The Jokers, Albert Cossery

“The street was packed with evening strollers enjoying the cooler air at the end of the torrid day. There were the working stiffs, upright and formal; the dignified family men flanked by wives and children; the occasional pair of young newlyweds, who clutched each other’s hands in a grotesque show of commitment. But none of the drinkers at the Globe paid any attention to this mundane procession. They weren’t there to look at humanity in all its mediocrity; they were waiting for a luxuriantly curvaceous woman to show up and arouse their desire. From time to time a metallic squeal, sharp and deafening as a siren, signaled the ambling approach of a tram. The drivers of horse carts, who were so skilled at maneuvering through traffic jams, lashed out at the indolent mob filling the street, impervious to anything but the welcome sea breeze. Heykal tried in vain to locate a single bum, a single happy-go-lucky derelict who had managed to escape the clutches of the police. Not one. Reduced to the contributing members of society–in other words, the depressed and overworked–the city’s streets were becoming strangely sinister. Wherever you went, you were surrounded by public servants. Heykal couldn’t help but remember how the beggar had responded to his invitation to come collect his monthly sum at the house. That a starving beggar would refuse to be seen as an employee: what an insult to posterity, which only recognizes those who make careers of following the rules! History’s full of these little bureaucrats who rise to high positions because of their diligence and perseverance in a life of crime. It was a painful thought: the only glorious men the human race produced were a bunch of miserable officials who cared about nothing but their own advancement and were sometimes driven to massacre thousands of their own just to hold onto their jobs and keep food on the table. And this was who was held up for the respect and admiration of the crowd!”

p.43-4

The regime never changes. Not really. Sometimes it is better, other times worse. The current governor has delusions of grandeur that demand cleaning up the city and relocating the poor and the prostitutes and the beggars to somewhere that can’t be seen, away from the strategic routes, offices, and casinos of the wealthy. The revolutionaries want the governor assassinated and the police want the revolutionaries arrested.

The Jokers think that the fundamental problem is that everyone takes each other too seriously. In fact, the only thing these friends take seriously are their jokes.

Albert Cossery was born in Cairo into a Syrian-Lebanese Greek Orthodox family, trained in a French school and spent most of his life living in Paris, but set all of his novels in Egypt. The Jokers (originally published in French as La violence et la dérision) his 1964 publication is set in a nameless Middle Eastern port city in the heat of summer. The friends Karim, Heykal, Urfy, and Omar have a deep disdain for the governor and the entire establishment for ruining what they enjoy in life as they reject the petty ambitions and material wants of the upper classes. At the same time, they shun the company of revolutionaries who are doomed to failure because, by taking the government seriously, they give it exactly what it wants (and, should the revolution topple the government, they would only become that which they sought to destroy, anyhow). So the friends decide to topple the current regime with laughter.

The Jokers is wickedly funny, pregnant with irony, and perhaps the most indulgent book I have ever read. Their plans give both the revolutionaries and the government fits and amused indifference and mocking nonchalance become heroic virtues. Much like his friend Camus and the philosophy of absurdism, Cossery rejects material gain, but takes the notion one step further to reject the idea the idea that producing anything is worthy of respect–“honest labor” is little more than participation in a system that deadens and kills victims and perpetrators alike. Freedom comes from recognizing society as an illusion, a grand ongoing joke that becomes so dangerous because everyone takes it seriously.

The story is all the more powerful for its simplicity, but Cossery’s praise of indolence can also be disconcerting, particularly, I think, to an American reader. The Protestant DNA of this country and its cult of the producer rejects men like the Jokers as layabouts profiting from the labor of others. Even most Hemingway stories, built around attending bullfights, swimming, drinking in cafes, and fishing, are couched in an interminable need to work. Not so for Cossery. Karim, for instance, makes kites, but because he derives pleasure from it rather than to fund his escapades. Cossery’s Jokers have enough to suit them and refuse to follow the harried footsteps of everyone else. At the same time, though, they do not succumb to sloth. Each of the Jokers is actually exceptionally active and engaged, just with different ambitions as the rest of the world.

One further caveat about The Jokers is also warranted. This is a story about men where adult women are faceless entities, uninteresting to the Jokers except for one exception, a woman who also happens to be one of their mothers. They are interested in younger women who Cossery describes as maintaining a degree of innocence that is lost once they don the accouterments of adulthood. From the little I have read, this is a common critique of Cossery’s work and is a reflection of his personal life. Nonetheless, I didn’t find it distracting for this story in large part because the main characters ooze so much disdain for the entire world that they don’t seem to hold any more for adult women than for adult men. The treatment of women (at least to me) was mostly notable only because the story features an instance of transformation where a young woman crosses the boundary between youth and adulthood. In some ways, the book seemed to imply a generalization that women couldn’t join in the frivolous rebellion inaugurated by the Jokers, but the manner of transformation–one that involves accepting the dress and appearance expected by the petty bureaucrats and playing their games rather than hitting a certain age–suggests that were a woman to likewise reject those trappings she might still fit in with their group. But the story is set in the Middle East and what I just offered is a contrafactual possibility, so it is a moot point, but one worth mentioning.

I loved this book and it has found its way onto my list of top novels. At just about 150 pages, it is a quick read, but funny and a complete story. I could see its indulgence rubbing some people the wrong way, but perhaps those are the people who need to laugh the most.

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