Albert Cossery’s The Jokers begins on a comically lurid note, with a slow-witted street cop looking to roust an elderly beggar from his pallet on the sidewalk. When the beggar proves unresponsive, the lawman tries to lift him. The old man’s head comes off in his hands. It soon turns out that the “beggar” is a mannequin, placed there as a trap for the forces of order—and sure enough, the dumbfounded policeman’s predicament earns the mockery of passers-by. The scene encapsulates as well as any the blend of frankness and surrealism, cruel humor and deadpan reportage, characteristic of Cossery’s small body of work.
If ever there was a writer who deserved the judgment “You’ve read one, you’ve read ‘em all,” it’s Cossery. A novelist who made a cult of laziness, he had no qualms about taking it easy when it came to literary invention—“The same idea is in all my books; I shape it differently,” he once said. The ideas got reshaped in eight volumes of fiction written over sixty years: three in the 1940s—the story collection Men God Forgot in 1941, The House of Certain Death in 1944 and the aptly titled The Lazy Ones in 1948—and then one more per decade, beginning with Proud Beggars in 1955 and ending with The Colors of Infamy in 1999. James Buchan, in his informative preface to The Jokers, remarks that Cossery’s “prose of extreme indolence concealed, as with Stevenson, a heroic industry,” but it’s hard to see how. Yet for all their reliance on similar settings, plot conceits and casts of characters, Cossery’s relatively short novels do form, when taken together, a canvas with its own patchwork coherence. Alyson Waters, who has translated two of Cossery’s books and written the introduction to a third, nicely terms his oeuvre “a sort of Egyptian comédie humaine.”
While Cossery’s fictions are often set in his native Cairo, and find their subject matter in the city’s particular mélange of ostentatious modern affluence and crushing Old World poverty (not surprisingly, as Waters notes, interest in his work has risen since last year’s Arab Spring), their underlying rejection of the pursuit of riches, respect for authority and societal norms speaks to a more universal constituency. The “Voltaire of the Nile” was cross-cultural, writing in French and living most of his life in Paris, where he died in 2008 at the age of 94.
Cossery’s heroes are usually dandies and thieves, unfettered by possessions or obligations; impoverished but aristocratic idlers who can suck the marrow of joy from the meager bones life tosses their way. They are the descendants of Baudelaire’s flâneur, of the Surrealists with their rejection of the sacrosanct work ethic, of the Situationists and their street-theater shenanigans, not to mention the peripatetic Beats or the countercultural “dropouts” of the 1960s. Henry Miller, who raised dolce far niente to an art form, praised Cossery’s writing as “rare, exotic, haunting, unique.” Whether Cossery’s merry pranksters wish merely to have a good time or, as in The Jokers, to wage an all-out campaign of raillery against the powers that be, there is one belief they all share: the only true recourse against a world governed by “scoundrels” is an utter disregard for convention, including the convention of taking anything seriously.
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Rather than being divided into haves and have-nots, Cossery’s world might better be understood as split between those who respect a given cause, be it authority, wealth or even revolution, and those who don’t give a tinker’s damn. The dichotomy marks all these novels, but finds its most deliberate exposition in A Splendid Conspiracy (1975). In it, Teymour, after living for six years in Europe (ostensibly studying engineering, but actually spending his plentiful allowance on worldly pleasures), has been summoned home by his bourgeois father, who has found him a job as a chemical engineer. Back in Egypt, he bemoans his fate, feeling “as unlucky as a flea on a bald man’s head…. Not a soul was, or ever would be, awake in this town.” But things change when Teymour reunites with his old friend Medhat, whose time is devoted to “enjoying life in all its basic and ludicrous manifestations.” Through Medhat, Teymour realizes that his hometown is no mere backwater but that “with patience and love, amazing things can be discovered.”