By Tayeb Salih
London: A Three Continents Book, 1997 (originally published in 1969)
ISBN # 978-0-89410-199-1
169 pages.

Comments by Bob Corbett
May 2011

The unnamed narrator has returned home to his small village in the Sudan from studying in England and having written a dissertation on a little known British poet. He hears of the stranger, Mustafa Sa’eed, who has come from no one knows where, to live in the village. He also learns from his grandfather that everyone thinks very highly of the stranger. One evening he is visiting with Mustafa and another neighborhood when the neighbor brings out some booze, which Mustafa does not want, but is badgered into having a drink and that leads to him soon having many and being fairly drunk. When they are alone Mustafa shocks the narrator by beginning to recite English poetry to him in English.

They soon become friends and he learns that Mustafa had indeed studied in England and was an extremely bright student, known fairly well as a savant, and author of technical texts on economics and other topics. Yet Mustafa remains aloof and won’t reveal much about himself, thus the narrator begins his own investigation, discovering Mustafa was not only intellectually brilliant, but well-known as a womanizer, and involved in a quite bizarre lifestyle.

The stories are disturbing and Mustafa such a figure of mystery and near magic to the narrator that he can’t even believe what he has learned and hears.

Occasionally the disturbing through occurs to me that Mustafa Sa’eed never happened, that he is in fact a lie, a phantom, a dream or a nightmare that had come to the people of that village one suffocatingly dark night, and when they opened their eyes to the sunlight he was nowhere to be seen.

Later on he tells us:

. . . Mustafa Sa’eed has, against my will, become a part of my world, a thought in my brain, a phantom that does not want to take itself off. . .

But he learns from Mustafa himself, that his grandfather knows his secret and little by little he gets most of it from his grandfather.

In many ways this reader, too, wonders if Mustafa really existed. Yet increasingly Mustafa is sort of everything the narrator isn’t, yet somehow wishes he could be. Mustafa was more brilliant, lived a life of daring and dash. The narrator is bright, but not exceptional, cold and unemotional, unmotivated, sort of just drifting along in life. Mustafa’s passion and vehemence in embracing life, the dark side and all, challenged and attract the narrator a great deal.

This is mainly the strange story of Mustafa, yet is about the narrator as well. A very dark and gripping tale.

There are larger themes as well. Mustafa reveals an attitude toward women which is quite in conflict with his time, having lived in England just after WWI. He believes women should and do have much greater control over their lives than society accepts, and, often quite contrary to their safety and well-being, he not only encourages this greater freedom, but seems to lure them toward it.

He also appears obsessed with exploring the different ways the British culture and the Arab, or at least Sudanese culture, respond to the world.

To tell more of the plot would be damaging to the reader coming to the novel for the first time. However, it is brilliantly written, gripping in the suspense, intellectually challenging, and a genuine piece of serious literature.

The novel is short, a quick read since it is so exciting that once one starts it is difficult to put it down, yet haunting and challenging at the same time.

The author, Tayeb Salih lived from 1929-2009. He was Sudanese.

I highly recommend this novel.

Bob Corbett


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Bob Corbett