Interview with shortlisted author Abdelmajid Sebbata
Where were you when the shortlist was announced and what was your reaction?
I am currently studying at the King Fahd School of Translation in Tangiers, Morocco. When the shortlist was announced, I was in the lecture hall, at a class on translation from French to Arabic. I couldn’t follow the live announcement on the official page of the Prize, but a friend and classmate of mine insisted on watching it. From a distance, she made a signal with her eyes which told me that File 42 had made it to the shortlist. I then opened my mobile phone and found a flood of congratulations on social media and messages from my publisher, Mr. Haitham Fadhel. I waited another quarter of an hour until the end of the class, left quickly and called my parents, first of all. They were absolutely thrilled by the news. I wanted to celebrate with them at home in Salé, but my circumstances meant I couldn’t do that. Anyway, a lovely feeling which I can’t describe overcame me. I took my backpack and left the college, heading straight for the gorgeous seaside of Tangier, searching for the peace and tranquillity I always prefer whenever I am in a very emotional situation like this. Later, I contacted two dear friends who live in Tangiers. They share my passion for literature and we celebrated together.
File 42 has been described as “three novels in one”. Can you comment on that?
This description comes extremely close to what I planned when I was working on the novel. Immediately after I had finished writing it, I thought about adding a comment on the first page, explaining that there were several ways of reading it, following the Argentinian writer, the late Julio Cortázar, in his novel Hopscotch. But in the end, I decided not to. I preferred to leave it to the reader to join and dissect the chapters as he wishes. Indeed, a number of readers noticed that it was possible to read chapters 1 to 20 and 1a to 20a independently, each one of them being a separate novel; or to read the book straight through in the classical manner, leading the reader eventually to a third novel, as the pieces of the puzzle are very gradually brought together, finally showing a complete picture.
Do you agree with the description of File 42 as a crime thriller? Or does it, rather, belong to the “Droodian literature, which depends on solving complicated mysteries” (page 209), as one of the characters says, in a reference to Charles Dickens’s novel “The Mystery of Edwin Drood”?
I don’t deny that crime thrillers have occupied a prominent place on my reading list, ever since I was a young child. I have benefited a lot from the techniques of suspense used in such books to make the reader carry on until the final page without ever feeling bored. But despite that, I don’t agree with the classification of File 42 as a crime thriller in the classic sense of the term. I do think it is closer to being a novel in the Droodian tradition of literature, named after Charles Dickens’s book, which is based on solving complicated puzzles, while at the same time exploring serious and weighty subjects. The most important of these themes in my novel is the question of human dignity and it was the primary motivation for writing File 42.
Rasheed Benaser (one of the characters) says that writing a novel is a “fierce battle” (page 9). What have been the biggest challenges you faced while writing File 42?
The biggest challenge I faced while writing File 42 was delving into a subject which for years has been taboo. Of course, I am talking about the tragedy of the poisoned cooking oil which happened in Morocco in 1959. I don’t belong to the generation which experienced those sad events, so a huge effort was necessary to find historical accounts – there were very few of these – and testimonies of those who had suffered. I tried to be accurate, wanting to draw readers into the atmosphere of that period. To do this, I had to get every detail right about the way people lived sixty years ago. Finally, there was that natural doubt which goes with the “battle” of writing: “Will I be able to deliver the messages I want to through File 42, or not?”
Is the Moroccan researcher, Rasheed Benaser, like you?
In the final pages of the novel, after his return from Russia, Zuheir Belqasim meets Abdelmajid Sebbata and notices, from his reading of Abdelmajid’s novel manuscript, that he is very like Rasheed Benaser. I don’t deny that this is my opinion too. Rasheed has many of my physical features. As for personality, maybe Zuheir was right too when he said that one of us has influenced the other in some way. But apart from games of reality and imagination played in the novel, I do consider Rasheed to be a definite embodiment of a huge number of young Moroccans who have been gifted with great energy and talents, but these are daily crushed between the hammer of oppression and the anvil of waste.
There are references in the novel to world literature (the chapter headings are titles of different novels) and all the characters are either writing, reading, or looking for authors of books or for solutions to literary problems. What is the novel trying to say about reading and writing and their role in people’s lives?
Many of the events in the novel take place against a background of mystery and investigation, linked essentially with the world of books and literature. The reader will notice that most of the novel’s characters have faced trials and tragedies in their lives with the help of books and writing. This seems to me to be a crystal clear message, that writing – and before it, reading, of course – is the last line of defence against the misery of the world and the unexpected blows it deals us.
Tell us about the relationship between reality and imaginative fiction. Is fiction sometimes more truthful than reality? Are fictional characters more real and important than people we meet in real life?
To a great extent, this is what File 42 is based on: the risky game of revealing the fine line between reality and imagination. I have become used to questions from readers about which of the book’s events are real and which are fictional. Maybe this is what I was aiming for from the beginning, to show the power of the art of the novel to make reality and fiction one. As the Icelandic writer Jón Kalman Stefánsson said: “I write so that you will stop differentiating between the text and yourself”. Reality certainly influences fiction, but fiction is also capable of influencing reality. We only have to think of The Last Day of a Condemned Man by Victor Hugo, The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck, The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger, Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe and others. Don Quixote and Jean Valjean, Anna Karenina and Ahmed Abdeljawad, Raskolnikov, Edmond Dantès and Benno von Archimboldi, all of them are characters on paper, but they have imprinted themselves on our minds and made a deep impression in our hearts. They have affected us in a way that people made of flesh and blood cannot. This is the greatness of literature, in my view.
Which writers have influenced you as a novelist? You have translated two novels by the French writer Michel Bussi. Has he been an influence and how?
It’s funny that the answer to this question might be different if I did an interview a week ago or a few days from now. I treat each new book as a different experience which will affect me in some way. File 42 has shown how I tend to use experimentation and modern techniques of novel writing, as in the writings of Calvino, Perec, Oster, Cortázar, DeLillo and others. But this doesn’t mean that I’ve neglected classical literature, which I believe is an essential foundation – from Dostoevsky and Dumas to Hemingway and Zweig, and from Kafka and Wilde to Conan Doyle. This also applies to my interest in Arabic literature, from the poetry of Al-Mutanabbi and the Maqamat of Al-Hariri, to the novels of Mahfouz, Munif, Mina and Jaber. The list, of course, is long!
As for Michel Bussi, the experience of translating some of his novels was a very rich and useful one. He is extremely skilled at grabbing the reader’s attention and playing with him, making him imagine that he’s about to solve the plot puzzles, before surprising him with something unexpected. At the same time, he explores very important themes in his novels. For example, in Never Forget, he blends crime thriller suspense with an analysis of the relationship between the East and West, through the story of a young man of Moroccan origins living in France, who tries to establish his innocence after being accused of the crimes of rape and murder.