The rediscovery of Albert Cossery started after his death in 2008. Since we lost this magnificent novelist New Directions and the NYRB have translated four of his novels. Born in 1913 into an Egyptian bourgeois family, Cossery attended a French-speaking school in Egypt and developed a love for French literature early on. Years later, during a trip to the United States, a meeting with Henry Miller prompted him to publish his first book, Men God Forgot. In 1945 he settled in Paris, where he lived for the remainder of his life. The theorizer and promoter of a unique philosophy of life which emphasized a brand of laziness conducive to meditation, he only published seven more novels, practically one per decade. A cult writer in France, Cossery is one of literature’s best kept secrets.
Although he lived most of his life in France, Cossery remained exclusively interested in Egypt and the Middle East. His novels contain the smells and sounds of another great writer of Egypt, Naguib Mahfouz. His main topics were wealth and poverty, power and freedom, hedonism and activism. His cast of characters never changed: thieves and the wretched, prostitutes and madmen, nihilists and cynics, greedy businessmen and ineffectual intellectuals. He’s been called an anarchist, which misunderstands the activities of actual anarchists. Cossery reserved a lot of scorn for the powerful and wicked of this world, but his fiction is one of resignation not contestation. He riled against corrupt politicians and power-hungry dictators, but he would have deplored the efforts of revolutionaries to oust them. Cossery was a sceptic who didn’t believe in the moral or social improvement of mankind. The world is what it is, with its timeless stupidity and inequality, and everything one can do is sit back and enjoy the gross spectacle.
Cossery was a political fabulist, in the sense of Leonardo Sciascia and José Saramago. But if Seeing showed Saramago’s belief in the power of people to defeat the lies of their rulers, and if Equal Danger reiterates that the only solution in a corrupt world is to hold fast to one’s convictions, Cossery’s novels declare that the world is an unredeemable cesspool. Two novels illustrate this well: The Jokers and Une Ambition dans le Désert. The Jokers follows a group of hedonistic pranksters who concoct a plan to ridicule a regime and get away with it. Basically they print and disseminate posters over the city praising the government; but these posters are so sycophantic, so servile and groveling in their intention to please the powerful, that the rulers feel embarrassed by them and become the laughing stock of the populace, which believes the posters were created by the government itself. The original title is La Violence et la Derision, which means Violence and Derision, the two ways of fighting totalitarianism. These pranksters, unlike the terrorists of the novel, don’t act for any purposes other than to amuse themselves. Dictatorships will always exist and those who topple them are no less eager to have power for themselves – that is the grim message of the novel; at best one can have some fun with them, but thinking about upsetting the natural order is fruitless. Human nature is what it is.
Une Ambition dans le Désert, still unavailable in English, is an even more fierce attack on the good intentions of revolutionaries. In Dofa, a fictional emirate in a Middle Eastern region rich in gold, bombs are exploding. It seems a revolutionary group has appeared in order to overthrow the regime. I’m not spoiling a lot of the story by revealing that the revolution is an invention of the prime-minister, Ben Kadem, in order to rise the profile of his poor country abroad. Upset that of all the emirates in the region, his is the only one that doesn’t have oil, condemning his country to poverty, he tries to ignite a revolution that will swallow the region just so he can stop it and attract the attention of the world upon him.
The novel opens with Samantar, a typical Cossery protagonist, young, handsome, a cynic interested only in the material and sensual world, being interrupted in his lovemaking with a fifteen-year-old girl as another bomb explodes. He’s the first one to realize that there’s something wrong with the revolutionaries and also to understand the long-term consequences of it on the country. Even before he finds out the revolution is fake he’s already against it because for him ‘there were always people in all latitudes to whom peace was repugnant, people who nurtured absurd hopes of rebellion.’
He gets the first suspicions after reading the group’s pamphlets:
The most incredible thing in this story was the fact that the attacks were claimed by a self-entitled Gulf Liberation Front, whose reputation was completely unknown and whose pamphlets, badly printed and one would say written by a handful of ignoramuses, were characterised by an obsolete revolutionary jargon and clearly denounced the arduous labour of novices too handsomely paid for that task.
Sharing his doubts with his friend, Hicham, he asks, “Have you ever seen a revolution made by illiterates?” But unlike Samantar, Hicham is supportive of the revolution:
Hicham was by nature a pacifist and was horrified of violence, but he nurtured the deepest respect for all and every radical contestation against established order, even if generator of calamities. It seemed to him that an individual who promoted terrorism in order to bend the dogma of the intangibility of regimes was, in essence, depository of the noblest human feelings.
But Hicham, Samantar fears, doesn’t see the big picture. If a revolution erupts in the area, the imperial powers controlling the oil wells around it will intervene in order to contain it. “Those sons of bitches will bring with them everything I detest: order, work and money This ideal place will be polluted forever. We live in the most civilized corner on Earth because we don’t own anything. We can live as freely as the birds in the sky; the government doesn’t even notice it: it’s so poor it doesn’t even have the means to worry itself with the lives of its citizens.”
Samantar believes the regime will use the revolution as an excuse to go after people like himself and his friends who live in the margins of society and are known opponents of the government. Samantar is determined to avoid the end of his peaceful life. He’s not so much worried about his people as his own carefree life that so far has avoided the authority’s attention.
That’s why I hesitate to call Cossery an anarchist. The genuine anarchism of its intellectual theorizers, of Peter Kropotkin and Mikhail Bakunin, has nothing to do with this egocentric contempt for society. Anarchism, like communism or socialism, is a progressive social movement that seeks to reorganize society. Regardless of its practicability or impracticability, it’s a movement of masses, not individuals, that hinges on changing the world and building one of those fabled social utopias the 20th was so prolific in dreaming about. Samantar’s utopia is actually conservative, as seen in his love for poverty, the ideal status to him. The idea of poverty as the best form of life surely owes more to Christianity than anarchism. But more damning is his scorn for those who wish to reform the world. Like the poet Ricardo Reis, Samantar believes that "Wise is he who is satisfied with the spectacle of the world." That this spectacle is horrible doesn’t bother him, it just adds more amusement. Samantar considers himself an enlightened who has attained a great truth about the way the world works. His friend Shaat, recently released from prison and deeply involved in the terrorist plot, lays out the substance of this truth: “At best, the brutal excesses of these people constituted a highly instructive spectacle which made him comforted in his universal contempt.” Shaat has been hired to build bombs and has accepted it, not out of convictions but because he’s bored and needs a distraction. There’s no indication that he truly believes in the cause. “He remained convinced of the fundamental stupidity of the world and didn’t feel any will to reform it.” His one complaint to Higazi, his boss, is that the revolution hasn’t attracted women. “But what about women? My dear Higazi, a revolution without women can only attract a strict clientele, that of pederasts. We need to recruit some beautiful girls, don’t you think?” Even when he’s taking part in a revolution, his prime concern is pleasure.
But even though Samantar and Shaat smart enough to see the underlying truth about the world, they are not completely free. In Cossery’s novels absolute freedom is achieved only by madmen. In this book Tareq, the local fool, is the only one who can lambast the government with impunity, earning Samantar’s admiration:
The acuity of his vision – the pinnacle of madness – placed him in the frontline of revolutionaries, but no one minded the pernicious germs he sowed in his path; authorities could do nothing against the sarcasms of an idiot, recognised as such by a whole population. At the smallest opportunity, Tareq took advantage of that governmental generosity, resulting from the fact of their fearing ridicule, and used and abused all liberties, as if he were a free radio broadcasting from abroad.
The government is ruled by Ben Kadem, the mastermind of the revolution. He can’t get over the fact that his emirate doesn’t have any oil and so was left out of the imperial power’s plans for the region. It’s not just Ben Kadem that laments the emirate’s lack of oil, but also the sadistic cops trained for torture who were never capable of putting their skills to work:
During the economic dream, some cops singled out for their sadism had been trained in the arts of torture by the instructors of the great imperialist power, in a school specialized in that area, located within that same power. Since their return, the members of that team, about half a dozen (the poverty of the emirate delayed the promotion of a higher number of sadists), waited in vain, reduced to an unemployment capable of shattering nerves. Sometimes one of them was spotted, recognizable due to something sinister and dubious which characterises henchmen, even in moments of leisure, sitting at a café table, while they consciously ripped a fly or a cockroach (…)
Ironically Ben Kadem finds out that orchestrating a revolution is had work. Noticing the lack of popular support, he accuses Higazi of being incapable of getting the revolution started: “With so many people spending their time cursing the government and you can’t mobilize them for their liberation! What do they want? Here’s a revolution falling on their laps and they show ill will in participating in it. It’s afflictive! I would have sworn that all of Dofa’s population was just waiting for an opportunity of drinking the blood of tyrants. This fight concerns them; it’s the fight of the poor. Have they all become rich?”
Higazi explains, “That’s just the problem, your Excellency! They know they’re poor, but they also know the emirate is poor and that there would be nothing to share at the end of this revolution. Therein lies the Achilles’ heel of our endeavour. It would be necessary to make them understand that our purpose is to thrown down the neighbouring regimes, which, to them, are overflowing with riches. But that would take its time for in their ignorance they can’t imagine that such a source of richness can one day fall in our hands.”
The outcome of the revolution is up to the readers to find out. I’ll finish this review by saying that Une Ambition dans le Désert is one of the best novels I read in 2012. Every time I read a novel by Cossery I think it’s his best one, that’s just how good he is. This novel echoes many ideas developed in the equally extraordinary The Jokers, particularly the pointlessness of fighting regimes with violence. “To kill a minister, what nonsense. It’s conferring an honour upon someone who has no value,” says Samantar. Cossery’s novels are not easy novels, even if there’s nothing complicated about them; but their ideas can be cruel and unsentimental and Cossery’s worldview can be deeply bleak and hopeless. Like many writers, Cossery hates the rich and the powerful. Unlike most writers, he doesn’t have any expectations about a better world. What he says and shows about the world isn’t popular, it’s not what people want to hear, and I’m not going to say I agree with him, but he’s too interesting to be ignored.
This book was read for the European Reading Challenge.