Albert Cossery, Proud Beggars

Everyone has their foibles, their obsessions and their needs. Peace and happiness only emerge from abstaining from the reality of civilization, but what happens when the needs come calling?

Proud Beggars is the second Cossery novel I’ve read and I went into it with high expectations based on how much I loved The Jokers. The Jokers was a story about subversives who use practical jokes to overthrow the government and arouse the ire of both the revolutionaries and the police and officials. Proud Beggars has a more complex cast of characters than The Jokers, particularly in that while the Jokers were to a man detached, the Beggars profess to the same ideology, but can never actually follow through. The result is a darker story and one that is more profoundly troubling.

The chief Beggar is Gohar, a former professor, current brothel accountant, who has renounced the world of the intelligentsia in favor of “really living,” but is also a hashish addict. The others, the clerk-cum-revolutionary and man with a hero-complex El Kordi, and poet-cum-drug-dealer and mooch from his mother Yeghen, look up to Gohar and wish to help him with his material needs and desires because the former professor has reached a point of transcendence that he is all-but incapable of taking care of himself. But Gohar doesn’t have a problem with anyone and no one has a problem with Gohar. These are the intelligentsia of the slums.

The idyllic state of poverty established for the reader is shattered when there is a brutal and, to outsiders, inexplicable murder of a young prostitute. The policemen Nour El Dine steps in to solve the murder, but in his investigation, he finds himself finding something admirable about the happiness the beggars have in their detachment–as he says at one point, the government and all its power is not something to be feared, not because they turn defiantly from its authority, but because they simply don’t recognize it. Gohar’s repeated phrase (which may invoke Camus, who Cossery knew) is that the universe isn’t absurd, it is just ruled by bastards. Nour El Dine envies the Beggars and is increasingly frustrated with his station because he is forced to hide his own “dark” secret.

Several ideological elements stand out in this novel. First, the Beggars reject the hustle-bustle society entirely, each in his own way. El Kordi works from within, Yeghen sells drugs and begs, and Gohar abandoned his lucrative post and now rhapsodizes about how the government is corrupt and he was a failure as a teacher because he taught things such as national borders that defy nature. Second, consternation is the by-product of caring too much. These are common themes in both Cossery novels I’ve read. The third, though, is the profound unimportance of life–and thus the importance of living. This is where the story took a turn toward darkness.

In my reading of The Stranger, Albert Camus made it clear that the murder of the Arab was not per-se a pardonable offense, and half the story is about Meursault’s trial and punishment. Here, where there is an even more sudden murder, much of the story is dedicated to Nour El Dine’s investigation and (spoiler) there is no resolution, because any sort of punishment would be to acknowledge the power of the state. My problem with this is that there is a sense that the death of this young woman and the pain it causes the people in her life is only problematic inasmuch as people cared for her (and for the authorities who are paid to do so). I don’t necessarily disagree with the position from a philosophical standpoint, but this is more extreme than I am willing to stand for. There is a brutality and extreme lack of empathy that is entirely paradoxical with how these Beggars try to present themselves and present those worker-bees too busy to connect with people.

One final note before I conclude, one of the things that readers of Cossery’s novels could find off putting is that while the Beggars strive for minimalism and rant about the government and what it does, they have a blind spot that they nevertheless need money for things. They want money to be a thing between people, themselves and the shopkeepers, say, but they cut out the role government play in regulating money. Or in regulating trade–they live in cities and it is unlikely that their food is brought in by farmers on a daily basis. Since Cossery wrote Proud Beggars, urban life, particularly, has only grown more complex and for all the problems of government, it plays a role facilitating that life. The underlying point that the world is run by bastards–whether capitalist, totalitarian, or other–is well taken, but what is the alternative? It is solipsistic for the characters have their detachment valorized without recognizing that their ideal is an impossibility because in every societal set-up someone will be taking it too seriously for their taste. Yes, people need to connect with one another more, but false nostalgia is insidious.

I liked Proud Beggars for all that. It is a darker and more troublesome novel than was The Jokers, but it still had its moments and Cossery is an elegant writer capable of reflection rich enough that it sometimes slips over into decadence.

I am looking forward to reading more Cossery when I get the chance, but last night I started reading Mario Vargas Llosa’s War at the End of the World, not that I really have time to read right now anyway.

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