Albert Cossery: A Splendid Conspiracy

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 (Un Complot de Saltimbanques, 1975; tr. from the French by Alyson Waters, 2010)

Review copy courtesy of New Directions.

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.

11 thoughts on “Albert Cossery: A Splendid Conspiracy

  1. Lisa Hill says:

    Well you’ve got me intrigued Trevor!

  2. Trevor says:

    I’m sure that’s a good thing, Lisa. I certainly recommend the book though I disliked it — strange!

  3. My French philosophy isn’t up to the task, but I’m sure I recognise elements of what you describe from French thought.

    I have to admit, my own view is that life it utterly pointless and yet interesting, so perhaps that part would appeal to me more. Not sure how that takes you to paedophilia though which sounds a rather repugnant element.

    Is it satirising conventional (French) values? They create a conspiracy where none exists, is that underlining the true lack of meaning?

    Oh, one last query, how long is it? I often ask that because my appetite for experiment with the potentially profoundly annoying diminishes with length…

  4. Trevor says:

    Great questions as usual, Max; always make me think harder about the book.

    First — the easiest — the book is only around 200 pages long, and the type is not overly small. I read through it quickly. Plus, the characters and the plot (much of which I didn’t get into above) are interesting and keep things moving. I don’t think you’ll find it annoying.

    As for the conspiracy, I think it plays into Cossery’s idea that authority deserves to be led on, particularly when it’s for our own amusement. The police chief sees meaning in everything, always tries to make something out of nothing. The friends don’t necessarily create the conspiracy (rich men are really disappearing around the city), they just don’t fight it when the police chief assumes it is them. And, of course, they like to egg him on a bit by whispering at the cafe tables.

    As for conventional values, Cossery is certainly against the rat race many of us participate in: education to get work to get money. A lot of life slips away in that time. I’m sympathetic in not fully reconciled to much of what he says. Most of the people in this book who are able to fully enjoy life have the money to do as much — another of my problems: they essentially live off of others. My real problem, though, is the extent to which this plays out in his main characters. They become a kind of ubermensch; because they are enlightened as to the essential meaninglessness of life, they can do with it what they like to make it more interesting, and that includes messing with the lives of others, in particular young girls.

    I don’t mind that this is presented. I certainly don’t think Cossery has any responsibility to match my values and I’m glad I read his perspective. I found it incredibly interesting, to say the least, though I also found it repugnant. Certainly, I see no contradiction there.

  5. Thanks for the thoughtful replies Trevor. Hm. I think I’ll pick this one up, but I’m not sure if I’ll like it.

    Still, one needn’t like everything and it sounds interesting.

    I do get a bit tired I have to admit of people who are essentially privately wealthy looking down on those who have to work for a living as misguided or foolish. It’s unseemly and worse it’s slightly stupid.

  6. Forgot to add, I thought of you recently when reading the third canto of Byron’s Childe Harold. It has a part where Byron speaks of how he misses his young child, separated from him by reason of the breakup of his marriage. You’re much better at picking up the power of parental emotion than I am (actually being a parent I’m sure helps).

    Anyway, the full writeup’s over at mine and may be of limited interest to you, but the quote I picked out is as follows and I thought might resonate in terms of some of the desires expressed by a father (here an absent one) for his child:

    CXVI
    To aid thy mind’s development, – to watch
    Thy dawn of little joys, – to sit and see
    Almost thy very growth, – to view thee catch
    Knowledge of objects, – wonders yet to thee!
    To hold thee lightly on a gentle knee,
    And print on thy soft cheek a parent’s kiss, -
    This, it should seem, was not reserved for me;
    Yet this was in my nature: – as it is,
    I know not what is there, yet something like to this.

  7. Trevor says:

    Thanks for the Byron passage, Max. It certainly strikes a cord (and a nerve).

    You know, before I had children myself I liked others’ children just fine. With my own, though, I recognize that I’ve developed that strange quality where I find the greatest contentment just watching one of my sons experience “dawn of little joys” and “catch knowledge of objects.” There’s something about being somewhat responsible for and complicit in someone else’s dawning experience that is hard to pin down. They have so much trust that we’re doing it correctly (at this point). As frightening as that thought can be, I certainly wouldn’t want to be in Byron’s position.

  8. EL Fay says:

    My reaction was similar to yours – I enjoyed A Splendid Conspiracy but not without some reservations. Particularly as a female reader, the behavior of the male characters to young girls is hard to stomach, as is the sexist portrayal of Salma.

    But I also think the book is more self-aware than it seems at first glance. I saw the character of Chawki as pretty ironic. He’s a loathsome buffoon whom absolutely no one respects and is constantly at the butt of everyone’s jokes. But at the same time, the similarities between him and Teymour & Co. are too obvious to have been unconscious on Cossery’s part: the laziness, the unearned wealth, the apathy, the attraction to teen girls, and so forth. I think the joke is on the alleged “heroes.” They’re all going to be Chawki in 20 years.

  9. Trevor says:

    Great insights. I see where you’re coming from, but I’m not sure I agree fully that Cossery thinks they will all be Chawki later in life. I got the distinct impression that Cossery felt his protagonists were above all that simply because they were aware of the absurdity of life and could roll with it much better than Chawki ever could. That was just my feeling though, and I’m anxious to read more Cossery to see how they feel.

Leave a Reply