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.

May Reading Recap

Proud Beggars – Albert Cossery
Reviewed here, Cossery’s 1955 novel celebrates the three beggars–the former professor Gohar, middling bureaucrat El-Kordi, and the drug dealer Yeghen, who he treats as a sort of intelligentsia of the slums. Much like in The Jokers (published 1964), Cossery takes a dim view of middle class society and praises the virtues of those who refuse to play the same game as the rest of society, refuse to be trapped by the obsessions that plague the rest of us. The plot of Proud Beggars is the investigation into a whorehouse murder that stuns most of the people in their little environment, but further heightens how dissimilar the beggars are from the rest of the citizens of their Egyptian slum. In the end, though, the conceit of the novel is that nobody can actually escape from his or her obsessions.

The War of the End of the World – Mario Vargas Llosa
Reviewed here, The War of the End of the World is a literary retelling of the war of Canudos in 1890s Brazil, where Antonio Consulhiero, an itinerant breacher in Bahia Province gathered an enormous following of dispossessed souls, while the new Republican state brought increasing amounts of firepower to suppress the revolt.

Home Land– Sam Lipsyte
When I was a senior in high school, one of my classmates circulated an open letter to most of the school–pre-Facebook, this meant typing up a letter, copying it, and slipping the copies into people’s lockers. I didn’t keep a copy of the letter, but the gist of it was that a certain cadre of the class would go off to fancy colleges and lead miserable lives and those who remained in town with practical careers should just ignore them and be happy. Flash forward fifteen or twenty years…Sam Lipsytes’ Home Land is a pithier and less relenting version of that letter, albeit without the satisfaction of happiness on the author’s end. “Teabag,” as the author is known, is fed up with the shallow, overly rosy updates his classmates are writing to the alumni newsletter. So he writes his own, in serial that are cynical and vicious enough toward his former classmates and former principal that the editors refuse to publish them, at least to begin with. Teabag’s world is not a happy place, but he pitches it as a cold dose of reality, grounding his classmates who continue to aspire to things the way they did back when they were kids. Home Land is dark and cynical and sadly funny.

Throne of the Crescent Moon – Saladin Ahmed
The first time I heard of this fantasy novel was Ahmed himself talking about his premise. Most fantasy novels share a setting, that of medieval Western Europe, so he set his in a Middle Eastern world; most fantasy characters are young, so his protagonist is old. The Crescent Moon Kingdoms and the enormous city Dhamsawaat are facing a crisis between the brutal Khalif and the thief, the Falcon Prince as the later schemes to overthrow the ruling family and harness the power of the ancient throne from a long-past civilization for good. Dr. Adoulla Makhslood is a ghul-hunter by trade and is looking for the source of a series of murders committed by an unusually large number of ghuls, which gets him trapped between this brewing conflict.

Perhaps because I was in need or something lighter this month, my favorite of these four books was Throne of the Crescent Moon. Others were better written or dealt with higher themes and I was sorely tempted to put Proud Beggars in the top spot, but, as I addressed in my review, there were a few parts of Cossery’s story that chafed at me in that for all it exulted in the freedom and vitality of the unattached poor, it was too flippant about the value of a human life.

Currently, I am reading Victor Serge’s The Case of Comrade Tulayev.

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.

April Reading Recap

I finished two books in April, but didn’t write a review of either of them.

Alberto Moravia, Boredom
Dino is a wealthy Italian man who lives in an artist’s flat, an artist who doesn’t paint. He loathes his mother’s society, but relies on her money for survival. He has also fallen for his model, the model and mistress of his late neighbor, a middle class man estranged from his family. He craves possession of this model, but her disinterest in money and class intrigues him and makes her impossible for him to actually get. To make matters worse, the tighter he clings to her, the more she slips away.

Moravia’s themes, boredom, desire, etc, are ones that I have enjoyed in other books, but this one didn’t do it for me. The protagonist, Dino, is a pompous, spoiled brat who rejects his mother’s villa ostensibly because he finds the money distasteful, but more because his mother’s sole obsession is the cost rather than the thing. He chafes when reminded that he lives on her donations, which she uses to control him much as he tries to control his mistress. He is more hipster than are hipsters and utterly unaware of his surroundings, petulant and obsessive as a child. There is a good chance that this is exactly what Moravia was going for, but I couldn’t stand Dino and therefore didn’t love the book.

Ernest Hemingway, Farewell to Arms

Hemingway’s novel about World War One on the Italian front sticks to the Hemingway schtick–war, courage, brave, bear-liquor, war-wound, jaundice, death, etc. It was a good both, but after other, later, novels, Farewell came across shallow, with none of the characters as fleshed out as they do in other books. I was less persuaded by the romance, less intrigued by the terse-yet-friendly masculinity. I enjoyed the story and was glad to have read the book for completion’s sake, but it was just not on par with the Sun Also Rises, For Whom the Bell Tolls, or To Have and Have Not. Farewell, for me, was more on par with The Garden of Eden, but for v. different reasons since the latter passed in spades where former fell short.

It is a challenging point of the semester as things come due and exams to mark are pile up. I am also neck-deep in dissertation writing. I am doing my best to write and read a little bit beyond that, though, since I believe it makes me a more rounded reading and person and it helps keep me sane. To that end, I am enjoying Albert Cossery’s Proud Beggars, but it is not as good as The Jokers.