A knight’s tour of a chessboard, crisscrossing through continents and time!


Gretchen McCullough reviews 



by Abdelmajid Sebbata

A knight’s tour of a chessboard,

crisscrossing through continents and time!

The Secrets of Folder 42, by Abdelmajid Sebbata, translated by Raphael Cohen, published by Banipal Books (2024), is a literary thriller which fuses collage and straightforward narration with two story lines in the United States, Morocco and the Russian capital, Moscow. Already recognized in Morocco for his literary achievements, The Zero Hour (2017) was awarded the Moroccan Book Award. Striking a fine balance between the experimental novel and a thriller and between reality and literature, I felt that the author, himself, will just keep pulling doves out of his sleeve.  Reminiscent of Luigi Pirandello’s “Six Characters in Search of an Author,” Sebbata’s novel, The Secrets of Folder 42, his third novel, was shortlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction in 2021.

While at first glance engineering might seem to have nothing to do with writing novels, this is just not the case. Trained as an engineer, Sebbata has created an unusual structure for his novel that works. With so many literary references and different types of texts (reviews, television scripts, contracts, emails, the Moroccan Penal Code and newspaper articles), a reader could get lost in this labyrinth. However, Sebbata alternates the collage with the conventional narration of a thriller to ground the reader, keeping the suspense taut. (While all of the characters tell their own stories in first person, one wonders if third might have given them more individuality.) The sophisticated reader will follow all of the literary clues in this engaging hunt for victims, perpetrators and authors whose disappearances are linked to personal and state crimes. Each chapter is the name of a novel that is linked to the theme of the chapter. For example, the author tips his hat to George Perec’s: Life: A User’s Manual, (1978). Perec’s experimental novel focuses on the intertwined lives of characters in one apartment building in Paris, through a series of crisscrossing puzzles.  

Like Perec’s novel, we are taken on a knight’s tour of a chessboard, except that the novel is not set in one building in one city, but crisscrosses through continents and time! The novel opens with a riddle: a Moroccan writer’s ruminating on his unfinished novel. Next, the file and laptop are lost in a taxi, when the writer gets caught up in the real-life drama of the driver, whose wife is about to give birth.  We are then introduced to the American writer, Christine McMillan, through a series of reviews of her novels. An eyewitness to the Columbine Massacre, the high school shooting in 1999, she catapulted to fame with her “true account” of the tragedy. Tempted by fat advances by big publishers, Christine has signed a contract to produce a novel a year. Unable to churn out novels, like cookie-cutters, she finds herself, cornered, since she is a writer without an idea! Her ex-lover and agent, Brandon, a soldier who was badly wounded in the attack on U.S. forces in Beirut in 1983, suggests she search for one in Morocco when she discovers that her father served in the U.S. military there shortly after WWII. They find a few mysterious photos from her father’s past hidden in the novel, A Hero of our Time, by Mikhail Lermontov, in her father’s bookshelf. Lermontov’s novel published in 1840, details the adventures of a self-destructive Byronic hero, Pechorin, which is a hint about her father’s character.

In a second story line, Zouhair Belkacem, a spoiled Moroccan boy has been sent to the family beach house in Harhoura, five kilometers from Rabat, to study for his high school certificate, the Moroccan Baccalaureate. A chess champion, he has somehow lost his way because his ambitious parents are more focused on their careers. His mother is a prominent lawyer who works for the rights of domestic workers, while his father is a respected doctor. Left alone in the house, he is tempted by the young, attractive maid and rapes her. The façade of the respectable upper-class family is exposed: the mother is corrupt, the father is adulterous and the boy has no moral compass. The maid who vowed to go to the police suddenly disappears, while Zouhair disappears as well, but to medical school in Moscow. While there, he becomes enchanted with Russian literature and a beautiful Russian girl who promises him Lermontov’s novel, A Hero of Our Time if he wins a chess tournament at Bitsa Park in Moscow. The novel echoes Zouhair’s experience since he, like the hero, Pechorin, has seen women as pawns in a game. Yet Zouhair falls for Olga, like Pechorin falls for Vera. Zouhair wins over Olga, but as fate would have it, they go to the Dubrovka Theater together on the exact day in October 2002 that Chechen terrorists took the entire audience hostage, all 850 people.

One theme of the novel is the erasure of history by the state in accidents, where they bear responsibility. For example, Russian security forces used a poisonous gas in the Dubrovka theater in their standoff with the Chechen terrorists. But in doing so, they killed 172 of the hostages. Unclear about what the gas was since security kept this a secret, medical teams were at a loss to treat patients.  Another example of a cover-up is the Kursk Nuclear Submarine Accident in 2000. After four days, the Russian navy failed to rescue the 117 crew members. Instead of asking for the help of other countries, officials spun a false narrative.  Similarly, thousands of Moroccans were poisoned by table oil in 1959, which led to the partial paralysis of over ten thousand people. Since the poisoned oil originated from an American military base, this seems to point to the culpability of the U.S. military. The American administration felt that response to the disaster would be an admission of culpability.    

State bureaucracies can also erase the identity of individuals, as easily as they can erase unpleasant facts.  For example, in the novel, for whatever reason, the Moroccan Embassy denies that any of its citizens were present at the Dubrovka theater on the day of the massacre in 2002. Russian state security finds it convenient that no one knows about the young Moroccan man in the hospital, recovering from the effects of the mysterious gas.  Zouhair is taken, interrogated and given a new identity — an unsavory one.

The name of the author of The Moroccan Jigsaw Puzzle is also a riddle. Christine thinks if she can find the author of Moroccan Jigsaw, this will be the key to understanding her father’s shadowy past in Morocco. Did the author know her father? But the trail grows cold. The publisher never met the author of The Moroccan Jigsaw Puzzle.  Is the author “Rafiq Khalidi" or "Khalid Rafiqi”? In Arabic, Rafiq means “comrade” and Khaled means “eternal”.  Was the Author, a Comrade Eternal or an Eternal Comrade? Raphael Cohen’s English translation feels idiomatic and is highly readable — a tricky balancing act from the Arabic, which also enhances the pleasure of reading this who-done-it.

The author leaves us with one last unsolved puzzle, like a final wink.  


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Gretchen McCullough

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Published Date - 28/05/2024