be good to compare notes ,all the best stu

    • June 12, 2010 6:40 am

      No problem: thanks for the link! I’m glad we’ll be reading some of the same books. :)

  2. June 11, 2010 6:45 am

    I love these books! NYRB published a collection of Daphne DuMaurier’s short stories (called DON’T LOOK NOW) and it’s amazing. I’ve read others, but that’s my favorite.

    • June 12, 2010 6:40 am

      Ohh: I’ve read that title story of du Maurier’s, and it is excellent. Is the whole collection as awesomely spooky?!

  3. June 11, 2010 6:49 am

    Wow, Season of the North sounds fabulous. I am definitely adding to the wishlist in hopes that you’ll still be willing to discuss if I ever get a copy! My library, of course, doesn’t have a copy.

    • June 12, 2010 6:42 am

      I shall definitely be willing to talk about it whenever you manage to get it. Boo to your library…maybe you can ILL it? I bet most uni libraries would have it and my public system did.

  4. June 11, 2010 8:40 am

    Were those last questions just conversation starters, or did you mean it?

    Answers: Many. Yes.

    Or, more specifically, see if your library has Skylark by Dezső Kosztolányi, which I’m reading now and which is full of surprises.

    • June 12, 2010 6:43 am

      I definitely meant it! :) My library does have Skylark; I’ll be on the lookout for your post once you’ve finished it. :) I haven’t read too many Central European authors, so thanks for the rec!

  5. June 11, 2010 9:47 am

    Your comments on Mustafa’s emotional coldness & exploitation of white women even as they’re also exploiting him reminds me SO strongly of Ellison’s Invisible Man, and the narrator’s conflicted relationship with white women in that novel. Like you with Season of Migration to the North, I was never sure how to feel about that aspect of the story, especially since I can’t help locating the objectification with Ellison as well as his narrator. Complicated stuff.

    Nonetheless, I’m super intrigued by Salih, and will undoubtedly check out this book at some point. Thanks, Eva!

    • June 12, 2010 6:44 am

      I haven’t read Invisible Man, but I did read about it in Dancing in the Dark: a Cultural History of the Great Depression, and it sounds really, um, intense for me. It is complicated, isn’t it? I think what helped distinguish Mustafa from Salih in Season of Migration is that there was another narrator w/ very different voice. I definitely think this is an Emily book, so do try to track down a copy!

  6. June 11, 2010 9:55 am

    I just reserved Season of Migration to the North from my library. I’ll get it on Monday. :)

    Greetings,
    Tiina

    • June 12, 2010 6:45 am

      Yay! I can’t wait to talk about it w/ you!

  7. June 11, 2010 10:03 am

    Alone! Alone! sounds interesting and I think was reviewed somewhere else not too long ago, I just can’t remember exactly where! For the NYRB Classics Tour I read Hons & Rebels by Jessica Mitford, review here, and just loved it. I also bought Victorine by Maude Hutchins, another NYRB Classic that I read about in the Spotlight Tour interview with the publishers and then found on sale in a bookstore, but haven’t read it yet, although it has a beautiful cover (of course!)

    • June 12, 2010 6:45 am

      Thanks for the link to your review! Victorine has a marvelous title, so you should read it soon and tell me if I should try to get ahold of a copy. ;)

  8. Cindy S permalink
    June 11, 2010 10:13 am

    I just finished the short story collection Fancies & Goodnights by John Collier which were a lot of fun. they fall in the ‘careful what you wish for’ type of short stories. ‘The Company They Kept” and ‘Eustace and Hilda’ are up next in my library queue and I’m waiting for ‘The Chess Story’ by Zweig to come in from ILL.

    I found the “old fiction” section in my county seat library and am having a terrific time reading them! they had a 1906 edition of ‘The Shuttle’ by Frances Hodgson Burnett that I loved reading.

    • June 12, 2010 6:47 am

      Those stories sound great…in the Monkey’s Paw tradition? I’m going to have to ILL some Zweig one of these days; I still can’t believe my library doesn’t have any of his stuff. I haven’t read The Shuttle, but I’ve heard good things about it & Little Princess and Secret Garden were both favourites of mine in childhood!

  9. June 11, 2010 12:43 pm

    I was scheduled to read a Colette (one of my favorite authors), but BEA and life got in the way. Thanks for the reminded that it is never too late to read the books we missed earlier.

    • June 12, 2010 6:47 am

      I ended up reading my Colette a month later than I intended to, but it was just as marvelous! Which one are you planning on reading?

  10. June 11, 2010 3:05 pm

    Season of Migration certainly sounds full of issues, despite it’s short length! I’ll have to check it out again since I had to return it unread. Not sure I’ll get to it soon, but who knows?

    • June 12, 2010 6:50 am

      It’s a pretty quick read: I bet it would only take you a couple of hours. :)

  11. June 11, 2010 9:09 pm

    Wonderful review! The first one, Season of Migration has been on my TBR list for a long time but I haven’t been able to get hold of the book… I loved reading your review though and now it makes me want to get the book even more!

  12. June 12, 2010 3:14 am

    I’ve never heard of this book. I hope my library owns it. That second passage is extremely beautiful.

    • June 12, 2010 6:51 am

      Isn’t it marvelous?! I don’t want a tattoo, but that makes it tempting. hehe

  13. June 12, 2010 12:36 pm

    I just finished Season of Migration to the North. I was also very impressed by his beautifully crafted sentences. His book really challenged me to think in new ways. I’d like to take up the Arabic book challenge that you mentioned in your most recent post. If you’re interested, please feel free to read my review on Salih’s book and tell me your thoughts.

  14. June 12, 2010 5:52 pm

    I read Salih’s text about 2 yrs ago for a Transnational Authors class in which we read texts by Joseph Conrad followed by a other texts written as a response to Conrad. We read Season after reading Heart of Darkness. There are so many references to H of D in Salih’s text. Reading these two together makes for an interesting reading experience. I wrote a 20 page paper on the two texts…can’t hardly remember it now! lol. I’m going to dig it out.

  15. June 12, 2010 10:21 pm

    Great novel ! Great review ! I’m glad you enjoyed the book !

  16. June 13, 2010 10:08 am

    Fabulous reviews, Eva! I’m so glad you read and reviewed these even after the NYRB week ended- after all, that’s what the Spotlight Series is for! To motivate people to read books by those presses. I’m glad you enjoyed the books, albeit in ways perhaps different than you expected. And I’ll definitely keep an eye out for Season of Migration to the North!

  17. June 13, 2010 6:50 pm

    I just checked the list of the Arabian reading recommendation yesterday and also noticed the numerous mentions of Season of Migration to the North. Your review highlighted it even more now. I just checked my library and they don’t have it though, so it may be a while before I can get my hands on it. Great to know that it sounds very promising!

  18. June 15, 2010 2:52 am

    They both sound great. I think I’ve only ever read ‘Samarkand’ by Amin Maalouf about Omar Khayyam which I picked up browsing in a bookshop as a student but I’ve been eyeing Naguib Mahfouz’s ‘Cairo Trilogy’ for a while now. The list you linked to is a great source for taking the first step into Arabic literature for someone who isn’t so familiar with what is available out there. I’m also intrigued by ‘Alone! Alone!’ It’s just the kind of book I might like.

  19. June 16, 2010 2:26 am

    A Season of Migration to the North is one of my favorite books by an African author. I’m glad that you read it. And I hope more people read it. I might dig out my copy and join in the discussions.

  20. Dana permalink
    June 24, 2010 12:42 am

    Season of Migration to the North is one of my favorite books and I’m glad to read that you enjoyed it so much :) I would definitely be interested in joining any discussions on this book :)

  21. July 6, 2010 9:36 pm

    I’ll read absolutely anything by this publisher–every single one of the (sadly only six or seven) that I’ve read for them has been stunning–they both trouble & delight me.

  22. July 29, 2010 10:25 pm

    I would love to chat with you about Tayeb Salih’s “Seasons of Migration”! I just finished reading it myself, and am now going through the process of researching deeper into it’s content, and also reading what others have written about the book.

    I love it’s “story within a story” style that is much like a more modern version of the Arabian Nights stories that I’ve always enjoyed.

    Also, the book left me with many questions about authors intent in writing the book, so I want to read more about Tayeb Salah himself. Like you said in your review, “nuances and complexities are explored, and he leaves it up to the reader to try to figure out what’s being said.”

    During the whole story I was anticipating a shocking twist at the end where we find out that Mustafa Sa’eed and the narrator are the same person. At the end of the book I noticed the narrator was swimming in the Nile river when he finally decides consciously on living, and that Mustafa Sa’eed had dissapeared earlier in the story while swimming in the Nile. This suggests possibly that they are the same character, although not clearly enough to leave me satisfied with such a conclusion. Over at wikipedia they must have had a similar idea, because they described Mustafa Sa’eed as the narrator’s doppelganger. Their explanation lead me to believe that maybe the narrator had came back so shook from his experience in the West that he didn’t know if he wanted to live anymore, and so he had viewed himself in 3rd person through the character of Mustafa Saeed and then finally decided on living while swimming the Nile!

    Anyway, I’m curious to hear what you think about my theory of them being the same person and any other discussion you would like to make about the book!

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