Albert Cossery is the best dead writer I’ve discovered this year. A few of his books were published in English translation back before I was born, but this year saw the publication of two never-before-translated Cossery novels — A Splendid Conspiracy, which was translated by Alyson Waters and published by New Directions, and The Jokers, translated by Anna Moschovakis and published by New York Review Books — both of which are great fun, centering around groups of Middle Eastern pranksters determined to overthrow the oppressively mundane nature of everyday life (and/or the oppressive government) through practical jokes, entitled laziness, and constant debauchery.
It wasn’t just in his novels that Cossery supported this sort of playboy lifestyle—he truly believed that laziness wasn’t a vice, but a way of meditating, of appreciating the beauty found in world. This is even exhibited in his output. Although writing eight novels over 60 years might be an accomplishment for you, me, and Jonathan Franzen, it’s not really all that impressive for most writers of the time. Especially when titles like The Jokers clock in at fewer than 150 pages. (Although these are a tight 150 pages, filled with interweaving perspectives, a tricksy plot based on trickery, lively characters, lots of debauching, and a good deal of wit.)
That said, of the two Cossery books that came out this year, A Splendid Conspiracy is probably the better one. It’s more autobiographical: the protagonist is a very Cossery-like character who returns to Egypt from studying abroad in Paris (where, instead of getting a degree in Chemical Engineering, he spent all his time getting wasted and trolling around in whorehouses) convinced that life in this small Egyptian town will be incredibly boring. To his surprise, he winds up falling in with a group of dandy troublemakers who are under suspicion by the authorities for the disappearance of a number of wealthy men.
In many ways, The Jokers comes from a similar place, where the overbearing authorities are pitted against a group of young and hip pranksters. One of the best parts of The Jokers is the opening set-piece in which a policeman, under orders to remove all homeless people from the streets, attacks a beggar who has seated himself outside of a bank. He begins with insults, moves onto kicking, goes a bit crazy, and ends up knocking the beggar over:
Bending over the old man, he grabbed him by his turban, shaking him with savage fury in an attempt to bring him back to life. This action was both rash and irreparable: as if by magic, the beggar’s head became detached from his neck and remained stuck to the turban, which the policeman continued to brandish in the air like a bloody trophy. [. . .] What had at first appeared to be a genuine flesh-and-blood beggar was in fact only a dummy, ably made up by a skilled artist, that had been left out in this respectable neighborhood precisely in order to provoke the police. [. . .] Far from calming the crowd, this discovery incited it to an opposite extreme: people began to snigger and sneer at the unfortunate cop, who stood there stunned.
And with that little prank, we’re off, leaving the dusty, baked streets behind to find Karim — the brains behind this prank — in bed with his latest “conquest.” (Whom he calls Zouzou, because he calls all of them Zouzou.) Karim wasn’t always so a joke bombing, Egyptian Yippie — as we come to find out, he spent some time in jail for his more violent revolutionary outbursts.
This philosophical conflict — do you defeat violence and oppression through more violence or jokes? — runs throughout the book, as in this somewhat pedantic and stilted debate between a joker and a more traditional revolutionary:
“Games,” [Heykal] said, looking pensive. “You’re right to talk about that. Because we’re all playing a game, aren’t we, Taher effendi? I profoundly regret that my game has given you offense and caused you trouble. But any man has the right to express his rebellion in his own way. Mine is what it is; at least it doesn’t harm the innocent.”
“How infantile!” Taher retorted disdainfully. “I don’t doubt your intelligence, Heykal effendi, not in the least. But excuse me if I tell you that you’re just having fun while people are suffering from oppression. Fun is no way to fight. Violence must be met with violence. And forget about innocence!”
It might be due to the time when this was originally written (1964), but these political diatribes are a bit of a blindspot for Cossery, coming off in stiff, naïve terms that aren’t a tenth as interesting as his more subtle depictions of the attraction his characters have for children and childlike activities. These bits really underscore the philosophical bent of the novel, such as when Karim waxes poetic about making and flying kites, or when co-conspirator Urfy starts a private school so that he wouldn’t have to spend all his time with those hideous adults:
What Urfy admired in children was, above all, their complete lack of ambition. They were content with their daily lot; they strove for nothing but the simple joys of being alive. But for how much longer? It passed quickly — childhood and the marvelous pointlessness of youth — an undeniable truth that filled Urfy with bitterness. These children would later become men. They would join the pack of wolves; they’d abandon their intransigent love of purity and lose themselves in the anonymous crowd of murderers.
Cossery’s strength is in constructing these characters out of minor quirks (Karim always calls them Zouzou, Heykal wears the same luxurious suit every day, Urfy’s anxiety about feeling bad for his insane mother, etc.) and weaving together these viewpoints into a cohesive, compelling plot. Even amid the various missteps (e.g., not detailing what’s written on the poster that brings about the governor’s downfall), it’s clear that Cossery’s most interested in the characters — the jokers of the title — and not necessarily on the jokes themselves, which is one reason this book still resonates today. It’s a rich work, and taken in combination with A Splendid Conspiracy establishes Cossery as one of the most interesting international authors — living or dead — to be published in America this year.