Tayeb Salih is Dead, but Immortal

Published July 12th, 2017 - 02:20 GMT
Some of Tayeb Salih's books. (Penguin Books / New York Review of Books / New York Review of Books)
Some of Tayeb Salih's books. (Penguin Books / New York Review of Books / New York Review of Books)

Tayeb Salih wrote very little. His largest book, despite the fervent academic analysis it inspired, was a 150 page novella.

And yet, eight years after his death and what on what could have been his 88th birthday, his reputation as an ingenious Arabic writer remains unassailable, a bestselling author whose works have endured decades after their initial publication.

This could partially be ascribed to what drove him to write in the first place: cultural clashes and the inner conflicts of immigrants. Season of Migration to the North, Salih’s most famous work, is exemplary: “I have redefined the so-called east-west relationship as essentially one of conflict,” said Salih, “while it had previously been treated in romantic terms.”

The plot concerns an unnamed narrator who returns to Sudan, eager to improve life in his postcolonial village. But in his absence a man named Mustafa Sa’eed has returned from London. Sa’eed says he went to England with a very romantic view of “the West.” His story bridges—or perhaps creates parallels of—the Sudanese countryside and the London of the early twentieth century. A clash of sexual and colonial tensions simmers when Sa’eed begins seducing English women who fantasise about sleeping with an “Orientalist,” eventually erupting in the terrible ordeal which sends Sa’eed back to Sudan. It’s like a reverse Heart of Darkness: instead of a Westerner descending the Congo, it’s an African’s voyage into the heart of London.

Salih never settled for easy answers—his take on colonialism, though obviously critical, left things ambiguous, and seemed more concerned with a soul’s fall from grace. His book won acclaim from postcolonialists like Edward Said, but its ultimate power is in its universality.

NYRB Classics and Penguin have published some of his works in English, most famously The Wedding of Zein (which I’ve yet to read) and Season of Migration to the North. You could do worse on this birthday than by picking-up a Tayeb Salih book, whether in the original Arabic or in translation, and discovering the joys of Sudan’s most famous writer.

AboveEnglish editions of his books. (Penguin Books / New York Review of Books / New York Review of Books)

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