Tayeb Salih, Conrad, and the Others

The new Harper’s (July 2009) has a great review by Robyn Creswell of the late Sudanese writer Tayeb Salih’s novel Season of Migration to the North (موسم الهجرة إلى الشمال), which, translated from Arabic by Denys Johnson-Davies, has recently been republished by New York Review Books (the first English-language edition appeared with Heinemann in 1969).

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The book’s unnamed narrator, a Sudanese man who has spent time in England, reconstructs the life of another anglicized Sudanese, Mustafa Sa’eed, whom he meets shortly before the latter’s suicide. The narrator’s fascination with his semblable/frère resonates, as Creswell suggests, with Marlow’s fascination with Kurtz; and evidently the novel has been held up by postcolonial critics as a kind of Heart of Darkness in reverse, “a classic example of ‘the empire writing back’.” Creswell criticizes the reductionism implicit in that reading, however, and situates the terms of the relationship between the two books within a larger argument about realism and the novel:

The central drama of Salih’s novella is not Mustafa Sa’eed’s journey to the heart of Europe but the confrontation between Sa’eed and the narrator, who, like Marlow, feels himself ‘captured by the incredible,’ faced with a character too big for the otherwise realistic fiction he inhabits. It is Salih’s understanding of this dilemma, which is ethical and literary rather than straightforwardly political, that makes his reading of Conrad distinctive.

While reading Creswell’s review (and I am so intrigued by it that my reading of Salih’s book is not far off either), I found myself recalling my own encounter with Heart of Darkness many years ago, and with V.S. Naipaul’s 1974 essay on it, which Creswell discusses. While Creswell is eager to shed a more complex, literary and ethical light on Salih, and by extension on Conrad, than has been done thus far by postcolonial critics, there is another critique of the postcolonial reception of Conrad that I think bears dwelling on. I had always wondered why postcolonial critics disregarded Conrad’s own history as a colonial subject in an area of the world marked by successive waves of colonization and subjugation of one ethnic group by another (not just of the Poles by the Russians, but of the Ukrainians and Lithuanians by the Poles, and the Jews by everyone), and of empire (which in that part of the world in the nineteenth century had three faces: Russian, Prussian, and Austrian).

Very little has been written about this aspect of Conrad, but it’s crucial, of course, to his relation to Africa and to European imperialism. The translator and scholar Clare Cavanagh has published what I think is the only article so far that addresses this negligent reception (“Postcolonial Poland,” Common Knowledge 10:1 [2004], 82-92). There she not only critiques the postcolonial blindspot to the so-called second world, but situates Conrad into a Polish context that includes Czesław Miłosz, Aleksander Wat, Zbigniew Herbert and Wisława Szymborska. “The most astute and gifted of Poland’s postwar artists,” Cavanagh writes, “have shared Conrad’s wariness, not simply toward one empire or another, but to the very idea of empire that has informed the West from the time, under Rome, that it conceived itself as a global civilization.”

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More aptly, Cavanagh discusses Conrad in relation to Ryszard Kapuściński, whose writing of Africa (no less than that of Iran) invokes all sorts of questions about realism and fiction and empire and ethics and the Other:

Kapuściński’s writing not only expresses much of the postcolonial attitude of Polish poetry and fiction but also clarifies the possibilities for an expanded critique of colonialism than current theory offers. He demonstrates, in other words, a way of incorporating the Second World into our present theoretical frame. In a recent review of Kapuściński’s The Shadow of the Sun, Neal Ascherson, the historian, calls attention to the peculiar tradition to which Kapuściński belongs. It is a tradition, including Conrad, that consists of travel writers from European nations invaded, conquered, culturally dominated, and often settled by the Russian, Austro-Hungarian, or German empires. These writers knew all too well what it meant to be at the wrong end of colonialism—and during sojourns in Africa, Asia, or Polynesia, they continually recognized aspects of their own experience.

Of course, central and eastern Europe is just as affected by Western cultural hegemony as it has been by Russian and Soviet imperialism, which is no doubt an important reason why its experience has been ignored by Western postcolonial theorists, even Conrad scholars, and is often received along the most conventional of patterns. Miłosz, Herbert, and Szymborska themselves are often only legible for Western readers as witnesses of tragedy, as the “victims of history,” as one American poet put it not long ago. Just as the poetic and ethical dimensions of Salih’s or Conrad’s work have been overlooked by postcolonial scholars, so too are the Polish poets often instrumentalized for ideological reasons that ultimately impoverish our understanding of them.

But Cavanagh’s article has another objective, which is to link the study of Polish literature to discourses with which literary studies and literary theory have been saturated for decades, but in which Slavic Studies as a discipline has, until recently, been largely uninvolved. And maybe that encounter between fields will be achieved eventually. It is an objective that is a necessary one for Polish Studies, and ideally will also facilitate the reception of Polish literature more generally outside the typical post-Enlightenment/Cold War binarism of West vs. East (Europe) and re-situate it in terms of a broader, global dynamic. The example of Conrad, from both Cavanagh’s and Creswell’s respective perspectives, demonstrates that it actually makes sense to read Salih’s Season of Migration to the North not only in relation to Conrad or Naipaul or other authors like Jamaica Kincaid (who also writes along a South-North meridian), but to Aleksander Wat’s My Century (another New York Review Books reprint, incidentally), for example, or Gombrowicz’s Cosmos or Diaries or Transatlantyk (North-South and East-West) (anything by Gombrowicz, really) .

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