Alberto Mussa is a Brazilian of Lebanese descent and in his fourth work of fiction, The Riddle of Qaf, he has drawn on his Middle Eastern heritage and seasoned the results with a good sprinkling of Latin American Magical Realism. Mixing elements of melodrama with the conventions of love poetry, the book centres on the ancient verses of the Muallaqat, the seven poems that, by tradition, hung in the Kaaba in Mecca, Islam’s holiest place. The hero of the book is a love-smitten poet who, hearing whispers of a lost eighth Muallaqat, sets out on a journey across time and space to track it down.
The novel is elaborately structured with 28 narrative chapters corresponding to the 28 letters of the Arabic alphabet, inter-leavened with ‘excursions’ and ‘parameters’ which illuminate gaps in the tale or simply explore interesting byways, such as the origins of the Arab peoples or the development of love as a philosophical concept.
The Riddle of Qaf is crammed with allusions to classical literature and cod-scientific theories and it makes free (and unapologetic) use of myths and legends such as Aladdin, Scheherazade and Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves. It is all gloriously tongue-in-cheek and great fun – if at times a little bewildering for the inattentive reader. Against the charge of making it all up, and preferring a shaggy dog story to what actually happened, Mussa has the splendid defence of the master fabulist: ‘And do not accuse me of having been false: being false is the essence of things.’