Tag Archives: Albert Cossery

More Albert Cossery fiction

Nothing much happens in The House of Certain Death, first published in French in 1950as La maison de la mort certaine) by Egyptian-born French writer Albert Cossery (1913-2008). Surprisingly (or willfully!) it ends with a rabble-will-rise invocation by the tenement tenants of venal landlord Si Khalil. It is especially surprising in that before that they could not agree about anything, constantly quarreling and often cursing each other while, with good cause, fearing the building will collapse. Before the solidarity imagined for the end, the best those living there hoped was: “The house will fall on our heads, but there are a lot of us. We shan’t all be killed. Some will survive and know how to avenge the others” (Abdel Al’s articulation of their fatalism)

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Cossery mentioned reading Gorky in prison, but Gorky (along with French “naturalism”) also seems to have influenced Cossery. Or at least I don’t see the form as much influenced by indigenous Arab models… This might be because of my ignorance, but I don’t think it is.

Cossery aimed to show “limitless ugliness of life” in an Egyptian city slum and certainly succeeded in that: there’s lots of degradation and decay on view (from back in the reign of King Farouk).

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My favorite Cossery fiction available in English is his third novel, The Lazy Ones, (first published in French in 1948 as Les fainéants dans la vallée fertile) in which Serag mystifies everyone by seeking to break loose from his eternally sleeping family and fantasizing about work. Outside his family everyone he encounters wonders why he would want to work if he didn’t have to. Inside the family, repose is valued more highly than sex. The servant Hoda, whom Serag’s brothers lust after, wants Serag, who is not interested, regarding sex as a drain of his limited energy that should be devoted to leaving the house of sleepers and finding work

There is also Mimi, a painter who thinks artists must be pederasts and who longs for his former classmate of Serag’s older brother Rafik (who in turn misses the prostitute he almost married and is contemptous of Mimi, even suggesting that he isn’t a real invert).

And the father (Hafez) is trying to arrange a marriage despite his growing hernia (as large as a watermelon). The matchmaker telles people that he has diabetes. In her view only righ people could eat enough sweets to become diabetic, to that this is a selling point.

 

©2017, Stephen Murray

Also see my review of Proud Beggars. Cossery’s forebearers were Greek Orthodox, not Muslim; all eight of his novels were about Arabs.

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The most effective weapon of the weak may be parody, but like satire, some will take it literally

Born in Cairo of Lebanese and Syrian Greek Orthodox parents Albert Cossery (1913–2008) spent ten years in the Egyptian merchant marines before starting to write caustic satirical novels in French. He was discovered by Henry Miller and Albert Camus (not a common pairing!). His 1993 novel La violence et la dérision (Violence and derision) translated into English by Anna Moschovakis and published as The Jokers in the estimable New York Review Books series.

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Though the setting is not named, it is a port city, presumably in Africa, like Alexandria. Autocrats lacking in any sense of irony or any other sense of humor rule the country. The regime crushes dissent.

As a student, Karim had been an opponent of the autocracy, but has settled down to making kits and avoids any political remarks. If pressed, as when he is hauled into the police who want to eject him from his rooftop apartment the overlooks a thoroughfare, Karim praises the regime and all its functionaries to a degree that makes even the pompous officials uncomfortable.

With his friend Heykal, Karim begins a campaign of parodying the local governor with posters of such extravagant praise that they make him a laughing stock. From that success, they go on to launch a campaign to raise a public statue of the buffoon. Mockery, ridicule, satire are among the weapons of the weak, specialties of Czechs in particular, but available to Arabs, too.

Alas, one of Karim’s former comrades in opposition to the regime, the deadly serious Taher is outraged that serious revolutionaries such as himself are being blamed for the subversive campaign of excessive adulation of the nonentity governor, so even as the central government is blaming the governor for puffing himself up, Taher is bent on conventional (violent) means to combat the government.

Ultimately, the joke is on the jokers and it is unlikely that anything will improve for the governed.

Along with the campaign of out-bombasting the bombastic autocrats, there is a poignant story of the mother of a teacher who has lost her mind, and some tenderness from a friend of her son. And kite-flying. And even hints of redemptive love for a 4-F character.

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The novel is a brisk 145 pages.

John Buchan’s introduction provides an overview of Cossery’s life and works.

 

©2010,2017, Stephen O. Murray