I became bored with reading the bits of paper. No doubt there were many more bits buried away in this room, like pieces in an arithmetical puzzle, which Mustafa Sa'eed wanted me to discover and to place side by side and so come out with a composite picture which would reflect favourably upon him. He wants to be discovered, like some historical object of value. There was no doubt of that, and I now know that it was me he had chosen for that role. It was no coincidence that he had excited my curiosity and had then told me his life story incompletely so that I myself might unearth the rest of it. It was no coincidence that he had left me a letter sealed with red wax to further sharpen my curiosity, and that he had made me guardian of his two sons so as to commit me irrevocably, and that he had left me the key to this wax museum. There was no limit to his egotism and his conceit; despite everything, he wanted history to immortalize him. But I do not have the time to proceed with this farce. I must end it before the break of dawn and the time now was after two in the morning. At the break of dawn tongues of fire will devour these lies. (154)This is the narrator speaking, looking through some writing left by Sa'eed. What is interesting to me about this passage is the centrality of the word "discover," which appears twice here. This word or one of its inflections makes four other appearances in the book, uses which guide us to how to think of its presence above.
The wife of Sa'eed's patron, a sort of mother-figure to Sa'eed, writes to the narrator of her husband: "I shall write of the splendid services Ricky rendered to Arabic culture, such as his discovery of so many rare manuscripts, the commentaries he wrote on them, and the way he supervised the printing of them" (148). The narrator also finds an old newspaper which informs him that many years ago, "The Discovery, Captain Scott's ship, has returned from the Southern Seas" (150). And elsewhere in the book, the word is used twice to suggest an interior exploration: Sa'eed says of his childhood, "Soon I discovered in my brain a wonderful ability to learn by heart, to grasp and comprehend" (22), and the narrator describes one of Sa'eed's relationships with British women: "Then she met him and discovered deep within herself dark areas that had previously been closed" (140).
It probably does not require this exhaustive accounting to note that "discovery" has a distinctively Orientalist connotation, a sort of mass delusion that the initial moment of white presence in some non-white sphere constitutes a "discovery," regardless of whether the "discovery" happened to be common knowledge or even practical knowledge among a non-white people. It is a Romantic foolishness which Sa'eed is particularly given to after his migration to England, and I think that Salih is suggesting in the long passage I quoted above that Sa'eed has largely orientalized himself into an inscrutability (fragments which portend a whole but do not create it), that even his return to the Sudan and his self-imposed solitude and exile is completely contained, contaminated by the orientalism he made such devastating use of while in England to capture the notice and inflame the desires of the English. Sa'eed is his own best Edward FitzGerald, and that fact is marvelously destabilizing for the text and for the reader—how do you begin to read him otherwise?
The way that Salih keeps the reader circling Sa'eed, and complicates this movement by the interferences of the narrator is, as one critic noted, Conradian, and it is absolutely worthy of that comparison. It is a fast book even more than it is a brief book, and its pace creates extraordinarily powerful delayed-reaction recognitions of what, precisely, are the stakes and the import of its narrative.
I actually had put Season on my queue before Salih died, but I moved it up when I read some of the tributes to him (thanks, Aaron!). I am now sort of dismayed and bewildered by the fact that he wasn't much more famous, that this book isn't considered an immovable cornerstone of contemporary world literature along with Cien Años de Soledad, Midnight's Children and Things Fall Apart. Of course, my ignorance of it is entirely cultural: it is not as if it doesn't have that valuation elsewhere, and the lifting of my ignorance does not betoken a restitution of a hidden gem to its rightful place. Read it, enjoy it, but don't call it a discovery.