Robert Irwin on the literary legacy of Sudanese author Tayeb Salih

November 19, 2017
Captivating narrative. Cover of Tayeb Salih’s novel “Season of Migration to the North.”

London - When a book de­scribed as the “most important Arabic novel of the 20th century” is the subject of a rare public lecture, its organisers can rightly expect a large audience but few could have expected the crowd that turned out at the British Library’s Knowl­edge Centre on a rainy November 7 evening when historian Robert Irwin discussed Sudanese novelist Tayeb Salih’s masterpiece “Season of Migration to the North.”
The lecture, organised by the Banipal Trust for Arab Literature, was attended by, among others, James Currey, editor of the Heine­mann Arab Authors series, which published the first English edition of the novel in 1969; Salih’s widow, Julia Salih; and Sudanese Ambassa­dor Mohammed Abdalla Ali Eltom
Irwin, a British author whose work focuses on Arabic litera­ture, wrote “The Arabian Knights: A Companion” and “For Lust of Knowing: The Orientalists and their Enemies,” as well as seven novels, including “Wonders Will Never Cease.” His book on Arab historian Ibn Khaldun is to be pub­lished next year.
Irwin gave a captivating over­view of Salih’s novel while provid­ing background into an extraor­dinary life of a man who has been much missed on the literary scene since his death in 2009.
Published in 1966, “Season of Migration to the North” is consid­ered a key piece of post-colonial literature and has been subject to numerous works of academic anal­ysis. In his lecture, Irwin explored the work’s themes of duality, em­bedding, abandonment and inter­textuality, referencing Joseph Con­rad’s “Heart of Darkness,” Oscar Wilde’s “A Portrait of Dorian Gray” and Francis Ford Coppola’s seminal film “Apocalypse Now.”
Irwin also explored the story-within-a-story structure of the novel, posing the question “Who is the narrator?” to the audience while drawing parallels with “The Heart of Darkness.” Each book in­cludes a main character giving har­rowing accounts of their past at various points, Irwin noted.
He referenced, but glossed over, the often lurid and overtly sexual themes of Salih’s novel, for which it was famously banned in Sudan for several years. He also suggested that the protagonist’s fixation on intimacy with white women was a counter-response to the colonial habit of taking native mistresses as an attempt to better understand the culture and language.
On intertextuality, Irwin noted that Salih’s method of referencing great works of literature and art, including Shakespeare’s “Othello,” “The Tempest” and “Richard II,” the writings of Sigmund Freud and, of course, “One Thousand and One Arabian Nights” is shared by him. “It’s rather like shoplifting… but without the legal consequences,” Irwin said, drawing laughter from the crowd.
In Salih’s novel, there is one line — “We are a doomed people, so regale us with amusing stories” — that echoes nd and tell sad stories of the death of kings,” in Richard II.
While the audience may have replaced “the ground” with com­fortable theatre seats in an elegant venue, Irwin’s lecture on Salih was engaging, informative and greatly entertaining and his knowledge and admiration of the great Suda­nese author shone through.
More than half a century after Salih’s text was published, at a time when there is still much “migration to the North,” Irwin illustrated that Salih’s novel has as much value to readers as ever.