You Can’t Go Home Again

1 Mar

Not to pick on her, but I’m going to go ahead and argue with Kathleen’s interpretation of the novel as “seeking to go beyond an understanding of a country in a post-colonial context.”  In fact, I believe the novel realizes that one can never do so–that the country has been and will continue to be irrevocably changed by its encounter with colonial forces.  For Salih, the question seems to be much less “how can we create our unique identity separate from our colonial past,” and much more “how do with deal with the situation of post-colonialism?”  (And, furthermore, as we have said, is the era of colonialism in Sudan actually over?  What about neo-colonial forces?)

On pages 82-83, the narrator and his close friend Mahjoub discuss their positions in the running of the country: Mahjoub is a farmer with a middle school education, who has never left the country, but who is very influential on the village council, while the narrator has been to Oxford to study poetry and now has a job as a minister of education.  The narrator says to Mahjoub, “It is you who have succeeded, not I…because you influence actual life in the country.  We civil servants, though, are of no consequence.  People like you are the legal heirs of authority; you are the sinews of life, you’re the salt of the earth” (82).  Furthermore, on the next page, Mahjoub tells the narrator that “The world hasn’t changed as much as you think”–despite such material changes as the water pumps, sending their daughters to school, drinking whiskey, listening to the radio–things aren’t that different.  One can easily read this quotation, along with Sa’eed’s apparent admiration for the narrator’s traditionalist grandfather, and along with Mustafa’s urge to the narrator to not expose his sons to “wanderlust,” as saying that the book argues for staying in one place, for sticking with traditional ways in relative isolation.

Yet, in the same scene, the narrator argues with Mahjoub, saying, “But the world’s changed…These are things that no longer fit in with our life in this age” (83).  In the end, the narrator is right–Hosna will not go along with the traditional role into which Mahjoub and the other village men attempt to fit her–she kills her husband and herself.  Whether or not the village men see it, the “germ of destruction” has begun to work on their village, and its effects will be irrevocable.  Salih seems to argue that the country cannot close its eyes to the changes happening within it due to colonialism and its linger effects post-independence–even the smallest village will be affected, not just by the technological changes colonization has brought, but by the  ideas that spread like a germ.  And Sa’eed appears to support the spread of some of those ideas as having the potential to bring positive change–for example, for the women in the village.

Sa’eed does seem to view the village’s collective as a better way to bring about change and improvements in the country than its new government, with its Ministry of Education building built with Italian marble.  His narrator praises the very real improvements the organization has brought for the village, including the caravan that now brings them supplies, cutting out the middle men and lowering prices.  Salih argues that the current government is simply a repetition of the colonial structure of oppression of the people, just with different figures standing in the old colonial places, and that the country should be governed more by local people like Mahjoub, who know their people and what they need and who will actually work to improve their lot.  But those people, too, must learn to change, both materially and ideologically.  Salih seems to argue, therefore, that the country, now that it is independent, has an opportunity to work with and learn from its colonial past, which can never be erased.

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