Revolutionary Laughter

Egypt: Sunset on the Nile, The Brooklyn Archives

In 1999 Albert Cossery launched his final literary attack on the Egypt he left behind, an Egypt sagging under almost forty years of corruption and authoritarian rule. The Colors of Infamy (translated by Alyson Waters and published by New Directions) is the last novel by the French-Egyptian author who wrote about his birth country as an exile, philosopher and nihilist.

As the English-speaking world grapples with how to receive the Arab Spring and the newly-iconic figure of Cairo’s Tahrir Square, Cossery’s novels have garnered increasing attention. The New York Review of Books has released two new translations and New Directions published A Splendid Conspiracy, also translated by Alyson Waters. Beyond Cossery’s stylish ironies, we glimpse a country seething in poverty and malfeasance and, like the concrete buildings his narratives are usually set in, perpetually on the verge of collapse. In fact, it is seems as if only the totality of this corruption is keeping the country together, an adhesive of turpitude permeating every social fabric.

For Cossery, who died in 2008, this is a timeless Egypt, stagnating in the post-revolutionary years of the 1970s under Sadat and then Mubarak.  Each collapse, each scandal is met with the indifference of a population sunken into petty materialism. Cossery describes the Cairenes as “resolutely circumventing every obstacle, every pitfall in their path, the people, discouraged by nothing and with no particular goal in mind, continued their journey through the twists and turns of a city plagued by decrepitude, amid screeching horns, dust, potholes and waste, without showing the least sign of hostility or protest; the awareness of simply being alive seemed to obliterate any other thought.” Even the revolutionaries and intellectuals seem to wait for a Godot-like social change that never arrives, exchanging a country road at night for the cafes and hookah bars of Cairo.

Cossery (here and in almost all of his novels) uses thieves, mendicants and idlers to achieve a form of social otherness through which to examine society as a whole. The Colors of Infamy’s protagonist Ossama is a young pickpocket who, through “sartorial strategy,” passes unnoticed in the upper-class haunts of Cairo, stealing directly from bankers and ministers. Dressed like his victims, he satisfies his hunger for amusement and mischief and survives on modest thefts in a world of immodest criminality.   As he moves through (and outside) the city in search of victims, Ossama is both flâneur and itinerant philosopher, bridging the traditions of French literature and Arab custom; the duality Cossery himself attempted to straddle. Though quite the Francophile, he wrote almost exclusively about Egypt and Egyptians in French peppered with Koranic colloquialisms.

But unlike the protagonists he created, Cossery was born into the Egyptian upper class he so often maligned. He was from a wealthy Greek-Orthodox family and educated in French speaking schools. After publishing a collection of Surrealist stories in Cairo (which earned him the praise and friendship of Henry Miller), he moved to Paris where he lived the rest of his life, publishing a novel almost every decade. He was friends with Albert Camus, Lawrence Durrell and Jean Genet and, although he wrote almost exclusively about Egypt, was firmly ensconced in Left Bank culture, keeping a residence at the Hôtel La Louisiane. Like Camus and Genet, he felt a deep personal and creative affinity for the criminal classes, especially those that populated North Africa. To Cossery, these criminals formed a possible ideal, an anarchism of indolence.

It is typical of Cossery’s contrarian individualism that Ossama, a simple pickpocket, exemplifies a form of moral clarity. When he lifts a fat alligator wallet from an unsuspecting member of the high-criminal class, a corrupt real estate developer, this clarity in put into motion. Tucked inside the developer’s wallet is a letter from the brother of a government minister. It details their collusion in the faulty construction of an apartment building that collapsed, killing fifty people.

Unsure of what to do with the information, Ossama seeks advice from the paternal role models in his life. He visits his father who also lives in an unstable apartment building. Blinded by policeman’s club during a strike in the fifties, his father waits for recognition from the “revolutionary” government for his sacrifice in the cause of the nation.  His blindness, both physical and political, serves as stand-in for the Egyptian leftist worker: a generational Oedipus unable to see the failures of the 1952 Revolution. When Ossama beseeches him to move, he refuses, as if waiting indifferently for both his apartment building and Egyptian society as a whole to collapse. “We are in the hands of Allah, my son. We can do nothing against his will. If this house must collapse one day, it will do so solely as he decides. As for me, I’ve told you, I don’t want to leave this neighborhood. I will live here until the end. I don’t want to die in foreign lands.”

Horrified, Ossama flees the apartment and the impoverished district in which he was raised. He searches out his mentor, an older man named Nimr who taught him the art of the honorable pickpocket (what might today be called artisanal thievery).  When he finds him, Nimr reproaches Ossama for his appearance and methods, which diminish the risk of detection. “There is nothing more immoral than stealing without risk.” He says. “Risk is what sets us apart from bankers and their ilk.”  Nonetheless, they fall to talking about the letter and its portents. Nimr suggests they see a man he met in prison, a journalist so hounded by the government he has taken up living in his family’s mausoleum to avoid debt and repossession.  In the journalist, Cossery constructs a perfectly dimorphous character, an intellectual in awe of the magisterial complexities of tyranny and corruption and an ascetic who attacks the society that produced them with ridicule and cynicism. In the mausoleum, the three men decide to lure the corrupt real estate developer to a meeting using the letter as bait, so they can “rub shoulders” with infamy and learn something of its true nature.

Throughout the novel, language devolves into puerile absurdity, creating Beckettian scenes counterpoising sense against non-sense. In the introduction to Proud Beggars, translator Alyson Waters explains that Cossery tried to mimic the translation of Arabic into French thus creating dissonance in the dialogue, broken by idiomatic expressions and entreaties to Allah.  The result can be jarring, perhaps doubly so in English: bits of dialogue clashing with adjective laden-descriptions as we travel in and out of various heads, navigating the chaotic jumble of thoughts and impressions. At times these voices are inseparable from Cossery’s, as they decry a world of humorless authoritarianism.

It is unlikely that this novel won’t be read against the uprising in Tahrir square last year and the continuing cycles of revolutionary change that have taken hold in Egypt. It seems, at first glance, that the lambasted revolutionaries of Cossery’s novels were in fact right in predicting a great social upheaval that would sweep away the long years of authoritarian rule, but if Cossery’s novels are prescient of anything, it is their interest in social outcasts and disaffected youth as true revolutionary subjects. Cossery did not yearn for an upheaval of the masses but instead the “revolutionary laughter” of a marginalized few. His characters seek an outside knowledge, a way of standing apart from the teeming downtrodden crowds. In essence they seek the point of view Cossery had, born of Egypt and exiled from it. That the entire autocratic edifice finally did collapse as a result of a popular uprising would no doubt have surprised Albert Cossery as much as anyone else. That is not to say, however, that like the journalist in his mausoleum, he isn’t laughing about it, wherever he may be.