The Colors of Infamy – Albert Cossery

Honor is an abstract notion, invented like everything else by the dominant caste so that the poorest of the poor can boast about having a phantom good that costs no one anything.

Karamallah was most certainly the prophet of a great eccentric battle against the official agents of deceit.

Everyone with money is a thief, according to The Colors of Infamy, the question is whether that theft is sanctioned by the state. Ossama, a talented pickpocket has learned the secret to pilfering from the wealthy without arousing suspicion: look like a thief of their ilk. He dresses well and even the policemen treat him with deference as he steals the wallets from businessmen in the wealthy part of town. To an extent these earnings go toward supporting Ossama’s lifestyle, but he also uses them to support his father, a former worker who was blinded in a riot during the revolution and now believes his son has reaped the reward for his sacrifice, being promoted into the bureaucracy. Ossama lets him believe this delusion.

Ossama’s simple transactions with the wealthy are complicated when the wallet he takes has in it a letter from the corrupt minister’s brother to a developer whose cost-cutting measures led to the collapse of an apartment building with more than fifty people inside. Unsure of how to proceed, Ossama consults his mentor Nimr and Nimr’s former cell-mate, an eminent writer who now lives in a cemetery. Their conclusion is to seek confrontation.

The Colors of Infamy is Albert Cossery’s eighth and final novel, published in 1999, and the third I have read after The Jokers and Proud Beggars. All three novels are set in Cossery’s Egypt, with its sharp divide between the clean cafes and streets of the wealthy neighborhoods and the filthy slums, and share a consistent world-view. Colors strikes a tone between the irreverent comedy of The Jokers and nihilism of Proud Beggars, and offers an even clearer denunciation of the wealthy as criminal than either. The most likely explanation for this change is that Cossery’s novels, published over a period of six decades, have a general chronological framework. Thus, this one is set in the years after the revolution overthrew the dictator and so the problem is not military crackdown or inept bureaucrats, but the undue influence of money on the system. The result is that the man of infamy is the businessman not the politician.

The aspirations of his characters remain absurdist in their minimalism and all of the characters demonstrate a problematic relationship with women. Even so, Karamallah in particular amused me, with a female student attentively listening to his every word so that she could write a thesis about his philosophy, which includes the insistence that a diploma from an official institution is a ticket to slavery. Like other of Cossery’s heroes, Karamallah maintains that “the majority of humans aspired only to slavery,” whether slavery to money or family or institutions or the dream of those things.

At times Cossery can sound like a broken record as he fleshes out his characters in colorful fashion. At times in The Colors of Infamy it seemed I was reading the epitome of The Jokers, except without the humor and without the aspirations of the characters. In thinking that I was giving the slim story short shrift, particularly since there is an entirely different target of the derision in this novel. The fundamental inactivity stands in stark contrast to a world shown to be humming faster–out of happiness, according to the old worker, or a larger population, according to the thief– and, despite hope for amusement and enlightenment, there is a fatalism in Colors that disquieted me. One of the things I loved so much about The Jokers was a sense of ambition amidst the conviction of false reality. I do suspect, though, that the echoes from The Jokers are by design, as a deliberate callback to the older book in an updated setting.

In the end, Cossery’s penchant for imagery and description keeps me coming back. I may not agree with all of his philosophy, but I like the idea of walking down the sweltering street so repulsed that one cannot help but laugh and so convinced that nothing really matters that one must be happy.

In the next day or so I will also be posting a review of a collection of Thomas Mann short stories I finished last week but haven’t written yet. Up next for reading, I am going to take another crack at Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov.