Season of Migration to the North – Tayeb Salih

season of migration to the north
Sudan, first published in 1966, translated from Arabic by Denys Johnson-Davies

Season of Migration to the North is a post-colonial book by Tayeb Salih, a Sudanese writer. The book is first published in Arabic in 1966, and translated to English in 1969. My edition is the NYRB classics with introduction by Laila Lalami (who’s born and raised in Morocco) and translated by Denys Johnson-Davies.

Sudan became independent from the United Kingdom and Egypt in 1956, and these two countries comes up again and again in the book – becoming almost as an important setting as Sudan itself.

And as Sudan is located just south of Egypt, Nile River also makes a good deal of appearances
And as Sudan is located just south of Egypt, Nile River also makes a good deal of appearances

We can sense the post-colonialism theme from the beginning as we meet the narrator who just comes back to Sudan after an extended period of studying in Europe. The narrator is never named, and at the end of the book, I’m not even sure if he is a reliable one. Through his eyes, we learn the story of an enigmatic man in the village called Mustafa Sa’eed. Just like the Narrator, Mustafa has also studied and lived in England for a period of time. The difference is that, while for the Narrator his experience abroad doesn’t seem to have much effect on him, Mustafa’s adventures have gone to the extreme, which includes several women and the demise of them.

The book is rich and multi-layered, and would definitely trigger a lot of discussions if you read it in a book group (luckily I did). But on the flip side, there are a couple of very violent scenes, including psychotic behaviors, and I’m not sure what is the purpose of them. I wonder whether the shock factor is a big part of what made the book as well known as it is. Especially that it came out from Sudan – a Muslim country. Though perhaps it indicates a contrast between Islam of the 60s with the Islam of now? On that note, I like how Islam works more like a backdrop in the book rather than center stage, and how the author didn’t feel the need to always explain for Western audience. (There are times when this would be useful in other books of course, but it’s also refreshing to find varying style.)

When a book comes with the so-called Introduction I always leave it for last, as I’m a bit paranoid about spoilers. In this case with Laila Lalami’s introduction it was the right choice (again!) as she goes to summarise everything that happens in the book. But it’s a great “introduction” and I recommend it if you have that edition. Lalami had the advantage as she read the text in the original language Arabic and English, and was able to compare them. Not many Arabic books get to be so successfully translated. I thought the translation by Denys Johnson-Davies was amazing, and Lalami thought highly also of the collaboration between Sayih and Johnson-Davis to translate the book.

She noted that Season of Migration isn’t the first book in which a writer of color has decided to “write back” to the empire, but it is unique in that it is written in the author’s native language, rather than the colonial one. “Indeed Salih stands out among African writers of his generation for his insistence on continuing to use Arabic in spite of having lived the majority of his life outside of Sudan. ‘It’s a matter of principle,’ he once told an interviewer.” This really contrasts with the opinion of Wole Soyinka.

Interesting aspect to highlight, considering many books, if not all, that I’ve been reading by African writers in recent years have used the colonial language (just to mention a few: Chinua Achebe, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Wole Soyinka – English, Kamel Daoud – French). 

Season left me with conflicting reactions, but it is short, it’s readable, it’s a classic from a region whose literature isn’t available widely in English, so I think it’s worth reading.

Mee’s rating: 4/5 

tayeb salih
Tayeb Salih (1929-2009)

 

A Room with a View – E. M. Forster

room with a view  emforster

A Room with a View was published in 1908, and my copy is the above beautiful Penguin English Library edition. I read this following the Edx course with BerkeleyX Book Club. BerkeleyX has focused on a few books for their book club programme, but this is the first time when the timing was right for me. It doesn’t quite work like traditional book club – at least not for me – as I found the discussion thread format a bit clunky and not easy to view (This is however on the hands of Edx, not BerkeleyX), so I didn’t join any conversation. But I like how the course provides background information for the book.

The first third of the book is set in Florence, Italy – and this setting is a crucial part in building the story. The protagonist is Lucy, a young English girl who is on holiday in Florence with her chaperone, a (much) older cousin. In a pension (inn) full of English abroad, Lucy meets father and son pair, who are deemed by many of their fellow English to be too brash. But deep inside Lucy holds a different opinion, and finds their direct personality refreshing. In fact it is more than that as she starts to fall for the son, George..

(On a side note, Lucy seems a favorite name for young naive girl in that period of England. It reminds me of Lucy in Dracula. Lucy this, Lucy that. Poor Lucy. Everybody seems to always tell Lucy what to do.)

The contrast of Italy and England settings is emphasised, as in the second part of the book we are back in England, where stuffiness is paramount, where things always have to be proper, and Lucy is engaged to a man who she thinks is right. The contrast is played quite obviously throughout the book: Italy vs England, holiday time vs real life, the lively guy who isn’t quite “the right sort” vs the serious man who is, and of course, heart vs mind. In its essence though A Room with a View is a love story, so I think it’s better if one is prepared for that from the beginning (I was).

This is my first time reading E. M. Forster, and I’m not quite sure yet whether I could connect with his writing. There’s some humour in A Room with a View, but I always caught it a few seconds too late. (one.. two.. “Aah.. it’s a joke..” late smile..) I like the sound of his other books, such as A Passage to India and Maurice, or even Howards End. So I can see at least reading another one of his books before deciding whether he’s for me or not.

Mee’s rating: 4/5

A Room with A View – the movie (1985)

Room_with_a_View film

I watched the movie straight after the book and it was fabulous. I probably liked the movie more than the book. A lovely Merchant Ivory production, it features impressive casts, including young Helena Bonham Carter as Lucy, Maggie Smith as the older cousin, and Judi Dench even made a small appearance. The male actors however, seem to have sunk into obscurity since then? I don’t know any of them.

The biggest surprise for me was Helena Bonham Carter, whose younger self I had never seen prior to this movie. She was so sweet looking then (as opposed to her charisma today as a gothic looking woman). Now I’d really like to see more of her old films.

The film won 3 Oscars in 1987 for Best Writing by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala (one of the Merchant Ivory trio), Best Art Direction, and Best Costume Design, and received nominations for Best Picture (Ismail Merchant), Best Director (James Ivory), Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress (Maggie Smith), and Best Cinematography. Very critically acclaimed it seems. Worth watching.

Mee’s rating: 8/10

 

Blue is the Warmest Color / Dotter of Her Father’s Eyes

Two graphic novels I read most recently:

Blue is the Warmest Color – Julie Maroh

blue is the warmest color
First published in 2010, published in English in 2013, translated from French by Ivanka Hahnenberger

I watched Blue is the Warmest Color film 2 years ago and really liked it, and since then I’d been meaning to read the graphic novel it was based on. A visit to the library offered this opportunity.

I don’t read YA novels, but I guess much of my dose of “YA”-ness is provided through graphic novels. Blue for instance is a classic coming of age story between two girls, how they come to term with their homosexuality, the exploration of foreign territory, and the real life implications after the so-called honeymoon period is over.

Much of the story in the book has been changed in the film, however this is one of those cases that I think the movie is better than the book. It seems to often happen with short stories and graphic novels. I was very impressed with the film – it was so fresh. Very rarely would I excuse a 3-hour movie – it has to be very special to take my life for 3 hours – and watching this 3-hour coming of age French (!) drama I was never bored at all.

blue film

Highly recommend the movie. And the book too for that matter, but only if you like the movie :). The use of Blue in both media is very effective and visually striking, though I’m not sure if there’s a meaningful symbol behind it apart from being a symbol of attraction. And the title most of all I think is very catchy and memorable. In a way the 2 things are probably the main reasons the film is told to adapt from the book (without the use of blue there are very few similarities). It works cinematically. Just look at that poster!

Mee’s rating: 4/5

Dotter of her Father’s Eyes – Mary M Talbot and Bryan Talbot

dotter of her father's eyes

Dotter of her Father’s Eyes won the Costa Book Award for Biography in 2012, which is no mean feat for a graphic novel. I read The Tale of One Bad Rat by Bryan Talbot a few years ago, and in Dotter he collaborated with his wife Mary M Talbot (he the illustrator, and she the writer).

This book contrasts the biography of Mary M Talbot herself, with that of Lucia Joyce – the daughter of James Joyce. Mary’s father James S. Atherton is a dedicated Joycean scholar. So this is a story of two daughters and their fathers – who never crossed path, so there are 2 parallel story lines.

I, for one, was quite confused at the beginning about who is who. Mary’s change of name to Talbot added to my confusion, creating a disconnect with the name Atherton – her father’s. I have also not read any James Joyce, so I know very little about the man, not to mention his daughter.

I quite enjoyed this graphic novel, but would probably appreciate it more if I’m a fan of Joyce.

Mee’s rating: 4/5

 

The Meursault Investigation – Kamel Daoud

the meursault investigation
First published in 2013, translated from French by John Cullen, published in English in 2015

The Meursault Investigation (henceforth will be referred to as TMI) by Kamel Daoud is a response to the literary classic The Stranger / The Outsider by Albert Camus. I happen to read The Stranger last year, so when my GR book group chose this and that it was available to buy in Waterstones as their “Buy Books for Syria” program, I decided to delve in.

To give a bit of background, Albert Camus is French Algerian (or pied-noir), and published The Stranger in 1942. He won the Nobel prize in literature in 1957. Algeria became independent from France in 1962 (though the decolonisation movement started in 1956).

Would you need to read The Stranger first before TMI? Yes, I’d recommend it. You would have a deeper understanding starting from The Stranger.

So in The Stranger, the “hero” named Meursault murders a man who is referred to in the book only as “the Arab”. The “hero” of TMI is the brother of the Arab, named Harun. From Harun we learn how the murder affects his and his mother’s life. The mother becomes obsessed about finding the murderer, and forever lives in grief of her dead son, almost forgetting about her other son.

Harun himself is obsessed about the death of his brother, though much of it stems from his mother’s. The fact that his brother is never named in Meursault’s narrative becomes his biggest sore point. I can understand the anger towards Meursault as the face of the French colonists. I was nodding at him about the absurdity of the use of the word “Arab”. Quoting Harun: “Arab. I never felt Arab, you know. Arab-ness is like Negro-ness, which only exists in the white man’s eyes.” 

I liked the book. Would it be able to stand on its own without The Stranger? I’d like to think it could, thought the connection to the Stranger doesn’t hurt the promotion surely. From TMI I learned more about the socio dynamics of native Algerians, the relationship with their French colonists, and the history of the country relating to its independence.

My only reservation is that the book could be a bit repetitive. I guess there’s only so much you can write about in the limited context. It could probably benefit from a tighter editing – cut it by 20-30 pages. Just my 2c :)

Mee’s rating: 4/5 – I like how TMI offers a fresh perspective of a native Algerian. It is quite different with reading Algerian story by Albert Camus. One country, two perspectives. Read both.

Kamel Daoud
Kamel Daoud

Death and the King’s Horseman – Wole Soyinka

death and the king's horsemanwole soyinka

 

Death and the King’s Horseman is a play by Wole Soyinka, a Nigerian and the first African to be honored the Nobel Prize in Literature. The play was published 1975, and Soyinka won the prize in 1986. I was reading this together with my GR book group. It also adds nicely to my Nobel project and my intention to read more plays.

The play is inspired by a real life incident that took place in Nigeria during the British occupation: the horseman of a king was prevented to do his last duty on earth, which is to commit a ritual suicide – to follow his king into the afterlife and help lead the way.

Everybody has a duty. The king’s horseman Elesin has lived a lavished lifestyle, with the understanding of the duty his community expects him to perform one day. Failure to do this would throw everything out of balance. The British officer Simon Pilkings also has a duty, and that is to keep order in the Majesty’s realm. A murder – that includes killing oneself, is a disorder and does not make sense to the British eyes. The stake is made higher as the Prince is visiting when this event takes place, so Pilkings is desperate to resolve (resorting to postpone) the problem without the Prince noticing.

The other important characters include Iyaloja, a matriarch of the market – so in effect, the community; and the horseman’s son Olunde who has gone to study abroad in England and come back when he heard the news about the death of the king, knowing the implication for his father.

In one way it is very much about the issue of colonization, though Soyinka doesn’t like it to be categorized that narrowly, as mentioned in the extra materials of my edition. It’s about a clash of cultures, but it could be between any cultures or subcultures, and does not necessarily point its finger to the white colonists vs the natives.

Soyinka is of Yoruba tribe in Nigeria, so this story is about people of Yoruba. To contrast, Chinua Achebe and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie are both Igbo people. I haven’t read enough Nigerian literature to know the subtle differences, but I found these interesting. It just happens that the colleague sitting next to me is a Yoruba Nigerian, and he said his mother knows Soyinka personally (which I guess isn’t very surprising if they’re from the same tribe). He mentioned that there are some conflicts in the past between the tribes (Yoruba and Igbo are 2 of the 3 biggest tribes in Nigeria) but things are well now, and in fact his wife is Igbo. And that’s my little crash course on Nigerian tribes :)

I had the opportunity to go to Wole Soyinka’s talk at the British Library a couple of weeks ago – which was a very nice conjunction with my book group discussion (it’s online and nobody is in London – so I went by myself). It was a full house and more than half of the audience were Nigerian or African descent, so he seemed a very well respected man. I had my edition of Death and the King’s Horseman signed, but the signing was very rushed so I’m a bit disappointed on that end.

Last interesting point is Soyinka writes in English, so his works are not translated. His choice of language to produce his art is somewhat a sore point among different groups of people, as English is obviously the colonist language. This was asked also at the talk, and his answer is somewhere along the line of wanting to have his work as far reaching as possible. He also writes in his native language, but mostly privately. Considering that he did his higher studies in England and therefore went through Western education, I can absolutely understand this reasoning.

Mee’s rating: 4/5 – Great selection for book group as there are a lot of things to discuss. I can recommend my edition: Methuen Student Edition (pictured above) as it has plenty of extra materials to help you better understand the play and its place in the context of society and its time. Since reading this play I’ve been looking for more plays in Methuen Student Edition, which luckily my favorite secondhand bookshop in Charing Cross has many.

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