Wednesday, 30 January 2013

Albert Cossery: The Color of Infamy

The Color of Infamy was the last novel Albert Cossery wrote (1999) and it was also the first novel I read by him, by sheer coincidence in 2008, the year he passed away. The death of this obscure and reserved French novelist ironically resulted in a surge of interest in him in the United States. Since 2008 five new translations have seen the light of day, thanks to NYRB and New Directions Publishing.

My first impression of Cossery was strongly positive: a playful mind that looked at the injustices and stupidity of the world through the prism of honour and irony, a sharp spirit that was sensitive to the overwhelming dangers of modernity – political corruption, unethical greed, arrivism, imperialism – but also a writer who was too intelligent to let despair turn him to misanthropy. Since then I’ve read more by him and now I do think he’s misanthropic, a bit, yes. The first time I read him I confused his revelling in the chaos of the world as gentle tolerance about mankind’s madness. Now I see more clearly that the pleasure he takes from watching the world unravel was already there.

This short novel introduces the reader to a handful of unique characters, the more important of which is Ossama, a pickpocket working in the streets of Cairo. He performs a noble, ancient profession; but like in every craft, Ossama has found a way of improving its methods. Ossama wears a fancy businessman-like suit, making himself respectable to police, who salute him on sight, obeying the impeccable logic that the police only suspect poor-looking people of being criminals. Instead of poor people, this young entrepreneur steals from rich businessman while walking freely in the opulent neighbourhoods of Cairo.

Ossama comes from a poor background and occasionally visits his blind father, a man living in the past, a man who lost his sight when a policeman hit him in the face during a protest against the monarchy. The blind man lives alone in a decrepit apartment, thinking he's a martyr of the revolution, ignorant of the sordid world outside, that Ossama, out of compassion, refrains from talking about. So the poor martyr lives believing that he sacrificed his sight for the improvement of society, not knowing about the mediocrity and conformity that run freely outside his window, and believing that when he dies the state will honour him with an official funeral. Cossery was a skeptic who didn’t belief in the 18th century ideal of social progress. Idealists in his novels exist only to be mocked or to meet disappointments. Cossery reserves his good will for the dregs of society: the prostitutes, the bohemian, the madmen, the thieves like Ossama.

It is when the young pickpocket relieves a man of his wallet that the story in effect begins. Unknowingly Ossama gets his hands on the wallet of one Atef Suleyman, a construction company manager, infamous in newspapers because one of his poorly-constructed buildings collapsed and killed fifty people under its debris. In the wallet Ossama discovers a letter that implicates the brother of a minister in the affairs of Suleyman - and Ossama spends part of the time thinking how to use this explosive discovery. It should be noted that the thief has no interest in making money out of it. Ossama is not obsessed with material possessions – like most Cossery heroes, his hedonism is more intellectual than material – but he loves public scandals; he loves disorder and to see the masses agitated. Scandals cheer him up because they help bring out the stupidity in people with more clarity, and nothing pleases him more than watching stupidity unfold.

In order to find a solution for this complicated endeavour, he meets his former teacher, the notorious Nimr, a master thief. But Nimr, anxious to exploit this discovery too, lacks the required imagination. Nimr is not like Ossama - he remains too close to the old ways of thieves; he chastises Ossama for his innovative method of dressing up like a rich man, which reduces the risk in his work. "There's nothing more immoral than stealing without risks," he claims. "It's risk that sets us apart from bankers and their imitators who practise legalised theft with the protection of the government." It's not difficult to see why this wise man reached the position of teacher.

But the well-connected Nimr introduces Ossama to Karamallah, a former journalist who's fallen in disgrace because he dared to accuse a foreign chief of state of imbecility. Causing an unpleasant international crisis, Karamallah was arrested by his country's authorities, tortured and forbidden of ever publishing anything again. When they meet this second wise man, he's living in a cemetery, inside his family's mausoleum, the only possession he still owns. Karamallah, like Ossama, loves disorder and social unrest. Like Ossama Karamallah hates the ruling class but also despises the servile working class. No, Karamallah argues, a scandal will do no good: either people, already burned with their personal problems, won't care or it'll just be suppressed by the government. The best way of having fun with the letter is calling Suleyman and having a nice chat with him in a café, so that they can discover new dimensions of infamy. The outcome is obviously hilarious.

Like every other novel I’ve read by Cossery, The Color of Infamy is written in straightforward prose: short, clear sentences, long dialogues. Cossery did not have the spirit of an experimentalist, he was more storyteller than prose stylist. The novel flows nicely thanks to the caustic humour, the unpredictable and slightly over the top, but instantly likeable, characters. Cossery wasn’t as talented as the great novelists of the 20th century, but like Saki, that great comic writer, he had a natural talent for irony and the elegant witticism, making his writings easily quotable:  

"Let it be known that honour is an abstract notion, invented as always by the caste of dominators so that the poorest of the poor can be proud of owning it. It's a ghost possession that costs nothing to someone."

"Truth has no future, whereas lying is the bearer of great hopes."

"Crime in the high spheres of society is an endeavour admitted in all the nations of the world. The people are used to it and even applaud such feats."

Although Albert Cossery is dead, his work is becoming more and more available and now is the ideal moment to discover him. He deserves to stop being one of world literature’s best kept secrets.


  1. I've been puzzling over your characterization of Cossery as "misanthropic (a bit)," and not because I don't agree with you. It's more that I think he's consciously playing a carved out role - in the way that abolitionist Wendell Phillips in the U.S. saw being an anti-slavery activist as a necessary role - of championing those whom no one would champion, and particularly in relation to power. Cossery turns power relations on their head; his characters - thieves, con-artists, drug addicts, prostitutes - are also embodiments of those whom power most dismisses. They don't have the virtue of being merely the unfortunate poor, but rather the vices of all that power hates and resents.

    Two elements I particularly liked in The Colors of Infamy: its model of fighting back against the rich and powerful, with that very clever ending in which power - while it may not be defeated - gets held in check; and Cossery's manner of transforming rage into a warm, humanistic humor summed up in one of his characters declaring (I'm paraphrasing as I don't have the book with me) that he used to want to assassinate all the bastards, but now he wants them around - because they make him laugh.

  2. This sounds really good.

    Lately I have been thinking a lot about writers who are critical regarding modernity and the current state of the world so it sounds as if Cossery's thems are on my radar.

  3. - seraillon, my contention that Cossery is a misanthrope is based on several ideas expressed in his novels: first of all the lack of belief in social progress or the power of the masses; secondly, the superior tone of his protagonists who consider themselves enlightened and look down on the poor dumb fools who serve power; thirdly, the often-repeated idea that watching the world fall apart is in itself a source of pleasure.

    Although he ridicules power, I think there's a strong difference in tone between Cossery and, say, Dario Fo and José Saramago. I think Cossery starts from the position that the world is hopeless and that this is a great truth only he possesses. Fo and Saramago are far less dogmatic and less in love with the idea they're absolutely right about the world.

    This in nothing harms my enjoyment of Cossery, however.

    - Brian, you really need to read Cossery; he's an extraordinary novelist!