A Season of Migration to the North is about the universal striving for something better. Unfortunately when the journey takes you out of your own culA Season of Migration to the North is about the universal striving for something better. Unfortunately when the journey takes you out of your own culture, the price is very high.
There are 2 main characters in the book. The first is the narrator, a nameless young Sudanese man who has returned to his village after being educated in the West. He returns to a land that is no longer ruled by the colonizers – the British, but their legacy remains and not only helps, but corrupts the native Sudanese. The help is seen in the progress made to ease daily life: water wheels become pumps, cars and trucks take the place of camels and donkeys. The harm is that the pattern for living for success (not just personal but for the country) has been changed from Sudanese to British: Learning English, worshipping statistics, meetings and conferences, buildings that are not able to be finished or supported.
The Sudanese pattern is the family, the tribe or village, and the wise council of the elders, who look to the past for answers. Life is slow and patterned on the Nile which flows by the village. It brings water that sustains life and that destroys (excessive flooding). It mixes all the drops together (people) which enhances their ability to get things done. It changes course as it encounters obstacles, but it keeps moving forward. Eventually it enters the sea (death) and the ‘river’ is lost.
The Sudanese who have brains and talent are educated beyond the village level, but only so they can become little bureaucrats and say ‘yes’ in English for the new masters of the country. Those natives who are smarter, richer, and more well-connected, who live the debauched life of rich Westerners (in comparison to the austere communal life of the Sudanese village on the edge of the river, surrounded on one side by fields and the other by desert).
The narrator returns to Sudan and his village, and he is still Sudanese, but he can see the cracks and the problems in a different non-Sudanese light. He doesn’t know what to do. Should he stay Sudanese and ignore the problems, or should he bring his British education to bear, and help them, but make them less Sudanese in the process and the end result? The book ends with him unable to decide which course to take, but it ends with him in the river asking for the help of the villagers, so they can decide together what is the best course to take. Letting each person take responsibility for the course and form of their own life.
The second main character is less successful at handling the cross cultural difficulty. He is also smarter, wealthier, and more capable intellectually, but he lacked any feeling for his roots, and ultimately for any person. He worshipped knowledge, and the life of the mind. His name was Mustapha and he was the first Sudanese to go abroad to study. He awed all he met with his ease of learning, and his intelligence.
He became a ‘suitable African’ in 1960s Britain because he was seen as a ‘Black Englishman’ and was adopted and made much of by the intellectual set. But since he had no connection to his roots, he had no ability to resist the temptation to act out the ‘noble exotic former savage’. He was particularly at risk with European women who wanted the thrill of the exotic. Lacking any real emotion he settled for sensation seeking, and spent his time stalking, using and eventually abandoning many women as sexual toys. Eventually he finds a woman who turns the table and he becomes both the stalker and the prey, the one begging for attention and the one who spurns the other. Lacking control he eventually kills the woman. He is brought to trial, sentenced to 7 years, and upon his release he returns to Sudan. He lands in the same small village as the narrator, marries, has 2 sons and tries to work within the village structure to make life better. He keeps his past secret and attempts to blend Sudan/Britain, North/South, education/tradition. He dies and they are not sure if he drowned accidentally in the flood or if he committed suicide. He had wrapped his life up, given instructions to his wife, and the care of his wife and sons to the narrator just before dying.
The narrator is unable to act properly because it is not traditional to let your widow do as she wants with only an outside male (narrator) to consult. Mustapha tells the narrator to let her do as she wishes. The wife and the narrator have been influenced by the West. The village meanwhile operates on tradition. The widow has a father and brothers who expect to make important decisions for her. They agree to a marriage offer from an old wealthy man in the village. The widow does not wish to remarry. The narrator does not stand up for her rights, and for his own part in the decision making process. The marriage is forced on the widow and tragedy ensues. The narrator is left alienated from his people and his past. He tried not to force the European way on them, but his letting tradition take its course has fatal consequences to lives he could have saved.
He finally confronts the full extent of Mustapha’s Westernization: his secret room. It is an upscale British drawing room locked away behind a steel door at Mustapha’s house. It contains dark wood, stained glass, marble, statuary, paintings, photos, and walls and walls of books (all European). It was Mustapha’s temple, a place where he could pretend and worship all that he could never really be in the flesh. The Brits only accepted him like a trained monkey – a novelty, and the Sudanese would not understand or value the room and the history and culture that filled the room. Mustapha was never able to integrate the two cultures. The narrator feels the same inability, but eventually it is his connection to the humanity of his village and his emotional connection to his roots that let him take a different path from Mustapha, at the last minute.
Both the narrator and Mustapha end up with a body count. Mustapha killed his European wife, and his behavior led to several suicides. His inability to be truly European, his lack of grounding in his own culture let him act capriciously with the fate of others. The narrator's attempt at being the same person after his education as before, let him act traditionally, but it still resulted in death. Like the river he needed to change course to deal with the obstacle, but he is not strong enough to do so in time to prevent tragedy.
The book has been compared to Heart of Darkness in reverse. It also references Othello. It is a very short, very well written story that presents the dilemma of change and growth using outside cultures, and does so on a human level. You can see the impact on the lives of the characters....more