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After The Colonizers Depart

The late Sudanese author Tayeb Salih's Season of Migration to the North is an engaging and complicated novel, by turns combative and wistful, about two men who leave Sudan to study in England and afterward belong in neither place.

As Laila Lalami observes in her introduction to the New York Review of Books reissue, the book's happy life in translation is something of an aberration. Most classics of Arab literature remain unavailable in the States despite the public's growing appetite for translated fiction. Yet Season of Migration to the North first appeared in English in 1969, only three years after its original publication in the author's native Arabic. Both because of its accessibility and because of its deep insights into the complexities of life in a colonized place after the colonizers depart, it has taken its place, along with Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, at the core of the university postcolonial literature curriculum.

The unnamed narrator returns to his native village after years away spent studying an obscure English poet. He is so busy basking in his glory as the lone village scholar that he barely notices a stranger amid the familiar faces. Months later, he hears the man, Mustafa Sa'eed, quoting lines from British poetry in perfect English. The narrator, confronting him, learns about the stranger's past in the West (where he was dubbed "the black Englishman"): the things Sa'eed studied, the many women he bedded, and the terrible things he was involved in and accused of there.

While the story is specific to the Sudan, its theme of foreign knowledge as an estranging force is universal, stretching at least as far back as the ancient tale of the forbidden fruit that shatters the idyll of the Garden of Eden. Both men find, on returning home after a Western education, that they and the country they left are fundamentally incompatible even though the wind rustles through the palm trees in the same familiar, comforting way.

"Rationally," says Sa'eed, in a letter the narrator opens only after Sa'eed's disappearance, "I know what is right: my attempt at living in this village. ... But mysterious things in my soul and in my blood impel me towards faraway parts."

The narrator himself eschews such drama, opting for the dutiful, constrained life of educational bureaucrat. Tragedy finds him, regardless, and the agony that follows, as he tries to escape Sa'eed's poisonous legacy, is beautifully, intricately wrought.

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