Robert Irwin on the literary legacy of Sudanese author Tayeb Salih
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.