SEASON OF MIGRATION TO THE NORTH: BOOK REVIEW
The word English word “trope” comes from the Ancient Greek trópos, meaning “direction” or “turn”. It used to be that tropes were turning points: facets of a story that gave it meaning and structure, that drove it towards a conclusion or central moral. The knight in shining armor, the damsel in distress, the lumbering, well-meaning king: these tropes, as they present themselves in medieval fables, do not so much teach us about characters as they do about places, times, and societies. You are not actually meant to feel like you’re living a story of tropes, which is why it does not feel life-like. The story is something to instantaneously consume and internalize, to understand rather than to experience.
Tropes lie at the center of Season of Migration to the North by Tayeb Salih. Tayeb Salih’s book does not feature tropes in the way one might think it does, in the sense that none of its characters are “tropes” per se. But it is a book about tropes. Specifically, about what tropes do to people, and why tropes exist in the first place.
At the center of this book’s plot are two men: one, the author, who is unnamed; the other, Mustafa Sa’eed, who the plot follows for the majority of its course. Both come of age in 20th-century Sudan and then travel to England to pursue their education. Both return to Sudan after their time in England and eventually meet each other in the village where the narrator grew up.
They seem, at first, like profoundly different people, alike only in the surface-level details of their lives. The narrator is radiant and full of unbridled hope; Mustafa Sa’eed is cold and calculating. The narrator prizes genuineness; Mustafa Sa’eed is a pathological liar, deceiving the narrator about his background, or inventing fake names for himself during his manifold love affairs. But as the story progresses, the two characters converge into one narrative consciousness. Mustafa Sa’eed’s voice appears inexplicably in moments where the narrator is alone, as if from the Great Beyond. In turn, Mustafa Sa’eed’s recollections of his own time in England are interspersed with the narrator’s own experiences and thoughts, to the extent that they are sometimes indistinguishable. Mustafa Sa’eed and the narrator, both three-dimensional characters in their own right, come gradually to see the other as symbolizing something— although what that “something” constantly shifts. In this sense, they become tropes in each other’s eyes, symbiotic meaning-makers.
Season of Migration to the North also implicates the reader. The book concerns, in very large part, the colonial imagination: speaking specifically, the fetishization of non-European subjects, and their subsequent dehumanization. To read Salih’s book is to confront how difficult it is to break free of this system, even after its most well-known structures of dominion become covert and independence is won. This book indicts colonial academia, and the ideas it attempts to instill in its students. It does not romanticize the outcomes that it produces. And it all has very much to do with trope.
This book exists on a plane above itself. It contains a story, and if you look closely, it contains a meta-story as well. It’s heart-wrenching and infinitely profound, and I would recommend it to everyone.