The Secrets of Folder 42
by Abdelmajid Sebbata
ISBN: 978-1-913-04341-4

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Shortlisted for the 2021 International Prize for Arabic Fiction



Translated from the Arabic by RAPHAEL COHEN

“A literary who-done-it that continues to surprise until the very last page as Sebbata leaves a collage of clues in Moscow, New York, Denver and Morocco. Especially fun for the sophisticated reader of literature, Sebbata balances the tightrope between reality and fiction.”

Gretchen McCullough, author of Confessions of a Knight Errant

In this thriller-cum-jigsaw puzzle, two storylines play out across continents and true historical events as American novelist Christine McMillan and literature student Rachid Bennacer start to unravel the strange connections they find in the novel The Moroccan Jigsaw Puzzle, while school chess champion Zouhair Belkacem, shunted off to medical school in Moscow to avoid a rape charge, returns to Morocco in time for a spectacular crunch day. 


The Secrets of Folder 42 opens with the author forgetting his laptop and notebook in a taxi. What a chance!!

The protagonists then come on board via two storylines playing out across continents and true historical events.  There’s successful novelist Christine McMillan – the unrivalled pioneer of new American realism who is facing writer’s block, and her friend from college days, Brandon, a former US soldier turned literary agent who is mad about books. He declares “the most beautiful thing is the tightrope walk between reality and fiction” – echoing Sebbata’s own words that it is “the art of the novel to make reality and fiction one” – and suggests that the secret past of Christine’s father in Morocco could be the subject for her next novel. There’s Rachid Bennacer, a porter in Christine’s hotel in Morocco, who is a young PhD literature researcher studying the 1989 novel A Moroccan Jigsaw Puzzle.

The passion for thoughtful and serious reading – by the characters as well as the author – is shared to the reader, each chapter headed by a different book title and a quotation from a another literary work, the full list of books having been suggested by the illusive publisher of A Moroccan Jigsaw Puzzle. All are works that consider issues of human values and dignity, which is central to unravelling the riddles of The Secrets of Folder 42.

In the other storyline, Zouhair Belkacem, nicknamed Kasparov at school for being the up-and-coming Moroccan chess champion, is shunted off to medical school in Moscow by his wealthy lawyer mother to avoid being charged with raping their underage maid at their summer beach house. He becomes great pals with Sergei Kryachkov, who has a passion, like him, for reading, especially Mikhail Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time, a book that surfaces at crucial moments, a totem, throughout Sebbata’s thrilling novel. After becoming a hostage in the 2002 Chechen resistance fighters’ seizure of Moscow’s Dubrovka Theatre, and escaping incarceration in Siberia, Zouhair returns to Morocco after many years. It’s crunch day for everyone when in a taxi he finds a laptop and notebook.



Abdelmajid Sebbata is the author of three novels in Arabic: Khalfa jidar al-‘Ishq (Behind the Wall of Passion, 2015), Saa‘at al-Sifr 00:00 (Towards Zero 00:00, 2017) which won the 2018 Moroccan Book Award, and this novel The Secrets of Folder 42 (Al-Malaf 42 [File 42], 2020, shortlisted for the 2021 International Prize for Arabic Fiction). Born in Rabat, Morocco, in 1989, Sebbata has a Masters degree in Civil Engineering from Abdelmalek Essaadi University, Tangiers. He has written articles and translations on literary, cultural and historical subjects that have been published in print and online in Morocco and other Arab countries, and has translated into Arabic Walter Tevis’s The Queen’s Gambit and two novels by the French thriller writer Michel Bussi. This is his first book in English translation.


Raphael Cohen is a professional translator and lexicographer who studied Arabic and Hebrew at Oxford University and the University of Chicago. He has translated a growing number of novels by contemporary Arab authors including Amir Tag Elsir, George Yarak, Mohamed Salmawy, Ahlem Mosteghanemi, Eslam Mosbah, and Mona Prince, while for Banipal Books he has translated Abdallah Uld Mohamadi Bah’s Birds of Nabaa, A Mauritanian Tale and Ghayla F T Al Said’s The Madness of Despair, and translated and introduced Ahmed Morsi’s Poems of Alexandria and New York.



Some questions to start readers off

What did Sergei and Zuhair have in common apart from both being medical students at Sechenov Medical Academy in Moscow? 


What is strange about the name Alexander Gardanov, which given to Zuhair by the Russian authorities who falsely pinned him as the Bitsa Park serial killer?


What story did the late Moroccan author Mohammed Zafzaf write that seemed to involve Christine McMillan’s father?


How is American best-selling author Christine McMillan connected to the Moroccan novel The Moroccan Jigsaw Puzzle?


What famous Russian novel was found in the house of Christine McMillan’s late father when she was looking for clues about his time with the US military in Morocco?


What is the connection between a chessboard and the Bitsa Park serial killer in Moscow?


Why was Zuhair Belkacem sent to medical school in Russia by his lawyer mother?


What is the connection between The Secrets of Folder 42 and Charles Dickens’s The Mystery of Edwin Drood?


What do unfinished novels have to do with The Secrets of Folder 42?