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“They were eyes that stung you to tears…”: Dambudzo Marechera’s ‘The House of Hunger’

In the prefatory essay to The House of Hunger – a collection including the eponymous novella and eleven other aphoristic, semi-autobiographical sketches – the Zimbabwean writer Dambudzo Marechera sets out his relationship with the English language. “I took to the English language as a duck takes to water,” he writes:

I was therefore a keen accomplice and student in my own mental colonization. At the same time of course there was the unease, the shock of being suddenly struck by stuttering, of being deserted by the very medium I was to use in all my art. This perhaps is in the undergrowth of my experimental use of English, standing it on its head, brutalizing it into a more malleable shape for my own purposes. For a black writer the language is very racist; you have to have harrowing fights and hair-raising panga duels with the language before you can make it do all that you want it to do. It is so for the feminists. English is very male. Hence feminist writers also adopt the same tactics. This may mean discarding grammar, throwing syntax out, subverting images from within, beating the drum and cymbals of rhythm, developing torture chambers of irony and sarcasm , gas ovens of limitless black resonance.” (p. 7)

This is an interesting paragraph, because it calls to mind an old debate over whether there can be – in the words of Colm Toibin – a “language that is free and untouched by occupation.” Toibin certainly believed so when, in Love in a Dark Time, he wrote of “independent writer[s] whose true home, as I have said, is the language.” Seamus Heaney believed so, when in The Redress of Poetry he wrote of “language pure as air or water, a language which carries the reader (as the truest poetry always does) into the sensation of walking on air or swimming free.” Marechera clearly doesn’t. And his indictment of English as both racist and misogynist recalls the feminist critic Marina Warner, who wrote that “the speaking woman, her tongue freed by the ability to write as well as read, found that the emblem books were still filled with the iconology of female wantonness and frailty and their contradictory companions, fatality and power… women often had to work with the grain of misogyny, and then found the timber broke their tools.” The tools of language – image, metaphor, even words – are deeply political; and therefore, for Marechera, the choice of using a language – and then, how you use it – are political choices.

In fact, the sentence “a keen accomplice and student in my own mental colonisation” brings to mind Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s memorable indictment of “European tongues”. In Secure the Base, wa Thiong’o wrote that “within the African nations, European tongues continue to be what they were during the colonial period: the languages of power, conception and articulation of the worlds of science, technology, politics, law, commerce, administration, and even culture… every educated African who remains doggedly locked within the linguistic walls of European languages, irrespective of his avowed social vision… is part of the problem and not the solution.” However, while Thiong’o’s response to this was to stop writing in English altogether, and write in his indigenous Gikuyu language (he would then translate it himself into English), Marechera, instead, sought to engage in “discarding grammar, throwing syntax out, subverting images from within, beating the drum and cymbals of rhythm, developing torture chambers of irony and sarcasm, gas ovens of limitless black resonance…”

This shows in The House of Hunger, Marechera’s haunting, broken, almost-surrealistic narrative about growing up in pre-Independence Zimbabwe, where English becomes an instrument of distilled violence. If Robert Bridges once wrote that English civilisation “is in great measure founded upon wreckingMarechera employs metaphor, image, and word to show how the English language might be founded upon violence. For instance, in simultaneously describing the death of the narrator’s father in a railway accident, and his mother’s verbal violence upon him, Marechera writes:

“Drinking always made her smash up her words at one particular rail-crossing which – as had really happened with the old man – effectively crunched all meaning or significance which might be lying in ambush… the expletives of her train of invective smashed my body in the same way as that twentieth-century train crunched the old man into a stain.” (p. 20)

Smashed-up words, where “meaning” and “significance” are crunched: this is The House of Hunger, where “the tinfoil of my soul crinkled” (p. 28), where “the pain was the sound of slivers of glass being methodically crushed in a steel vice by a fiend whose face was like that of my old carpentry master who is now in a madhouse” (p. 37), and where “the flood of political rhetoric escaped like a cloud of steam out of my crater of a mouth, leaving me dry and without words” (p. 38).

Marechera’s themes are themes of violence – the violence of a broken, colonial society in the process of violently struggling to free itself (“I found a seed, a little seed, the smallest in the world. And its name was Hate. I buried it in my mind and watered it with tears. No seed ever had a better gardener. As it swelled and cracked into green life I felt my nation tremble, tremble in the throes of birth – and burst out bloom and branch…” (p. 29)), violence both political and personal; this, in itself, is not unusual. Violence has been depicted to great effect in books as diverse as Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon and Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathiser. However, what is unusual about The House of Hunger is violence is not merely extra-linguistic, in the content of the description, but linguistic. Even the brief moments of joy are described in metaphors of violence: “And now here he was already gripping my arm with a tongue-scalding coffee joy…” (p. 21); “I smiled, crumpling up the tinfoil of my delight” (p. 40); “the rain came down in little liquid rocks which broke on their heads with a gentleness too rapid to be anything other than overpowering. She laughed a laugh that had little sharp teeth in it and it warmed them, this biting intimacy with the rain…” (p. 118); and: “My dreams still clung defiantly to the steel wire of old memories which I no longer had the power to arrange clearly in my mind.” (p. 124)

One should not think, however, that The House of Hunger is limited to stylistic virtuosity (although, as exhibited above, Marechera’s use of language is brilliant). The underlying theme – the critique of the broken colonial society, and the broken individuals it rears – risks being submerged by Marechera’s linguistic fireworks, but there are times when it emerges forcefully, reminding us that what is at stake, beyond violence, is an indictment of an entire political, economic, and social system of oppression. For instance, at the beginning of the novella, the narrator describes the process of growing up, which can be taken to be purely an instance of existentialist doubt, but in the broader context, is clearly a comment on the manner in which the colonial regime systematically denied fulfilment to its “children of a lesser God”:

“There was however an excitement of the spirit which made us all wander about in search of that unattainable elixir which our restlessness presaged. But the search was doomed from the start because the elixir seemed to be right under our noses and yet not really there. The freedom that we craved for – as one craves for dagga or beer or cigarettes or the after-life – this was so alive in our breath and in our fingers that one became intoxicated even before one had actually found it. It was like the way a man licks his lips in his dream of a feast; the way a woman dances in her dream of a carnival; the way the old man ran like a gazelle in his yearning for the funeral games of his youth. Yet the feast, the carnival and the games were not there at all. This was the paradox whose discovery left us uneasy, sly and at best with the ache of knowing that one would never feel that way again. There were no conscious farewells to adolescence for the emptiness was deep-seated in the gut. We knew that before us lay another vast emptiness whose appetite for things living was at best wolfish.” (p. 13)

The “House of Hunger“, therefore, refers not simply to the literal hunger that colonial poverty brought with it (the narrator mentions staying in the “house of hunger”a few times in the novella, making it clear that its use is both literal and metaphorical), but a different kind of hunger, and a different kind of thirst, that social structures were designed to leave un-sated:

“All the black youth was thirsty. There was not an oasis of thought which we did not lick dry; apart from those which had been banned, whose drinking led to arrests and suchlike flea-scratchings.” (p. 12)

The distilled intensity of The House of Hunger might speak for Marechera’s short life: an education at Oxford University was cut short when, on being offered a choice between a psychiatric examination and being sent down for trying to burn down the college, he chose the latter; The House of Hunger was composed while sleeping penniless, rough and rootless in different parts of England and Wales; when it won the Guardian First Book Award, Marechera celebrated by throwing plates at the chandeliers during the award ceremony; on his return to (independent) Zimbabwe, he lived homeless and died of AIDS-related complications at the age of 35. This life of restless – and often violence – discontent – is summed up by Marechera himself, in Thought Tracks in the Snow, one of the autobiographical essays that comes at the end of The House of Hunger:

“As the plane burred into the night, leaving the Angolan coast and heading out into the void above the Atlantic, I suddenly remembered that I had, in the rude hurry of it all, left my spectacles behind. I was coming to England literally blind. The blurred shape of the other passengers was grimly glued to the screen where Clint Eastwood was once again shooting the shit out of his troubles. I was on my own, sipping a whisky, and my head was roaring with a strange emptiness. What was it really that I had left behind me? My youth was a headache burring with the engines of a great hunger that was eating up the huge chunks of empty air. I think I knew then that before me were years of desperate loneliness, and the whisky would be followed by other whiskies, other self-destructive poisons; I had nothing but books inside my head, and they were burning me, burring with the engines of hope and illusion into the endless expanse of air. Who was I leaving behind? My own prematurely grey had still sat stubbornly upon my shoulders; my family did not know where I was or whether I was alive or dead. I do not think they would have cared one way or the other had they known at that moment I was thousands of feet above the earth, hanging as it were in the emptiness which my dabbling with politics had created for me. I felt sick with everything, sick with the self-pity, sick with the Rhodesian crisis, sick! – and the whisky was followed by other whiskies and my old young man’s face stared back at me from the little window. Would Oxford University be any different – was I so sure of myself then? Dawn broke as we flew over the Bay of Biscay; and the fresh white dove’s down of breast-clouds looked from above like another revelation that would turn out, when eaten, to be stone rather than bread.” (p. 140)

Even here, at the very end, in the throes of seriousness, Marechera cannot avoid just that little dose of linguistic pyrotechnics!

Other reviews of The House of HungerThe GuardianThe Rumpus.

On Marechera more generally: The Life and Times of an African Writer (VQR).

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“You just gave yourself to the dream in the rhythm…”: Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s ‘The River Between’

“And she seemed to hold him still. Not with her hands. Not with anything visible. It was something inside her. What was it? He could not divine what it was. Perhaps her laughter. He thought there was magic in it because it rang into his heart, arousing things he had never felt before. And what was that shining in her eyes? Was there a streak of sadness in them? For a time Waiyaki was afraid and looked around. His mother was watching them. He turned to Muthoni. The magic was not there any more; it had gone. In the next moment Waiyaki found himself wandering alone, blindly away from the crowd, wrestling with a hollowness inside his stomach.”

Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart occupies pride of place as the post-colonial African novel dealing with the theme of the first contact between indigenous communities and colonial power, and the social disintegration that inevitably follows. But only seven years after Things Fall Apart, a young Ngugi wa Thiong’o published The River Between, his own novel dealing with similar themes. The River Between was Thiong’o’s first written novel (composed at university), and the second that he published. It is not as well-known as The Wizard of the Crow or Petals of Blood, and certainly not a novel that comes to mind when thinking of books that deal with the initial relationship between colonialism and community. This is a pity: in some ways, The River Between is an even more ambitious novel than Things Fall Apart, because it deals with an issue where the moral lines seem to be as clear as anything could be in our compromised world: female circumcision – or, as we know it, female genital mutilation.

The book begins like this:

The two ridges lay side by side. One was Kameno, the other was Makuyu. Between them was a valley. It was called the valley of life. Behind Kameno and Makuyu were many more valleys and ridges, lying without any discernible plan. They were like many sleeping lions which never woke. They just slept, the big deep sleep of their creator.

Between Kameno and Makuyu, both home to the Gikuyu people, there is an ancient rivalry, which is now exacerbated by the advent of colonialism, and the Christian religion that the colonisers bring with them. In Makuyu, Christianity has found a believer in Joshua, who has all the zeal of the convert. His proselytisation, however, creates as many enemies as it does followers; and rebellion, at last, reaches his own home. When female circumcision is banned as contrary to the Christian faith, Joshua’s daugther, Muthoni, refuses to abide by the decree, which goes to the heart of how the Gikuyu culture and way of life.

Into this milieu comes Waiyaki, the book’s ambiguous and conflicted protagonist. Waiyaki has been brought up to be the prophetic “saviour” of the people from the increasingly frequent depredations of the colonisers. Sent to be educated at the nearest missionary school – to learn the master’s tools to break down the master’s house – while retaining a firm foothold among his people, Waiyaki is the man marked to reconcile and unify the warring factions, and take on the colonisers. His chosen weapon is that of education.

However, Waiyaki will come to realise that reconciliation is not so easy. As Uzodinma Iweala remarks in his excellent introduction, while dealing with Muthoni’s own decision to undertake circumcision while remaining faithful to her father, “most utopias can accommodate only one grand vision.” Those who seek to expand them must either end in compromising, or in tragedy. And that is at the heart of The River Between.

The ambition of The River Between – as I mentioned above – is that Ngugi wa Thiong’o chooses as his site of conflict between colonial “modernity” and indigenous belief a practice that almost all of us would condemn unreservedly, both intuitively, and on careful reflection. What do the defenders of circumcision have to say for themselves? What can they possibly have to say for themselves? In Facing Mount Kenya, Jomo Kenyatta (independent Kenya’s first President) might have written that “this operation is still regarded as the very essence of an institution which has enormous educational, social, moral and religious implications… for the present it is impossible for a member of the tribe to imagine an initiation without clitoridectomy” – but surely that is no justification for something that is so obviously oppressive.

In The River Between, Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s answer is to remove the authorial voice almost entirely from the novel. Female circumcision relies entirely upon its novelistic advocates for its justification, and one of those advocates is Muthoni as well. Echoing Kenyatta, Thiong’o describes how, for Muthoni, circumcision is what gives her membership in the tribe any meaning at all; without it, she is bereft, like an atrophied limb, cut off from its body. Now, we may dismiss this as false consciousness, as internalised oppression; but Thiong’o’s Muthoni is too fiercely intelligent, too reflective, and too human for any such easy resolution. And this is the singular achievement of The River Between: Thiong’o gives us a character whom we must take seriously, whose choices we must evaluate as choices. This is particularly important because, as recent scholarship has shown, the conflict over the abolition of oppressive gender-practices between the colonisers and indigenous societies was conducted on a terrain in which any kind of agency or voice was entirely denied to those whom it was ostensibly for: women. As an Indian scholar writes, the conflict “was not so much about the specific condition of women within a definite set of social relations as it was about the political encounter between a colonial state and a supposed ‘tradition’ of a conquered people.” In this context, Muthoni’s is the absent voice, now foregrounded front and centre.

Muthoni’s certainty and strength of will is a stark contrast with the ambivalent and unsure Waiyaki. Primed to belong to both worlds, he too falls victim to the totalitarianism of utopias, and finds himself struggling to belong to either:

“Again he was restless and the yearning came back to him. It filled him and shook his whole being so that he felt something in him would burst. Yearning. Yearning. Was life all a yearning and no satisfaction? Was one to live, a strange hollowness pursuing one like a malignant beast that would not let one rest? Waiyaki could not know. Perhaps nobody could ever know. You had just to be…

Waiyaki is a neat inversion of the familiar fictional trope, the “half-blood” who, straddling two worlds, emerges as an unlikely saviour. Through Waiyaki – who, again, like Muthoni, is too human to simply reduce to a type – Thiong’o demonstrates just how difficult a task that is in moments of extreme flux, where one order, backed by raw power, clashes with another, supported on nothing but memories and dreams. And it is only towards the end of the novel that we get a sense of where Thiong’o himself stands on the issue:

“A religion that took no count of people’s way of life, a religion that did not recognize spots of beauty and truths in their way of life, was useless. It would not satisfy. It would not be a living experience, a source of life and vitality. It would only maim a man’s soul, making him fanatically cling to whatever promised security, otherwise he would be lost. Perhaps that was what was wrong with Joshua. He had clothed himself with a religion decorated and smeared with everything white. He renounced his past and cut himself away from those life-giving traditions of the tribe. And because he had nothing to rest upon, something rich and firm on which to stand and grow, he had to cling with his hands to whatever the missionaries taught him promised future… if the white man’s religion made you abandon a custom and then did not give you something of equal value, you became lost.”

Here we have that flash of insight, delivered in spare, clean prose, that is such a staple of the later Thiong’o. The River Between shows us a young Thiong’o, still honing and polishing his craft, the craft that would reach its peak in a novel like The Wizard of the Crow. But for a first novel, it is still an astonishingly accomplished work, subtle, complex, and above all, humane and empathetic.

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“Such a meaningless thing as the judgment of history…”: Ahmadou Kourouma’s ‘Waiting for the Wild Beasts to Vote’

“You are now considered to be the breakwater on which founder the waves of international communism surging towards Africa. The media and public opinion in the Free World no longer have the right to criticize you. One does not demoralize a solder fighting at the front by criticizing the way he handles his rifle.”

There is a point in Ahmadou Kourouma’s Waiting for the Wild Beasts to Vote when the first elected President of the newly-independent Republique du Golfe is attempting to resist the coup that will soon cost him his position and his life. If he is killed, he says to his advisers, “it would mean that everything I have learned is sham, lies, that all my spiritual leaders have lied to me. It would mean that Africa is a sham, a lie; that talismans and sacrifices are worthless. It is unthinkable, impossible. It cannot be true.” There is something particularly poignant about “it would mean that Africa is a sham” at the moment of the strangulation of a fledgeling African democracy, a collateral casualty in Cold War politics, and a moment that occurs and recurs in the actual late-20th century history of the continent. If Africa, at that point, symbolises a long history of colonialism, resistance, and (ultimately) liberation, then the guns and soldiers that surround the Presidential Palace represent the “sham” that liberation ultimately turns out to be.

Waiting for the Wild Beasts is a story of that sham. It is narrated over six nights – “six vigils” – by Bingo, a griot and his “responder”, Tiecoura, in the presence of Koyaga, ‘President-Dictator’ of the Republique du Golfe, his ‘Minister of Orientation’, and seven most celebrated hunters of the Republic. Tiecoura, like the court jesters of the medieval European kings, “can do as he wishes, everything is permitted him, and nothing that he does goes unpardoned.” Through the course of the six vigils, then, the griot and his responder (with various interjections by the Minister) recount the personal history of Koyaga in the form of a donsomana (a performed epic) which, inevitably, becomes the history of the Republique du Golfe, and a searing indictment both of colonialism and of the betrayal of the post-colonial promise.

In his essay on Virgil’s Aeneid, Adam Parry highlights the “two voices” of the Roman epic: the dominant register, which celebrates conquest and imperium, linking Aeneas to Augustus, but also a counterpoint, a submerged register that questions and undermines that narrative. In Waiting for the Wild Beasts to Vote, there are not two, but three voices that complicate the narrative. The dominant register is the griot’s donsomana, which is essentially a praise-song. Its form requires vaulting hyperbole and exaggeration, (deliberately) performed to such an extent that it overleaps itself and falls upon the side of disbelief. Koyaga is made out to be a man with superhuman powers, protected by the magic of his mother and a seer; his exploits while serving in the French army in Indochina, his violently successful ascent to the Presidency of the Republique du Golfe, and his surviving multiple assassination attempts, are all attributed to magic. The coup that ends with the murder of the elected President Santos is depicted as a clash between two powerful shamans, hurling magic at each other. But even as these stories are told, the griot also provides his audience the other, more prosaic explanations (political intrigue, betrayal, outright violence, chance), while ostensibly debunking them as the invention of bitter and jealous political opponents. And even beyond these two voices contained within the donsomana, Tiecoura takes advantage of the latitude offered him to – occasionally – disrupt the praise-song by speaking some blunt home-truths to power:

Koyaga, you have many faults, grave faults. You were, you are as tyrannous as a savage beast, as untruthful as an echo, as brutal as a lightning strike, as murderous as a lycaon, as emasculating as a castrator, as populist as a griot, as corrupt as a louse, as libidinous as a pair of ducks. You are… You are… You have many other faults which if one were to try to expound them all, catalogue each one at a stroke, it would surely tear one’s mouth at the corners. So specifies the responder, redoubling his jeers, which draw a good-natured smile from him they appear to insult.”

These three registers mingle, alternate and disrupt each other, never quite allowing the reader to settle. What emerges from them is a highly effective – and unsparing – critique of mid-20th century African history. Like Ngugi wa Thiong’o in The Wizard of the Crow (which was written ten years after Waiting for the Wild Beasts to Vote), Kourouma is painfully aware of the ‘Free World’s’ Cold War-induced complicity in creating and propping up African dictatorships:

De Gaulle succeeded in granting independence without decolonizing. He succeeded in this by inventing and supporting presidents of republics who referred to themselves as fathers of the nation, architects of the independence of their countries, when in fact they had done nothing to win independence for their republics and were not the real masters, the true leaders of their peoples.”

This is a familiar theme, described eloquently by Chinua Achebe’s memoir of the Biafran War, There Was a Country. Recounting the manner in which the elections leading up to the independence of Nigeria were rigged by the outgoing British colonialists, Achebe writes that “In a sense, Nigerian independence came with a British governor general in command, and, one might say, popular faith in genuine democracy was compromised from birth.”

And yet, Kourouma is also keenly aware of the risks in letting this origin story become determinative of the future, and of reducing causality to a linear sequence in a manner that absolves the leaders of post-colonial African nations from the burdens of moral judgment. This comes through with particular brilliance in the griot‘s account of Koyaga’s visit to four other African dictators, who have devised various stratagems for staying in power. In particular, this is how one of them deals with an alleged communist plot against his government:

“Remembering the precepts of the Qur’an, the Emperor ordered the regiment to beat them to death before cutting off their hands, as the Belgians had routinely done in Congo, and their ears, as the French had done in Oubangui-Chari…”

In one sentence, the griot locates the origins of this particularly brutal kind of political violence in colonialism, while making it clear that the moral culpability of the doer is in no way mitigated by this history. Not only that, there is also an equally keen awareness of how that history is invoked in discourse to at least attempt to hide, or distract from, that moral culpability. While maintaining a brutally repressive regime, Koyaga memorialises the day of his father’s death as “the Feast of the Victims of Colonialism“, a moment of heavy irony where historical trauma is pressed into service for propping up a social order that exhibits many of the same tendencies that it claims to repudiate.

There is a very similar moment in The Wizard of the Crow, where a regime member’s response to external criticism is to say “Racists… putting as much hatred as he could into his voice”. The transition from reckoning with colonialism and racism for emancipatory purposes to a veil for hiding oppression is brutal and unforgiving, made all the more starker by the wry, self-aware, bleakly humorous tone that characterises both Waiting for the Wild Beasts to Vote and The Wizard of the Crow.

The story of the Republique du Golfe is a thinly-fictionalised history of post-Independence Togo, although Togo is never mentioned. And yet, lest the fiction appear too remote, from time to time Kourouma drops in real countries and real people, as if just to remind us that this is real, this actually happened. French political interference, American and British Cold War machinations, Gaddafi and Idi Amin’s ‘African solidarity’, all play walk-on roles, and even the IMF’s notorious ‘Structural Adjustment Programmes’ enter an appearance, making it all too clear that despite its allegorical style, Waiting for the Wild Beasts to Vote is anything but an allegory. It is the true story of an imagined future that turned out to be – in one of the many acute proverbs that line the tale –  “as untruthful as an echo.”

 

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“The mirage shimmered before me in the wilderness of longing”: Tayeb Salih, Season of Migration to the North

“Are these the people who are called peasants in books? Had I told my grandfather that revolutions are made in his name, that governments are set up and brought down for his sake, he would have laughed.”

As a classic of postcolonial literature, Tayib Salih’s Season of Migration to the North has been extensively critiqued and reviewed (see here, here and here for samples). What I found particularly compelling – and unsettling – about this book was the shifting, ambiguous place that it occupies somewhere between realism and allegory (taking, for a moment, these categories as given). If Chinua Achebe is an exemplar of the first, and Emile Habibi of the second, then Season… is both, and yet neither. Written in the immediate aftermath of Sudan’s independence (1966), the narrative itself spans the last years of colonial rule, and then the beginnings of self-government. The political is never far away (as the excerpted paragraph above demonstrates), but it is also never in the foreground. Through the lives of the two protagonists, we are shown glimpses of the destruction that colonialism has wrought – both on the individual, and on society – but always in a subtle, indirect – almost, questioning way.

The story’s narrator returns to his Sudanese village after three years in England, writing his doctorate on an “obscure English poet” (we are never told which poet). The book begins with an atmosphere of utter tranquility, the narrator imagining that he has finally come back “home”, where everything is as it should be. This tranquility is disturbed when he meets the enigmatic Mustafa. One night, seemingly in a drunken stupor, Mustafa breaks into perfectly-accented English poetry, revealing – to the narrator’s astonishment – that he too spent years in England. On being pressed, Mustafa recounts a harrowing – and tantalisingly incomplete tale of his time in the metropolis, his destructive liaisons with European women – ending with his killing his wife – and his eventual return to his country via stops in half the capitals of the world, to lose himself in an unknown village. The next day, Mustafa disappears – presumably drowned – and the narrator is left to pick through the aftermath, and try to stave off another – inevitable – tragedy.

The life of Mustafa in England – in particular, his use of all the classic Oriental tropes as tools of seduction (he repeats “my hackneyed phrases” many times in his story), and the life of the narrator in Sudan – in particular, the dissonance between himself and his fellow-villagers, that only comes to the fore as the novel progresses – can be understood as a synecdoche for the mutual – yet always unequal – interrogation between the metropolis and the colony. When Mustafa says, for instance, about one of the women he seduced, that “I was the symbol of all her hankerings”, and then proceeds to describe his bedroom straight out of a Francis Burton work – we think immediately of Aida, of Burton himself, of Disraeli, and of the multitude of examples that we find in Said’s Culture and Imperialism.

It is not surprising, then, that Salih often resorts to the language of illusion. “One mirage kept raising us up, another casting us down, and from deserts we were spewed into yet more deserts.”  Ultimately, the book is about mirages – England, as imagined and experienced by the colonial immigrants, and the immigrants themselves, who come to occupy some nameless, shadowy, liminal space between cultures, belonging to both and to none. Perhaps nowhere is this expressed more vividly, more forcefully and more evocatively, than here:

“It was as though I were a slave Shahrayar you buy in the market for a dinar encountering a Scheherazade begging amidst the rubble of a city destroyed by plague.”

This moment of self-realisation comes in the middle of yet another series of Orientalist tropes, and with the clarity and precision of a knife, lays bare – literally – the poverty of that discourse. There are many things that the “city” could stand for here: the crumbling of the edifice of Orientalism itself, built as it is around structures such as The Arabian Nights – or the cities of the metropolis and colony, intellectually and morally crumbling from the result of their destructive interaction. Perhaps it stands for both, or neither, or many more things – but if there is one line in all of literature that, for me, simply sums up colonialism, this is it.

A central theme of the book is interrogating questions of choice and agency, individual against structure. Mustafa’s trial becomes, in the end, not about his action, but his inability to act otherwise, caught in the space between two cultures, one alien and incomprehensible, the other distant and abandoned. And similarly, the narrator’s own life back home is marked not so much by his irrelevance, but by the paralysis of thought and action that follows upon it. It is this Hamlet-like attitude of delay and deferral that ultimately leads to the second tragedy that marks the book; and leads him to cry out, in the end:

“I had lost the war because I did not know and did not choose. Outside, my world was a wide one; now it had contracted, had withdrawn upon itself, until I myself had become the world, no world existing outside of me…”

And again, although colonialism is vaguely implicated in all this, there is no crude determinism at work here, but something much more subtle, complex and ambiguous. Marx once famously said:

“Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.”

Season of Migration to the North, then, is a beautiful story about men and women, history and circumstances.

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Filed under African Writing, Sudan, Tayeb Salih