Destructive Desires in Tayeb Salih and Joseph Conrad
In Season of Migration to the North by Tayeb Salih, the story of the mysterious, prodigious, and devilish Mustafa Sa’eed is told through the eyes of an unnamed narrator. Although Mustafa is not directly present for most of the book, his actions, and the narrator’s reflection on his life, work to drive the plot while the narrator acts as more of a conduit for the audience to explore the life of the focus character. Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, which partially inspired Salih, employs the same technique, using the experiences of the narrator, Marlow, to create a contrast between himself and Kurtz, who is meant to be Mustafa’s equivalent. The juxtaposition of the unassuming narrator and the larger-than-life character on whom he focuses his attention, serves to distinguish between two types of explorers: the observer and the conqueror. Through this device, we are able to see the effect of both approaches, and that the latter, which seeks destruction, is ultimately destined to destroy himself.
What sets both narrators apart from their more enigmatic counterparts is, firstly, their reasons for exploring their own centers of darkness. The equivalent of the “heart of darkness” in Seasons of Migration to the North is London, where both the narrator and the Mustafa travel in order to cultivate their knowledge. Their intentions once there, however, diverge extremely. The narrator seems to have no ulterior motives in going, save to bolster his own esteem (he confesses, “I had reckoned that the ten million inhabitants of the country had all heard of my achievements” (Salih 9)). Yet Mustafa saw his endeavor to seduce and emotionally destroy women from the North as a grand quest, a response to the North’s condescension, ignorance, and subtle contempt. He tells the white men in Europe, “I have come to you as a conqueror” (50). While the former sought to gain, the latter wanted only to take and destroy. Similarly, Marlow went to the Congo’s in search of exploration, while Kurtz went to try and satisfy an insatiable greed for ivory. Marlow explains his motivations with a recount of his love of maps as a child, and the urge he felt to fill in the “blank spaces” and to “lose [himself] in the glories of exploration” (Conrad 9-10). Kurtz initially came for the ivory, acting as a “…first class agent…in charge of a trading post” (28). Eventually, though, he would come to want much more than ivory could provide him, which would lead him down the path of self-destruction.
While delving into the cultural shock that is western life for Mustafa and the unnamed narrator, and is the Congo for Marlow and Kurtz, Salih raises question of personal change. In both novels, Marlow and the unnamed narrator act as sort of keepers of knowledge, particularly where Kurtz and Mustafa (respectively) are involved. Mustafa and Kurtz represent the mobility of change, while the narrators demonstrate constraint by keeping the knowledge of this change secret and, in some instances, resisting change within themselves. Firstly, mobility appears as an enforcement of Mustafa’s will upon European culture. When referring to Ann Hammond’s background, he juxtaposes statements about her familial status and good name with others about dominating her: “Her father was an officer in the Royal Engineers, her mother from a rich family in Liverpool. She proved an easy prey” and “Her aunt was the wife of a Member of Parliament. In my bed I transformed her into a harlot” (Salih 27). In doing this, he is developing the melodrama that he sees his life to be, proving the powerful to be susceptible to his influence despite their supposed strength. At the same time, the culture of Europe too leaves him scathed. He says, “I am South yearning for the North and the ice” (27). This latter manifests as a marriage between himself and the “ice” which he relates to Jean Morris (134). He is proclaimed the “…first Sudanese to marry an English woman,” showing this event to be particularly odd (46).
The narrator, as the keeper of knowledge (possessing a literal key to unlocking Mustafa’s past), faces the concrete evidence of Mustafa’s transgressions and immediately has the urge to destroy it all. He declares that he will light Mustafa’s private room on fire, but fails to go through will it: “At the break of dawn, tongues of fire will devour these lies” (128). Upon his failure, he resolves to throw the key in the river, but neglects to do this as well. Finally, he tries to drown himself like Mustafa, but fails again. We can gather that the river is symbolic of the darkness from his statement, “Though floating on the water, I was not a part of it” (139). He faces the same death as Mustafa, but does not succumb to it, signifying that, though he was affected by the same evil, it was not enough to doom him because he did not engage with it to the same extent that Mustafa did. Alternatively, it could signify that he is no longer apart of anything as he feels disconnected from his people as well: “There is no room for me here. Why don’t I pack up and go” (107). His stagnation as a character, paired with these instincts to obscure the truth and the fact that he still does not tell anyone who Mustafa Sa’eed really is, defines him as the stories constraint that opposes its mobility. It is the passive inaction of an observer, which suppresses the destructive desires of the conqueror.
In Conrad’s work, Kurtz imposes his will unto the natives by letting them think that he is a god and commanding their every move. The Russian trader who nurses Kurtz back to health and otherwise accompanies him says that he does not fear the natives because “…they would not stir till Mr. Kurtz gave the word” also asserting that, “…the chiefs would come every day to see him. They would crawl…” (Conrad 97). He used them for his pursuits and let them make sacrifices to him, but again, the environment affects him just as heavily. The trader also states that he would disappear with them for weeks in search of ivory, and that he would “…forget himself amongst these people” (94). He rejects civilization, and the help of modern medicine along with it, in order to stay with the natives. Marlow, on the other hand, is able to stay uncorrupted by the darkness but shutting out its horrors. He responds nonchalantly to the death of Fresleven, reacted to the helmsman’s death by chucking his soiled shoes overboard, and ran away when Kurtz was approaching the end of his life. Like the unnamed narrator, he also obstructs the truth, refusing to hand over Kurtz’s documents (“I had refused to give up the smallest scrap out of that package” (120)) and telling his Intended that, “The last word he pronounced was [her] name” (129). Both Mustafa and Kurtz open themselves up to darkness when they chose to impose their influence onto it and allow its influence to affect them in turn, while their counterparts are left to stop their destruction from pursuing past their deaths. Mustafa and Kurtz’s legacies exist as stories within themselves, symbolic, as they are, of colonialism as a whole. The destruction that they cause is due to the main factors that are generally responsible for the phenomena of colonialism. Themes of hunger and power echo throughout the descriptions of their lives. Imagery related to hunger accompany the first descriptions of Kurtz, “I saw him open his mouth wide—it gave him a weirdly voracious aspect, as though he had wanted to swallow all the air, all the earth, and the men before him” (Conrad 100). Beyond simple greed, this demonstrated gluttony, a never-ending stride towards excess. This led him to put his hunger above anything else; his health, his sanity, and his preservation of self. Marlow says, “…the appetite for more ivory had got the better of the…less material aspirations” (95). This extended past the need for ivory, however, as the Marlow explained Kurtz’s rejection from the Company was because he, “…lacked restraint in the gratification of his various lusts…” (96). His was a hunger that’s purpose was not to satisfy, but to fill a void, a bottomless pit.
Mustafa shared that hunger, but for possession of women instead. He was obsessed with the conquest, going as far as to fill his room with mirrors so that, “when [he] slept with a woman, it was as if [he] slept with a whole harem simultaneously” (Salih 27). When it came to Jean Morris, his desire to possess her so overtook him that, when she offers sex in exchange for his prized possessions, he thinks, “If she had asked… for my life as a price I would have paid it” (130). That entire exchange, in fact, is peppered with imagery relating to thirst and hunger: “My throat grew dry with a thirst that almost killed me,” “…filling her mouth with pieces of paper that she chewed and spit out,” “…her lips like a forbidden fruit that must be eaten,” and so on (130). It was because Sa’eed could not separate himself from his need to always be victorious that he made himself a slave to his desires. For both authors, the use of hunger means to signify that their pursuit of satisfaction had become, in their minds, essential for survival. Ironically, it would instead lead to their demise.
Their interest, of course, also involved the pursuit of power. The ways in which they achieve this aim differ slightly, but share the same mechanisms at their core. By lying to their targets, both Mustafa and Kurtz gained power through the false projections of it. Mustafa led women to believe that his interest in them was a promise for the future, going beyond one night stands by, “…living with five girls simultaneously,” and “…giving each the impression that [he’d] marry her” (30-31). In addition to lying, he wields his power by taking advantage of their trust, and thereafter betraying it. Kurtz does not betray anyone, but he lies his way into becoming a god to those who would kill or be killed for him (such as his mistress who stood on the shore reaching out for him even as the pilgrims shot at her). He lets them believe that his guns were “…thunder and lightning” (93). His power came also from the very timber his voice. Even Marlow felt the effects: “Kurtz discoursed. A voice! A voice! It rang deep to the very last” (114). There was power in Mustafa’s voice as well, insofar as he seduced women with his storytelling. However, the difference lies in presentation: Mustafa gained his power from taking advantage of ignorance, while Marlow only had to present himself in such a way that would simply command it. For both hunger and power, the connection to colonialism, then, is that satisfaction of greed comes before everything, even life; the power and superiority exuded by the colonizers is a farce; and that bitter ends follow those who choose to admire and praise that which is inherently destructive. Though their actions were hideous, these characters were, in a way, the tragic heroes of their respective stories. Their tragic flaw was hubris; by wanting too much and truly believing that they could have it all, they became the orchestrators of their defeat. Mustafa, while talking about his conquests, interjects that he believes that, “There is a still pool in the depths of every woman that [he] knew how to stir” (Salih 27). In his contemplations on the position that Mustafa has put him in by making him responsible for his legacy, the unnamed narrator remarks, “There was no limit to his egoism and his conceit; despite everything he wanted history to immortalize him” (128). The expression “the bigger they are, the harder they fall” is an apt one here. Mustafa was too high on his own superiority to realize that he could have an equal, and that she could bring him to his knees. Jean Morris was the virus to his germ. His downfall began on the night that he murdered her with him expressing, “My blood was boiling and my head [was] in a fever” (134). His self had been dying ever since he had surrendered his will to her, their time together marked by his inability to control himself, resulting in a sort of self-imposed insanity.
Kurtz’s last days were marred by a fatal sickness and, questionably, literal insanity. When the trader talks about how he first found Kurtz, he juxtaposes an incident where Kurtz nearly shot him over a small amount of ivory with the introduction of his second illness (Conrad 94). His assumed entitlement to wealth correlated with the degradation of his body, yet even as his dependence on civilization was made clear by his impending death, he still denied his weakness: “Save me! Why, I’ve had to save you… Sick! Not so sick as you would like to believe…I’ll carry out my ideas yet” (103). He believed that he was entitled to everything. On the boat back he says, “My Intended, my ivory, my station, my river…everything belonged to him” (80). Marlow ascertains that his babblings continued until right before his death. He had begun to believe in his own lie, his own godliness, perhaps immortality. The idea that he should fail was inconceivable. He thought himself the arbiter of his own fate, thought that his “impenetrable darkness” was enough to battle the darkness of the wild (115). Yet, in the words of Marlow, “…the wilderness had found him out early, and had taken on him a terrible vengeance for the fantastic invasion” (96-97). It was his Jean Morris: the insurmountable adversary that was destined to bring about his downfall.
The narrators both come across the respective focus of interest after their downfall has been set into motion. Upon first impressions, Kurtz was “an animated image of death…shaking his hand with menaces…” (Conrad 100), while Mustafa was a “…strange combination of strength and weakness” (Salih 8). Yet, despite this the narrators still admired them. Marlow says that he affirms that Kurtz was a remarkable man because, “He had something to say. He said it” (Conrad 118). Salih’s narrator echoes this: “…he at least made a choice where I have chosen nothing (111). Amongst people who did not know their story, they still were successes. They were legacies. What does this say, then, for the observer and the conqueror? The conqueror is a disease, which leaves a trail of bodies in his wake, including his own. Yet Kurtz’s and Mustafa’s stories tell the true fate of the conqueror: to destroy, be destroyed, and live on in memory.
Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness. N.p.: Blackwood’s Magazine, 1899. Www.planetebook.com. Web. 18 Dec. 2016.
Salih, Tayeb. Season of Migration to the North. New York: New York Review of, 1969. Print.
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