Saturday, January 23, 2010

Heart of Darkness

"As we drank tea, she asked me about my home. I related to her fabricated stories about deserts of golden sands and jungles where non-existent animals called out to one another. I told her that the streets of my country teemed with elephants and lions and that during siesta time crocodiles crawled through it. . . There came a moment where I felt I had transformed in her eyes into a naked, primitive creature, a spear in one hand and arrows in the other, hunting elephants and lions in the jungle."

Tayeb Salih (1929-2009) was a Sudanese writer who studied in England and worked for the BBC Arabic Service as the head of drama. His seminal work Season of Migration to the North, first published in Beirut in 1966, was named by Edward Saïd as one of the six finest novels in the Arabic language and was declared the most important Arabic novel of the twentieth century by the Arab Literary Academy in Damascus. Salih's recent death was widely mourned across the Arab world, where calls for him to win the Nobel had become increasingly vocal.

Like many of Salih's other novels and short stories, Season of Migration to the North deals extensively with themes of gender, colonization, and the proverbial "clash of civilizations." It is not, however, as clean-cut as simply "East vs. West." Richard's review, where I first read about Season, describes it as a "sort of reverse Heart of Darkness," and I absolutely agree. The novel centers on Mustafa Sa'eed, an inverted, Byronic version of Kurtz whom the unnamed narrator first learns of as a mysterious figure who arrived one day in their obscure village by the Nile and set himself up as a farmer. An educated man recently returned from England, the narrator soon finds himself as confidant to the stranger Mustafa. He learns that Mustafa had lived for some time in London, the cosmopolitan capital of imperialism, where his genius mind earned him accolades in the field of economics, even as he fancied himself a sexual conqueror of white women who indulged their exotic, erotic fantasies of "darkest Africa" before killing one and driving the others to suicide. As Sudan moves toward independence and modernization, the narrator finds himself increasingly obsessed with the tormented memory of Mustafa, whom he comes to view as a warped reflection, like the negative of a photo, of his own ambiguous relationship to the West and Sudanese tradition.

Like Joseph Conrad, Tayeb Salih's prose is dense and vivid, occasionally bordering on overkill but skillfully straddling the line between purple and poetic. (There is also in Season a lot of imagery associated with the Nile River.) Both authors also refuse to exalt one side and reproach the other in the narrative of colonialization. Whereas Conrad portrayed "civilization" (read: Europe) as a mere covering for "gratified and monstrous passions" that find release in distant lands among dark and mysterious foreigners (a position which, despite its hard look at both colonizers and colonized, is nevertheless a racist perspective in its portrayal of "othered" peoples as lacking restraint and representing a danger to the souls of white folk), Salih takes a more expansive approach to the subjects of society and humanity. Europeans are just like us, the narrator explains to his friends and family, "just like us they are born and die, and in the journey from the cradle to the grave they dream dreams some of which come true and some of which are frustrated; that they fear the unknown, search for love and seek contentment in wife and child; . . ." Season of Migration to the North, despite its bleak tone, is a very humanistic book.

Salih illustrates this through his use of parallels. There is Mustafa/the narrator, who act as a set of doubles. Beyond that, there are Salih's familiar themes of race and gender. According to the theory of intersectionality, different forms of oppression and discrimination build off and reinforce one another. By explicitly presenting Mustafa as the sexual conqueror of white women in England, Salih seems to be recalling the traditional rhetoric of colonialism and its imagery of foreign places as virgin, untouched lands waiting to be "claimed" by the virile might of the European empire. (I read a great academic piece on this in college. It was about how a feminist/gender-based examination of history is better able to articulate different expressions of political, racial, and sexual power. Grrrr, I've searched all over the Net and I can't find it!) In American history, this is visible not only in Manifest Destiny and the "Indian problem," but also in the Progressive Era's anxiety over American masculinity in the industrial age and our subsequent involvement in the China and the Philippines. "Mr. Mustafa, the bird has fallen into the snare," Mustafa says as he remembers one of his amorous conquests in England:
"The Nile, that snake god, has claimed a new victim. The city has changed into a woman. It would be but a day or a week before I would pitch tent, driving my tent peg into the mountain summit. You, my lady, may not know, but you - like Carnarvon when he entered Tutankhamen's tomb - have been infected with a deadly disease which has come from you know not where and which will bring about your destruction, be it sooner or later. My store of hackneyed phrases is inexhaustible. I felt the flow of conversation firmly in my hands, like the reins of an obedient mare: I pull at them and she stops, I shake at them and she advances; I move them and she moves subject to my will, to left or to right.

"'Two hours have passed without my being aware of them,' I said to her. 'I've not felt such happiness for a long time. And there's so much left for me to say to you and you to me. What would you say to having dinner together and continuing the conversation?'"
Simply leaving it at that - with Mustafa deliberately posing as the exotic "other" and seizing white women in post-WWI England, an era in which its colonies were slipping out of control - probably would have been sufficient on its own to subvert the rhetoric of imperialism and call attention to issues race and "performance" (similar to Judith Butler's idea that gender is often a performance, similar to drag).

But Salih's humanist outlook demands that Sudan also be held accountable. Though popularly seen as a post-colonial narrative, Season also takes a hard look at the subjugation of Sudanese women in a fiercely patriarchal society. Beyond Mustafa's own misogyny (he treats white women like disposable playthings, although, in a brilliant instance of intersectionality, they also treat him as an exotic commodity) and its final disastrous outcome, another defining moment in Season is the sudden tragedy that occurs when an independent widow is forced by her father and brothers to marry an older man she hates. Added to that is the blasé treatment is female genital mutilation, a human rights violation still prevalent today, and a picture emerges of a country with its own anxieties and own systems of oppression. Tayeb Salih does not condemn either English or Sudanese culture. But he does make it clear that the relationships between both individual humans and the societies they belong to are deeply complex subjects with many shades of gray.

(Regarding Heart of Darkness, meanwhile, you could write a whole thesis on the racial and sexual implications of Conrad's two female characters: the pure, innocent white fiancée waiting for Kurtz in England and Kurtz's savage, threatening African mistress. And of course, unlike Salih's irony, Conrad is quite sincere.)

Season of Migration is an excellent, eloquent study of -isms: post-colonialism, racism, and sexism. But it is hardly the didactic protest novel it probably could have been in less capable hands. Tayeb Salih takes real humans and demands that the reader examine their thoughts and behavior and the cultural context in which their actions take place. Season of Migration is thought-provoking read and comes highly recommended.


Amateur Reader said...

How do we know that Conrad is sincere?

E. L. Fay said...

It's hard to explain, but I would say it's because Conrad not only doesn't challenge these assumptions about women, particularly black women and white women, but reinforces them. He explicitly describes the African mistress as "barbarous" and being a personification of the savage heart of the dark jungle. The white fiancee, meanwhile, at least in my interpretation, stands for civilization and its denial of, or refusal to admit to, the "heart of darkness" at the core of humanity. She's also very much a Victorian "angel of the house," an archetype that held that (white) women were morally superior and had to be protected from the rough, competitive "masculine" spheres of business and politics.

Amateur Reader said...

Thanks. I need to read the Salih novel.

rhapsodyinbooks said...

This sounds like an incredible book. Thanks so much for this thoughtful essay about it!

Emily said...

This book sounds fascinating - odd that I don't remember Richard's review, but between the two of you it's definitely on my radar now. It's always impressive when a novel manages to avoid the didactic protest novel trap but still address these issues thoughtfully.

E. L. Fay said...

Rhapsody: It really is an incredible book.

Emily: I can't wait to hear what you think of it!

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