A Splendid Conspiracy by Albert Cossery (Un Complot de Saltimbanques, 1975) translated from the French by Alyson Waters (2010) New Directions (2010) 224 pp
Albert Cossery, according to the write-ups I’ve read of this book, has been called “the Voltaire of the Nile.” Egyptian by birth, he moved to France when he was around seventeen and lived there until his death, in 2008, at the age of ninety-four. Despite the long separation between Cossery and his birthplace, he set most all of his books in Egypt (and all in some Arab country). I knew nothing about the author before seeing this book, but I enjoy Voltaire enough to wonder just what someone with Voltaire’s cynicism and wit might write about Egypt in the twentieth century. So with little background, I began A Splendid Conspiracy.
When the novel begins, we meet the young Teymour, recently returned to his hometown after spending six years in Europe getting a degree. The first line is pretty perfect:
Seated at the café terrace, Teymour felt as unlucky as a flea on a bald man’s head.
Teymour despises his hometown. There is nothing to do. It is completely barren of the things he’s sustained himself with over the past several years. We learn that Teymour has a rich father who sent him to Europe to study almost on a whim:
Nevertheless, somewhat belatedly — perhaps his daily reading of the paper had made him concerned about the transformations taking place in the world — the ludicrous idea had come into his head of seeing his son get a degree; and — the height of ambition! — a degree in chemical engineering, merely because of some stock he owned in the sugar refinery that was the city’s sole industry. This request, so late in coming, would probably have been rejected by the party in question had Teymour not seen his father’s vanity a means of spending a few years abroad where, he knew from reliable sources, fascinating pleasures and lasciviousness reigned supreme.
And Teymour did engage in all forms of lasciviousness, so much that the streets of his hometown seem completely sanitized by the daytime sun. In fact, Teymour engaged in so much lasciviousness that he failed to do any real studying — he never matriculated in any subject, never went to a class, just spent the money sent to him and managed, through some miracle, to spread his education out to six years. Upon his return home, he spent the bulk of his remaining small fortune on a forged diploma, a small one that displeases his father somewhat.
“It isn’t very big,” he said. “I hope you haven’t forgotten everything you’ve learned. This piece of paper cost me a fortune.”
Teymour remained silent; he almost pitied his father. But a mad hope led him to say:
“Father, if you’d like, I can get a bigger one, but I’ll need to go back there for a few more years.”
I think from the above passages that one can see the understated humour and social cynicism of Voltaire. It’s in little bits like this one — “This romance had been going on for some minutes when suddenly the husband appeared at her side and, although not blessed with particularly good eyesight, quickly perceived the danger to which his honor was being exposed.” — that began to solidify, in my mind, Cossery’s reputation as a writer.
However, as entertained as I was by the book, I had a hard time taking in Cossery’s philosophy, particularly as it is presented in this book. Cossery, it turns out, had “elevated idleness to an art form,” according to The London Times. That’s not to say I wasn’t refreshed by the thought of spending six years in Europe on someone else’s dime, and it certainly isn’t to say that I think a degree is the noblest achievement of life — I got along fine with Teymour’s malaise, even if I myself failed long ago to take his path through life. No, my problem comes a bit later, after Teymour’s attitude has had an about-face thanks to a couple of his friends. One friend in particular, Medhat, has never left his hometown, has no desire to, looks down on those who can’t find enough to do:
Medhat refused to forgive the absurdity and madness of people who learned all kinds of foreign tongues simply to grasp the meaning of the same idiotic remarks they could hear at home for free.
In the middle of “this vast universal dupery,” Medhat has taken it upon himself to enjoy life to the fullest because life, “while essentially pointless, is extremely interesting.” I’m still entertained at this point. I can even say that I follow the idea that many of the things we do in this life are pointless, part of a system we pay homage to in order to enjoy a few moments here and there (okay, I’m only that cynical when work is really busy — which it certainly has been lately). I’m enjoying this splendid book. The story and the characters grow in ways that show Cossery was a magnificent talent. It turns out that in the little hometown wealthy men are disappearing. No one knows what has happened to them, but the local police chief suspects Medhat, Teymour, and their friends. Why else wouldn’t they be working? he asks at one point. He assumes they are up to some political mischief and are planning something much larger. His paranoia is entertaining to the reader; it is also entertaining to Medhat and Teymour who do all they can to encourage the poor police chief in his beliefs. After all, this gives their pointless life some desirable color. Teymour completely engages in Medhat’s philosophy and never regrets leaving Europe again.
Besides pulling pranks agains the police chief, though, Medhat and Teymour do other things to keep themselves entertained, at the expense of several of the city’s fools. Again, no real problems from me, except that so often these pranks involved pedophilia, a topic that is often brought up and to no real derision. It’s one thing to have pedophilia in a story — it’s a real topic, a part of this world — it’s another to use it as a way of showing just how interesting (and entertaining) this life can be if we only open our eyes. The fools get just desserts; but it’s not the same for Teymour and Medhat who encourage and probably partake in the behavior. We get the definite sense that they are the real heroes in Cossery’s eyes, that their actions are above reproach because they are simply enjoying this otherwise pointless existence. It certainly rubbed me the wrong way, and it didn’t surprise me afterwards to discover that Cossery is also known as an anarchist.
The tiniest bomb that explodes somewhere should delight us, for behind the noise it makes when it explodes, even if barely audible, lies the laughter of a distant friend.
I found the characters, in the end, repulsive, and the author’s presentation of them fascinating because I feel so very much the opposite. Things happen that should never be laughed at. Cossery wrote an absolutely entertaining and compelling book that shows a different perspective. I’m not sure whether to praise its obvious skill or throw it across the room for its hideous ideas. I see that New Directions is issuing another of his books later this year. I suppose that the fact that I’m very anxious to read it gives you my answer, though it is mostly to see this author’s mind in action again.