Saturday, 30 March 2013

Albert Cossery: The Jokers

In 1964 Albert Cossery, a Cairo-born French novelist, published The Jokers, his fourth novel. Cossery, who practised a type of contemplative idleness and lived most of his life unemployed, wasn’t a very prolific writer, he wrote one novel per decade. Spending the mornings in his hotel room and only leaving to the esplanade after the job centres closed, he lived his intellectual live in the Parisian cafés. Publicity and fame did not interest him, and outside a small circle of friends and admirers in France – his acquaintances included Albert Camus, Henry Miller and Lawrence Durrell – he was all but unknown when he passed away in 2008, the same year I discovered him. I’ve been reading ever since, idly reading through his oeuvre. One of my favourite novels by him was The Jokers, translated into English in 2010 by Anna Moschovakis.

The fifty years that separate the publication of The Jokers and our era haven’t reduced either the charm of its wit or the power of the corrosive irony that runs through its pages, an irony directed at the political, social and economical institutions that regulate freedom and hinder human development. In all his books Cossery has a bone to pick with authority, order and the ruling classes. The satire of this quasi-political thriller is no exception.

In an unnamed Middle Eastern city, the governor has declared war on beggars, “that peaceful but so deep-rooted race that no conquer before him has managed to exterminate.” In this city the “police persecuted sloth and indolence, considering them crimes against the nation.” As the novel opens a policeman has just detected a beggar. The matter requires urgency because the felon is sitting before a building that has a “bank and a jewellery, or, in other words, two aspects of a universal metaphysics demanding immediate protection against the rabble.” As the policeman charges against the beggar, his head rolls down the ground, attracting a crowd that starts threatening the figure of authority for his brutal methods of repression. The policeman, seeing his illusory authority disappear faster than a drop of water under the desert’s scorching sun, inspects the beggar’s body and discovers that it’s in fact a doll. The crowd’s anger turns to mockery and the policeman’s sense of importance, at least for that afternoon, is shattered.

The mastermind behind this harmless act of rebellion against authority is the young kite-builder Karim. Karim is an easy-going hedonist who belongs to an underground group that opposes the government, using mockery instead of violence. The joker is new brand of enemy that the government ignores, used only to the clandestine revolutionary party composed of individuals who take themselves as seriously as it does. The group of pranksters is financed by Khaled Omar, a former criminal who discovered ways of making money in prison and became a businessman after regaining his freedom. The intellectual Heikal acts as the leader and also as its theoretician; his philosophy can be thus summed up: “the permanent spectacle of men’s stupid madness delighted him; he felt like a child at the circus, facing existence like something extremely funny.”

This means the group does not want to change society; it does not even believe that society can be changed. For them, the revolutionaries fighting the government are just as stupid, corrupt, and pointless. The resistance, with its terrorists and bomb makers, by openly opposing the powerful with violence, incurs on the crime of taking itself too seriously. To Heikal both sides are the same, thirst for power. “Above all,” declares Heikal, “it’s better not to take them seriously. That’s what they want, to be taken seriously.” Instead of staging coups, the group prints posters praising the government and plasters them all over the city’s walls. This may seem a strange idea, using praise as a political weapon, but their praise is so exaggerated, grovelling and subservient, that it becomes absurd and an embarrassment for the government. It undermines its seriousness and incites the population to deride it because of its poor taste; for in the minds of the citizens, the posters were produced by the government itself. This ingenious plan has the added effect of putting the government in a conundrum: who ever heard a government arresting someone for praising it? At the same time it can’t convince the people that the posters were not authorised by it. The people mistrust it so much they wouldn’t consider self-aggrandizement beneath its capabilities, and would they be wrong?

The disinformation campaign spreads throughout the whole city, and rumours start running around that the governor is being pressured to resign. But as the hedonists’ victory seems imminent, something happens that gives the novel’s conclusion a bittersweet taste. And more I won’t reveal. In fact there’s not a lot more to reveal. Although Cossery never fails to write entertaining novels, and he has a gift for storytelling, you can’t say a lot happens in his novels. Most of his books take place in sleazy rooms where pariah smoke, have sex or discourse on their contempt for authority and order. And that’s fine because his dialogues are hilarious and captivating.

But I also think his philosophy of laziness turned into a laziness at writing. The main idea of the novel – that humour instead of violence can bring down a corrupt government – is wonderfully tempting, but Cossery is sure of his idea that instead of spending time analysing and developing it, takes it for granted and rushes it to a precipitated conclusion that lacks strength and conviction.

Another problem is that he too often relies on types. His repertoire of characters is limited, and the same protagonist keeps showing up, the young sensuality living on the margins of society, conniving with the dregs, sexually outstanding and wise and weary beyond his years. The bureaucrats, rulers, ministers and rich men he vilifies are no less formulaic in their stupidity and cupidity. Cossery’s good fortune is that he has the ability to keep saying the same in different ways, and also that what he has to say is worth listening to. His vocal disdain for politics, power and authority, and the intelligence behind his ferocity, makes him a highly entertaining writer, and in our age when trust in politicians may have reached an historical low, I think this is the best time to read him. Cossery so often expresses what we all think about them, but so much better and funnier.

Before concluding, I must return to Albert Cossery sometimes being called an anarchist. It’s something you’ll find in most reviews of his books; and in the past I used to think it was accurate. With time I’ve been rethinking this position. I don’t think it’s this is the first time I’ve expressed my belief that the ideas espoused by Cossery’s heroes are contrary to many of basic tenets of anarchism. Anarchism teaches that society can be improved, that men can organizes themselves into higher, fairer, better social structures, that co-operation is superior to competition, and that solidarity is essential to progress, that evil is wicked and that justice is essential. Cossery and his heroes laugh at all this. I think Cossery’s hatred for power and authority gets him mixed up with the anarchists, and no one bothers to notice the gradations. Cossery’s characters are, in a few words, selfish sceptics who believe the world’s confusion, disorganisation and injustice are alright; nihilistic hedonists who seek endless source in the stupidity of Mankind. If corruption and tyranny didn’t exist, they’d have to invent them to deride them. With so many egocentric characters, it’s no wonder human relationships are scarce in The Jokers. The group only exists to destabilize the government, no other unifying theory or purpose exists, no manifesto. They have no family, although Heikal has a servant. Love affairs are transient matters that last only a night. There is a fourth member in the group, the teacher Urfi, responsible for writing the texts that accompany the posters. He’s the closest thing to a member of the working class in the novel. Ironically he feels distant from the group. “Unlike Heikal, he sometimes tried to find in human institutions an appearance of seriousness or justice”. Urfi is the traditional revolutionary, an idealist who suffers because Mankind keeps disappointing him. He’s also the most sympathetic character in the novel, grieving over the irreversible mental disease destroying his mother’s sanity. As problematic to Cossery’s identification with anarchism as the protagonists’ sceptical selfishness may be, though, the real problem is his strange worship of poverty. For Cossery’s hedonists, who ironically tend to be well-off most of the time, the best people are the poor. Their virtues are endless, and they’re the happiest and freest people on Earth because they have no riches, no possessions. I’m pretty certain I never came across this in my Bakunin and Kropotkin. Intellectually speaking, the praise of poverty as virtuous is a worldview as ancient as Diogenes’ Cynicism, which I think is closer to his philosophy. For me these views aren’t troubling, but if we’re to continue to pigeonhole Cossery in existing philosophies and ways of living, I think we should do him the justice of being more accurate about it.

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