Tayeb Salih, who has died aged 80, was Sudan's most illustrious literary figure, a critically acclaimed and popular writer in the Arab world. His later work was largely overshadowed by Mawsim al hijra ila al shimal (Season of Migration to the North, 1966), a slim, idiosyncratic novel that was immediately lauded and has subsequently been translated into more than 30 languages. It has spawned vast amounts of academic analysis.
It tells the story of a man who returns to his village after years of study abroad, only to discover that another man, Mustapha Sa'eed, has taken his place. A strange, elliptical work, Season of Migration to the North reads like a series of theatrical monologues which map out the distance between the rural countryside of northern Sudan and cosmopolitan London of the 1920s. Colonial and sexual conquests compete across the east-west divide in one of the most remarkable encounters of its kind. In a form of revenge for the colonial "taking" of his country, Sa'eed devotes himself to seducing English women by posing as the fulfilment of their Orientalist fantasies.
Unlike most of his contemporaries, Salih refused to settle for a simplistic denouncement of colonialism. In Salih's world, everything remains uncomfortably ambiguous. It is this ability to evade all fixed labels that accounts for the novel's longevity. Salih manages to put his finger on the root of our intertwined fates. The novel is also equally critical of parochialism and the hardships endured by women in traditional society. Edward Saïd described it as being among the six finest novels of modern Arabic literature. In 2001 it was declared the most important Arabic novel of the 20th century by the Arab Literary Academy in Damascus.
Salih was a quiet, courteous man. Respectful of tradition, yet not bound to it, he enjoyed intellectual discussion and always had time for younger writers. He played an active role in the world of letters, presiding over literary prizes and speaking at conferences throughout the region. A popular series of his collected works is widely available in Arabic and reflects a much more diverse range of writing than is obtainable in translation, spanning decades of fiction, literary criticism, travel writing and political commentary.
Born in Karmakol, near Al Debba, Salih moved to Khartoum as a young man to attend Gordon Memorial College (later Khartoum University). In 1952 he travelled to London as part of the first generation of Sudanese educated in Britain in preparation for independence, which came in 1956. Salih's encounter with the west was to mark his fiction and his life, though his depiction of village life in northern Sudan formed the centrepiece of most of his fiction. Through a rendering that is both realistic and absurdist, he transformed that humble setting into a universal stage.
Salih was to remain abroad for most of his life. He joined the BBC Arabic Service, becoming head of drama, followed by a period with the Ministry of Information in Qatar before he joined Unesco in Paris. Britain was to provide a fixed point of reference on his errant course. His life, like his work, reflected the cadences and discords of bridging the gap between east and west. He married a Scottish woman, Julia Maclean, in 1965 and settled in south-west London.
In the 1990s, in an article entitled, "Where did these people come from?", Salih voiced his disapproval of the Islamist regime in Khartoum, questioning the displacement of Sudanese culture and values in the name of Islam and "national salvation". Season of Migration to the North, which is sexually very frank and depicts the drinking and bawdy language of the villagers, was banned briefly, though it did little harm to a book that was already a classic.
In one of Salih's best-known short stories, A Handful of Dates, a young boy comes to realise that the idyllic world he lives in is ruled by tensions of which he is unaware. For the first time, he sees that life is full of choices and is obliged to face the fact that his beloved grandfather is not so innocent. It is this depiction of complicity and disgust that conscience can evoke that makes Salih a writer of truly universal proportions, and one whose work will continue to resonate through coming generations.
He is survived by his wife, Julia, and three daughters, Zainab, Sara and Samira.
• Tayeb Salih, writer, born 12 July 1928; died 18 February 2009.
Friday 20 February 2009