Last year I reviewed Albert Cossery’s 1975 novel A Splendid Conspiracy (my review here). It was one of the Cossery books that sparked a bit of a Cossery rival (at least, among the blogs I follow, if not among the general public). It was published by New Directions at about the same time NYRB Classics published Cossery’s The Jokers (which I have but have not read). This season, both publishing houses are at it again, with NYRB Classics publishing Proud Beggars and New Directions publishing Cossery’s final novel, The Colors of Infamy (Les couleurs de l’infamie, 2000; tr. from the French by Alyson Waters, 2011).
When I read A Splendid Conspiracy, I was thrilled by his fantastic talent as a writer, but I had a bad taste in my mouth due to Cossery’s “elevation of idleness to an art form” (that’s from The London Times), particularly as that idleness, in order to thrive, seemed to depend chiefly on taking advantage of others, often women. It was funny, and certainly a lot of it was tongue in cheek, but I didn’t feel good joining in on the mirth. Despite my initial feelings toward A Splendid Conspiracy, The Colors of Infamy has convinced me to keep reading Cossery. This little book was fabulous.
Written 25 years later, when Cossery was almost 90 years old, The Colors of Infamy had many of the same ideas floating around that I found in A Splendid Conspiracy — anti-materialism, anti-capitalism, subversion of authority, a deliberate refusal to become another cog in a wheel — but I found the presentation of these ideas much more palatable. For one thing, the central characters, as similar in some ways as they are to Teymour in A Splendid Conspiracy, have some kind of awareness that stretches beyond their self-satisfaction. As before, they feed off of the corrupt system and find their joy in observing the ridiculousness of it all, finding male camaraderie. However, the men in The Colors of Infamy are not held above reproach, which I felt was the case in the earlier novel. Consequently, I was able to enjoy the incredible wit and irony without flinching.
Like most of Cossery’s novels, this one is set in Cairo. As we begin, in fact, our central character, Ossama, is observing, with fascination (and a bit of gusto), the crowd around Tahrir Square, moving around in a strange state.
Resolutely circumventing every obstacle, every pitfall in their path, the people, discouraged by nothing and with no particular goal in mind, continued their journeys through the twists and turns of a city plagued by decrepitude, amid screeching horns, dust, potholes and waste, without showing the least sign of hostility or protest; the awareness of simply being alive seemed to obliterate any other thought. Every now and then the voices of the muezzins at the mosque entrances could be heard emanating from loudspeakers, like a murmuring from the beyond.
Ossama is 23 years old, and, “More than anything, Ossama enjoyed contemplating the chaos.” He grew up incredibly poor. Unfortunately, he had a relatively healthy body with no wounds or malformations, so he could never compete properly with other beggars. One day, as he’s waiting to throw himself under a cart large enough to ensure a quick death, he meets Nimr, the master thief. Nimr is impressed with Ossama and takes him under his wing, training him in the art of theft. At 23, he is excelling at his craft. Here is how Cossery introduces him:
Ossama was a thief; not a legitimate thief, such as a minister, banker, wheeler-dealer, speculator, or real estate developer; he was a modest thief with a variable income, but one whose activities — no doubt because their return was limited — have, always and everywhere, been considered an affront to the moral rules by which the affluent live.
But Ossama has found out a way perform his craft with minimal risk. He has “instinctively grasped the flaw of a society based on appearance.” When we meet him, he is dressed very well because “by dressing with the same elegance as the licensed robbers of the people, he could elude the mistrustful gaze of a police force that found every impoverished-looking individual automatically suspect.” One evening he is at a nice party and he hones in on one particular large guest. Expertly, he gets the man’s crocodile wallet and a letter. As it turns out, the letter is evidence of bribery and corruption in the ministry, and now Ossama just needs to figure out what to do with it.
It’s an interesting dilemma. On the one hand, Ossama (to be a proper Cossery protagonist) isn’t particularly interested in the money he could earn. Furthermore, he understands, with the help of some trusted friends — Nimr and Karamallah, a man who lives in his family mausoleum — that this sort of corruption is expected and forgiven. It’s not like he can actually start a revolution, if such a thing were desirable. No, the real predicament is how he can use the letter to get the best entertainment, which is interrogating and witnessing the absurdities of the system first-hand.
It’s a funny story, full of that wit that has given Cossery the title “the Voltaire of the Nile.” However, in the middle of the comedy there’s a bit of seriousness. Before Ossama has even nicked the fat man’s wallet he is found by Safira, a 17-year-old prostitute who has fallen in love with him. She finds him honorable and considers him a thief like Robin Hood. While he’s had sex with her, and was surprised by how little she charged him, he is not attracted to her and finds her a threat to his trade. Still, as badly as he treats her, a bit of compassion prevents him from being truly cruel, much to his chagrin:
In truth, his compassion for the girl prevented him from viewing her through his usual prism of ridicule and condemned him to seeing a reality whose tragic aspect he normally actively denied.
This was the sort of awareness that I felt A Splendid Conspiracy lacked. I’m still not convinced that Cossery’s ideal world could ever exist, or that it would be all that it’s cracked up to be if we managed it, just as he’s not convinced business can exist without “corrupt networks,” but at least in this novel there was, for me, a bit more heart behind the ideas. Furthermore, it seemed to leave some of the ideas open-ended, giving room for thought. As Ossama, Nimr, and Karamallah, figure out how to best handle the letter, the discussions they have make this a novel of ideas and not a polemic.
Finally, as a piece of entertainment — as someone who advocates not taking life too seriously, Cossery wants us to enjoy his book — it is wonderful. With the relative absence of derision toward the females (which really prompted me to take A Splendid Conspiracy too seriously for its good), I was able to sit back and drift pleasantly along with the prose. In fact, though I said above this is a novel of ideas, the ideas are light and presented mostly for our amusement — which perhaps makes them all the more poignant.