In Sunday books: The quiet insurrectionist in ‘The Jokers’ and ‘A Splendid Conspiracy’
Albert Cossery, translated from the French by Anna Moschovakis
NYRB Classics: 146 pp.,$14.95 paper
A Splendid Conspiracy
Albert Cossery, translated from the French by Alyson Waters
New Directions: 216 pp., $14.95 paper
Albert Cossery, who died in 2008 at age 94, ought to be a household name. He’s that good: an elegant stylist, an unrelenting ironist, his great subject the futility of ambition “in a world where everything is false.” Born in Cairo into a Greek Orthodox family, he wrote a book of verse, now lost, at 18. He published a book of surrealist stories, praised by Henry Miller, in the 1940s and, after the Liberation, moved to Paris, where he spent the next 60 years living in the Latin Quarter, at the hôtel La Louisiane. In addition to Miller, he was also championed by Albert Camus — strange bedfellows on the face of things, although less so once we take a closer look.
Like Camus, Cossery wrote about North Africa, exploring moral questions through an absurdist filter; like Miller, he embraced the libertines. And yet, there is a strong sense of political engagement in his writing — albeit of a particular sort. For Cossery, the most profound act of rebellion is choosing not to participate. “That’s just what these tyrants want,” he writes in his 1964 novel, “The Jokers”: “for you to take them seriously. To answer violence with violence shows that you take them seriously, that you believe in their justice and their authority, and it only builds them up. But I’m cutting them down.”
“The Jokers” is one of two Cossery novels newly translated into English; the other is “A Splendid Conspiracy,” from 1975. If these books are any indication, someone should get the rest of his writing — there are seven other titles — back into print. “The Jokers” is a small masterpiece, the story of a group of pranksters who conspire to bring down the governor of the unnamed city in which they live. They do this not by direct action or revolution but rather by a subtle subversion, initiating a campaign to overpraise the official so lavishly that his credibility is destroyed. “Has anyone ever known revolutionaries to attack a government with praise?” asks a young man named Heykal, the driving force behind the plan. Later, Cossery elaborates on the peculiar challenges of this quiet insurrection: “The governor was the sort of public figure who stumps even the cleverest caricaturists. What could they do that nature hadn’t already accomplished? Short and potbellied, with stubby legs, he had a squashed nose and huge bug eyes ready to pop out of their sockets. … But in fact the governor was only trying to show that in this city of chronic sleepers he was awake.”
Here, we see the delicate tension that defines Cossery’s vision, located somewhere between ironic derision and a very real sense of sedition. For all that Heykal and his friends Karim, Khaled Omar and Urfy (a teacher popular among his students because he “inculcated them with a single principle: to know that everything grown-ups told them was false and that they should ignore it”) claim to stand outside the ordinary push-and-pull of society, they clearly have a purpose and a point of view. What sets them apart is the knowledge that even if they succeed in overthrowing the governor, it won’t make any difference; they cannot derail “the eternal fraud.” Why do it, then? As a lark, in part, a remedy for boredom, but also as an existential statement, a protest at once pointed and absurd.
Were this all there is to “The Jokers,” it would be a vivid effort, a philosophical novel in the most essential sense. Yet the true measure of Cossery’s genius is how he finds room for real emotion, even among those who might purport to disdain the feelings he describes. Heykal is a perfect case in point, at times insolent and mocking but devoted to Urfy’s mother, who suffers from dementia and regards him as a suitor of a kind. To see them together is a revelation, illustrating “that madness and its ways held nothing terrifying.” This too is a political statement, applicable not only to these characters but also to the city in which they live. For Cossery, though, it is more than that, framing madness as a vehicle of connection, perhaps the only real connection in a landscape so overwhelmingly, and stultifyingly, controlled.
Similar issues motivate “A Splendid Conspiracy,” in which Cossery also evokes the misadventures (mostly sensual) of a group of young men in a provincial city, again promoting an ethos of hedonistic mockery. If the narrative seems looser than that of “The Jokers,” this is only because there appears at first to be less at stake. Yet as “A Splendid Conspiracy” progresses, we recognize the intricacy of the book’s construction, which is, much like the city at its center, placid on the surface but roiling underneath. At the heart of the story is a series of disappearances: kidnappings, perhaps, or worse. The victims are prominent, leading the chief of police to suspect political motivations, even though the city has no history of such activities. For the young men at the story’s center — who are, of course, the leading suspects — the situation is a source of endless mirth. “The idea that the police were so off track as to think Medhat might be a political agitator capable of assassinating government dignitaries was so inane as to be farcical,” a character named Teymour reflects. “No doubt about it, [his] stay in this city promised to be full of delectable possibilities that he could never have foreseen.”
Here, as in “The Jokers,” Cossery moves between engagement and disconnection, between dissidence and a willful ennui. Unlike that earlier work, however, he turns everything upside down in the last few pages, building to an end that is so unexpected, yet so inevitable, that it changes our whole reading of the book. I don’t want to give too much away, but Cossery achieves a magnificent amorality, devastating and subversive at a level that few works of literature (or any art) ever achieve. "[T]his plague is endless,” he writes. “It would take more than those miserable assassinations. At this rate, it will take millions of years to get rid of it.” Walking with his characters through the middle of their misbegotten city, we know exactly what he means.
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