What first provoked my curious attention when I opened João Almino’s novel, Enigmas of Spring, was that its hero was known as Majnun. “Let’s call our hero Majnun,” Almino announces in his opening chapter; it was, he explains, a nickname he’d been given by a friend, because the great passion of his life was a woman named Laila.

What? This, in a novel originally published as Enigmas da Primavera in Brazil? It is as if Almino, an eminent Brazilian novelist writing in Portuguese, assumed that everyone in Brazil knew the ancient Middle Eastern tale. However, it is highly unlikely that readers in Brazil — and Western culture in general — will know the Persian poet Nizami Ganjavi’s ‘Layla and Majnun’, or any of the other versions of the romance buried in the Middle Eastern and South Asian popular consciousness for centuries, like the Romeo and Juliet story is in the Western imagination.

Yet, in Enigmas of Spring (translated by Rhett McNeil) Almino creates an entirely believable Majnun as we know him in South Asia and — what’s of even more interest for Pakistani readers — fills several engrossing chapters with descriptions of Islam as a superior religion, including many compelling quotations from the Holy Quran.

Almino’s Majnun lives with his maternal grandparents in Brasilia. When his eyes lock with those of woman at a nightclub, her eyes transmit to his what he experiences as “a fever, a sickness, perhaps a mortal one.” She is plump, like a belly dancer in the Middle East, prompting his mind to see her as Laila and, though she is married and 15 years older than Majnun, he becomes possessed by her as his eternal beloved.

To prepare the reader for the similarities, or an absence thereof, between his Majnun and Laila and the legendary Middle Eastern couple, Almino creates absorbing situations that establish the Islamic context of his narrative, thus correcting the present-day West’s growing intolerance of Islamic culture, by giving his readers an essential history lesson.

Well aware of the stylistic nuances that give the force of originality to a narrator’s voice, Almino creates an impressively absorbing text while simultaneously insinuating the more serious intellectual context into the reader’s mind.

Interrupting the imaginative flow of a narrative with historical information can risk losing the reader’s attention, but Almino carries it off by deflecting the surface attention to images of two attractive female characters other than Laila — Suzana and Carmen — both in their early 20s, with Majnun meeting the latter when he goes to pick up the visiting Islamic scholar, Professor Rodrigo Diaz from Spain, who has come to speak at a conference at the University of Brasilia.

While driving him to the university, Majnun informs Diaz that he is writing a novella about the Alhambra in Granada, and that he intends “to include an essay on Islamic tolerance” in his story. This prompts the professor to embark on a brief history of Spain under Muslim rule, and then, at the university conference, a French professor presents a wider history of how, during the Middle Ages, one of “the birthplaces of Europe [as we know it today] was Muslim Toledo” and that Arab culture “made major contributions” in the fields of medicine, astronomy and architecture, not to forget that “Arabic numerals and algebra were both Arabic inventions.”

Majnun takes to an obsessive reading about the historical figures of the Middle East. His mind is inundated by the Arab world and the Iberian peninsula; he spends days and nights staring at the computer screen, so much so that he has the hallucination of being visited by the last of the Alhambra sultans — Boabdil — who tells him of his surrender to the Christians.

Majnun becomes so engrossed in Muslim culture that he decides to convert to Islam. While he remains possessed by Laila’s being within his soul, he becomes attached to Suzana and Carmen, as companions attracted to one another in a platonic relationship. Suzana decides to go to Madrid for a Catholic youth meeting to be attended by the Pope, so the three go to Spain together.

Majnun has two pressing reasons to leave Brasilia: he had gone to Laila’s with a handgun, intending to kill her husband and, in a brilliantly vivid scene handled by Almino like a master storyteller, we are led to believe that he has done so. Majnun’s second reason is that he has decided to convert to Islam when he is in Spain.

What develops is a riveting drama, as the three pursue their activities in Madrid and Granada, with Almino rendering each character with an eye for those complex details that appear unique to an individual and make the person come alive.

While Majnun remains obsessed with Laila, with whom he has only spent a few hours, she is more a mythical presence in his mind, both a motherly figure and an elusive beloved. The young Suzana, however, is sexually attractive, arousing Majnun’s lust, and Almino projects some fascinating, cinematically vivid scenes, between the two of them.

Just when the narrative has the reader engrossed in their drama, Almino creates situations in which Majnun is given lessons in Islam with extensive quotations from the Quran, passages that, on their own, would appear propagandist but for Almino’s placing them during pauses in the exciting action.

When in Granada, Majnun’s mental obsession with Laila and his imagining that he is alive in the last days of Moorish Spain create an existential crisis in his mind — is he Ibrahim in Sultan Baobdil’s court, is he the Brazilian youth who has killed Laila’s husband and fled abroad, in which period of history does he exist, is he actually alive? Acute dementia sets in.

He needs desperately to know who he is, whether he exists or is merely a body floating in a historically fluid space, for whom dreams pass for a knowledge of his being. One is reminded of the 17th-century Spanish play, Life is a Dream, by Pedro Calderón de la Barca. Perhaps the real truth about humans is not “I think, therefore I am”, but “I think I am, therefore uncertain if I am.”

Quite lost in his mind as to who he is, Majnun is taken back to Brazil. How Almino manipulates the plot, including Majnun visiting Laila, is a wonderfully absorbing narrative to the end, leaving the image of Majnun’s cognition of his being permanently stamped in the reader’s mind as a profoundly convincing idea of the human condition.

The columnist is a literary critic, Professor emeritus at the University of Texas and author of the novel The Murder of Aziz Khan and a collection of short fictions
Veronica and the Góngora Passion

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, April 25th, 2021

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