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.”
Among their amazing discoveries is a mystery with criminal overtones: rich businessmen have been disappearing from the city without a trace. The local police chief, Hillali, is certain that Teymour and his friends are behind the disappearances as part of a larger political conspiracy, an act of revolutionary terrorism, despite his informant’s assurances that their “conspiracy” consists of no more than seducing a pair of well-heeled schoolgirls and, while they’re at it, bamboozling a rich landlord. But Hillali, though “an upright man with an extremely generous heart” (a rarity among Cossery’s cops), cannot fathom the subversive truth: these young revolutionaries don’t care enough about the government to oppose it. Like Dylan’s Mr. Jones, he knows something is happening but has no clue what it is.
Ultimately, it is not Chief Hillali who solves the disappearances but Medhat, and he can’t be bothered to divulge the details. Instead, thrilled at this small reduction in the population of fat cats, he contents himself with explaining to Teymour that “we should not look down on those who are taking the initiative to begin the slaughter with their own meager means. The tiniest bomb that explodes somewhere should delight us, for behind the noise it makes when it explodes, even if barely audible, lies the laughter of a distant friend.”
The pleasure Medhat takes in observing the “sordid appetites” and “idiocies” of his fellow citizens bespeaks a kind of schadenfreude that affects many of Cossery’s heroes. Their rebuff of society’s expectations, whatever the personal cost, is not defeatism but a resigned embrace of human grotesquery, which they seek out with a relish bordering on subversion. Even when the conspiracies are real, and not just the paranoid fantasy of a bored policeman, the tiny bombs these characters lob at clownish authority tend to be packed with mirth rather than dynamite.
Revolution by ridicule is central to The Jokers (1964), though in this case the heroes are indeed plotting to bring down the corrupt, repressive local governor, a Farouk-like buffoon with hints of Silvio Berlusconi and Hafez al-Assad (whose image, from a 1991 election poster, graces the cover of the New York Review edition). Their weapon? A campaign of such exaggerated flattery that the governor will literally be laughed out of town. Still, for the organizers, the success or failure of their campaign is secondary to the enjoyment of mounting it. “What do we care if the governor’s taken down or not?” one of them asks. “That’s no business of ours. We just want to have fun.” But the fun is double-edged. Heykal, the strategist behind the splendid conspiracy in The Jokers, is well aware that by ousting his adversary he also dampens his own life: “Each day brought more proof that in his initiatives and public speeches the governor dreamed of nothing so much as making Heykal happy by gratifying his sense of the absurd.” Later, when the plan is on the verge of succeeding and the governor’s downfall virtually certain, Heykal sadly muses that “the next governor will bore us to death.”
What ultimately brings the plot to ruin is not luck or skill but another character’s lack of humor: at the last moment, the overly zealous revolutionary Taher pre-empts the pranksters’ coup de grâce by assassinating their target with an actual bomb. “The picture on the front page showed the governor’s car ripped apart by the explosion,” Cossery writes. “Heykal read no further. He crumpled the paper and threw it on the floor. He was appalled by the gratuitous violence. The governor had all but disappeared from the scene, and Taher had gone and made him a martyr.”
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The Jokers purports to be a comedy—reviewers in the 1960s wrote of its “hilarious effect” and “caustic satire”—but much of it brings to mind Graham Greene’s political thrillers, or the darkly ironic, politically and morally ambiguous films made by Luis Buñuel or Alain Resnais around the same time. The ambiguity is even more pronounced in Cossery’s prior novel, Proud Beggars (1955). According to Cossery, the title comes from an Arabic expression roughly equivalent to “beggars can be choosers”—in other words, a beggar would rather spurn a meager handout than compromise his self-respect. The proud beggars in this story are Gohar, who has abandoned a professorship to live on the fringe as a street philosopher and bookkeeper in a brothel; Gohar’s protégé, the poet and drug dealer Yeghen, who tries to live his life as if it were itself a poem; and El Kordi, a revolutionary sympathizer chafing against his dead-end job as a government clerk.
The novel begins when Gohar, suffering narcotic withdrawal, senselessly murders a teenage prostitute. The murder, however, is generally brushed aside as merely a casual accident, and no one—neither Gohar nor his friends—seems unduly troubled by it. The only one giving it any thought is the police inspector Nour El Dine, though he is concerned less with the crime than with the implicit challenge. “Nour El Dine was more and more convinced—perhaps because he so heartily wished it—that the murderer had to be a man from another sphere, an intellectual with advanced ideas, something like an anarchist. The prospect of pitting himself against such a murderer gave him renewed vitality.” As with Chief Hillali in A Splendid Conspiracy, the meaning of Nour El Dine’s life depends on his creating a larger-than-life adversary to hunt.
In this case, the manhunt ends up mainly affecting the hunter. His head turned around by the “pride he was discovering everywhere around him, even among the most destitute people,” Nour El Dine—a closet gay who is frequently humiliated by the disdainful young men he courts—ultimately abandons the chase: having painstakingly identified Gohar as the murderer, he no longer wishes to arrest him. Instead, he resigns from the police force and goes off to live as a beggar, free to regain his self-respect and satisfy his “immense need for peace.”
What to make of all this: the cops who see the light and choose mendicancy over the compromises of their exalted status; the functionaries who walk out on their pointless jobs; the materially impoverished poets-of-life who are rich in joie de vivre? Reading of his heroes’ delight in their poverty, I couldn’t help thinking of the obtuse television producer in Terry Gilliam’s The Fisher King, fatuously pumping a sitcom about the happy-go-lucky homeless. How many of those have you met lately?
The Colors of Infamy (1999), the last and slightest of Cossery’s books, is also the least satisfying of the four under review, for precisely this reason. Ossama, a pickpocket whose predilection for fine clothes allows him to circulate among the wealthy and relieve them of their wallets, suddenly finds himself in possession of a compromising letter from a powerful slumlord, revealing the details of kickbacks to a government official that have led to the fatal collapse of an apartment building. Unsure how to handle this bombshell, Ossama seeks out the wise Karamallah, “the prophet of a great eccentric battle against the official agents of deceit” (the author’s self-image, perhaps?). After due deliberation, Karamallah, Ossama and an ex-con named Nimr arrange a meeting with the slumlord, divulge that they have the letter, and leverage it to extort lifelong protection from the man. “Nimr burst out laughing,” Cossery writes, “and his laughter was like no other—a revolutionary laughter, the laughter of someone who has just discovered the ignoble and grotesque face of the powerful of this world.” These lines conclude the book; for all intents and purposes they are Cossery’s last published words, and could stand as the epigraph for any of these novels.
The Color of Infamy rehashes the same themes, but unlike Cossery’s other books it seems halfhearted, the work of a man clearly winding down. Cossery defended the constant replay of his themes as proof of fidelity to his vision, and certainly some of our greatest authors, including Balzac, Proust, Joyce and Musil, similarly spent their creative lives brushing what was essentially a single huge canvas. But their palettes were far, far richer.
More disturbing is the unmistakable tint of misogyny running throughout these novels, an old-school male chauvinism that neither Cossery’s times nor his culture can excuse. Phrases such as “Gohar was grateful to women because of the enormous sum of stupidity that they brought to human relations,” or “secret and insidious, like a sensual woman’s sighs at the moment of ecstasy,” or “the words of a woman will remain empty of meaning for all eternity” abound, as do traces of the author’s predilection for barely pubescent girls, before womanhood invariably brings out their “thoughtless and vindictive nature.” James Buchan reports that Cossery was briefly married to the French actress Monique Chaumette but that the union failed. Indeed.
But perhaps most of all, there is an underlying naïveté about Cossery’s cafe pundit pronouncements, about his unwavering division between joyous scamps and pompous scoundrels that lends all four of these novels a veneer of superficiality. I would like nothing better than to believe tyranny can be toppled by ridicule, that all of life’s ills can be cured by living joyously, but it’s not so simple: if anything, the real scoundrels of the world seem to revel in the public advertisement of their abuses, while positive thinking enjoys ever diminishing power. Cossery is no political analyst, and fiction’s prerogative has always been to show the world not as it is but as we’d like it to be. Yet his novels, by offering few shades of gray, lack the depth that could have allowed them to be the powerfully ironic statements that some critics have taken them for. As with any message insistently hammered home, even with humor and compassion, one begins to feel imprisoned by these books, like one of Cossery’s cafe interlocutors who starts out enjoying the conversation, then finds it impossible to take his leave.