Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Into the Heart of the Heart of Darkness

Season of Migration to the North by Tayeb Salih

   موسم الهجرة إلى الشمال

It has taken me a couple of weeks to solve the problem of Salih's remarkable novel (published in 1966 and considered "the greatest novel written in Arabic in the 20th century" by the Arab Literary League).  The problems inherent in discussing--in reading--a novel by a Sudanese writer are many and are the result of the tragic history of that country. As I thought about Season of Migration to the North I wondered if in writing about the novel I should write about the South Sudan, the Janjaweed, Darfur, al-Gaddafi's military campaigns on the Libyan-Sudan-Chad border, genocide, Omar al-Bashir's government...in other words if I should treat Season of Migration to the North (SMN hereafter) as the political novel it is, or simply roll out the standard lit-crit comparisons--wholly justified and already deeply explored--between Salih's novel and Conrad's various secret-sharer books, especially Heart of Darkness. Since Heart is the touchstone for all books treating colonialism and imperialism, for all investigations of the mutually self-destructive psychology of Western hegemony in Africa and Asia and Latin America, it isn't difficult to find the obvious comparisons that Salih built into SMN (e.g. the unnamed narrator is a Marlowe clone, Mustafa Sa'eed a Kurtz and, as in many of Conrad's stories, the attractions of evil overwhelm a naïve and morally unformed bystander--a person who has somehow survived a catastrophe he has unwittingly witnessed, e.g. Axel Heyst of Victory). I was thinking I might also write about Wide Sargasso Sea, the post-colonial Jane Eyre, a book that I thought of while reading SMN because of the tipping into madness that comes with living in a world for which one is unsuited, or in a culture too unlike one's own.

However, I knew that I had nothing original to say about Tayeb Salih's novel as influenced by Shakespeare or Montaigne or Conrad or anyone else.  For one thing, SMN has too many progenitors, too many reference points in the Western canon.  Yes, Othello is part of the story--the "dark" Mustafa Sa'eed tempts buxom white English girls to sordid demises--and if Sa'eed is Othello he is also Iago, and Caliban, and maybe Mr. Rochester for good measure.  And as far as the contemporary history of the Sudan goes, I'm avoiding that topic as well, hence my choice of the cheerful men in colorful jallabiyahs rather than any of the hundreds of disturbing Oxfam photos of starving children in Darfur or of the strutting armies of the Janjaweed.

Salih, who worked for most of his life as a BBC broadcaster, died in 2009, and was, insofar as I can judge by the translation of Denys Johnson-Davis, an extraordinary writer--a master of psychological density, of balancing nuance and ambiguity with melodramatic action, mystery and understatement with painful honesty.  The unnamed narrator of SMN has been living in England and has returned to his native country to work as an educator. He speaks English with an eerie fluency and admires English poetry.  In a tiny village on the bank of Nile he meets a man not unlike himself--an Anglophone Sudanese named Mustafa Sa'eed whose incredible, terrifying story reveals his seduction by the "North," the lure of the culture of the oppressor. Sa'eed's account of his "season in the north" is apolitical, strangely detached and almost clinical; Salih requires us to fill in the history which strikes me as a good choice. There's no chance a Western audience is going to read a novel with a lot of third world politics cluttering up the story-line.

As if to pay the English back, or, perhaps, to satisfy his own dark desires, Sa'eed destroys several (to put it mildly) suggestible English women--he murders one, and is called to Old Bailey for the crime.   (These English women are cartoonish, not due to any lack of talent on Salih's part, but because that is how they must look to a man like Sa'eed; I won't be touching the subject of a Sudanese man's view of loose European women). Soon after Sa'eed tells his story he vanishes from the tiny Nile village he has chosen for his exile--perhaps he drowns himself in the Nile, or disappears into some heart of darkness we can't imagine--in any case he leaves his family, his wife and children, to the narrator--the "secret sharer" becomes their legal guardian.  Many bad things follow, and I won't spoil the power of SMN's final fifty pages by revealing what they are--but, strangely, SMN ends with an affirmation of life, the one rather implausible bit of plotting Salih indulges in; not because the story's fundamentally tragic nature is betrayed, but because his literary models were themselves tragic, and the history--the one I'm avoiding here--is too horrible to contemplate.

In Orientalism, Edward Said examines Lord Balfour's view of Egypt and comes to this conclusion: "Knowledge [of the Orient] means rising above immediacy, beyond self, into the foreign and distant. The object of such knowledge is inherently vulnerable to scrutiny; this object is a 'fact' which, if it develops, changes, or otherwise transforms itself in the way that civilizations frequently do...to have such knowledge of such a thing is to dominate it, to have authority over it. . . . " 

To know a people or a culture is to own it, to exercise power over it. Western rationalism takes this premise for granted--politicians since Machiavelli have called this view realism. Add a fair helping of racism and a self-serving economic theory (disguised as "that which is natural") and you have the makings of Orientalism.

It turns out that the heart of the heart of darkness isn't in the Sudan or London, and it isn't in Mustafa Sa'eed's Oriental soul--the heart of the beast resides in the assumptions of Western rationality itself, in the mistaken view that knowledge bestows power.  This dangerous view--that there is an essential way that things really are, that some blessed individuals have knowledge of these ineffable truths, and that their knowledge entitles them to rule over those who lack their historical cunning--this is the theme of Season of Migration to the North.  In fact, as Salih demonstrates, knowledge is as likely to reveal our powerlessness as our mastery. 

"Now I [the narrator]  am making a decision. I choose life. I shall live because there are a few people I want to stay with for the longest possible time and because I have duties to discharge. It is not my concern whether or not life has meaning. If I am unable to forgive, then I shall try to forget. . ."

We wonder, at the end of the book, if he will forget, or can, or should. 

George Ovitt (6/11/13)

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