Albert Cossery: On the Revolutionary Use of Mockery
Yassin Temlali - 02/07/2008
To resume Albert Cossery in a word, “constancy” would fit him best, in terms of the constancy of this man and his work. Aged 95, he passed away in the same Parisian hotel room he lived in since 1945. He did not surrender to the Sirens of fame and kept on embodying, in an ever more mercantile literary world, the ideal of the writer-monk, who lives for his art in voluntary starkness. From his first short stories (“Men God Forgot”, 1944) to his last novel (“The colours of infamy”, published in French in 1999), his work exclusively stages the nation of Egypt. Not the one of the Pyramids, but that of the slums where tourists rarely dare venture. To paraphrase the old populist motto in order to describe his own Egypt we could say: “Only one hero, the outcast”.
Albert Cossery may not be the only Egyptian author to write in French though he is probably the only one who brought Egypt to Paris in his luggage, as with an ancient treasure you ceaselessly keep digging into. Opposite to his use of a formal style, the language of this country and its ruthless humour surfaces incessantly - “I am not French. I am a French speaking writer” he kept on saying.
Although he was a dandy of the Quartier Latin, Albert Cossery never converted himself into a Parisian writer. Like Albert Camus, his inner world alter ego, he never described his city of residence in his novels, not even its underground life, populated by Egyptian outlaws, who were certainly just as moving as the thugs of Cairo’s suburbs. He remained deeply Egyptian, as for an act of loyalty towards his country of birth. He did not complain of his exile with fake tears of nostalgia, as he shunned Paris from the start in favour of his original, unique literary universe; that of his youth in Cairo.
A philosophical bias for the edge of society
Cossery’s work has by some been considered as the French version of the works of Naguib Mahfouz. This assumption deserves further detail. Both writers share, it is true, a realism that has granted much literary visibility to Egypt’s “city people”. However, unlike the author of “Children of Gebelawi”, Cossery did not live in Egypt: he lived in the “memory of Egypt” with the sole heritage of his remembrances. His writing is marked by an obsession that is less conspicuous in that of Naguib Mahfouz: to restore the human dignity of his outcast urban heroes: beggars, thieves and other small time crooks.
To oppose the enemies of misfit classes, who blame them for their hate of work and their love for chaos, Cossery praised their virtues: their bluntness and infallible sense of resourcefulness. In “Proud Beggars”, the philosophy teacher doesn’t hesitate to become a beggar, coherently to his belief. All the characters of Cossery survive to their disgrace thanks to the endurance beyond suspicion that poverty can teach. This bias for cast-offs was due more to a philosophical creed than to political or militant stances: is there a better “Praise of Laziness” than that quasi-surrealist novel “The Lazy Ones”? Laziness is no vice: it is the antidote to alienation, a legitimate escape from the world’s disaster.
Egyptian, a “language of memory”
Cossery’s Egyptian element is not only witnessed by his choice of Egypt as the unchangeable scene of his literary works, but also by his distinctive use of the French language. He has always held his own room in the language hotel of French. He did not plunder it as other French writing authors proclaim – notably North African ones. He loved it in his own way, and gave it, unable to reproduce the sounds of his mother country, the marvellous grammar of its humour.
In fact, though the narrative language may be classical, that of the dialogues is disconcertingly inventive. To portray the colourful conversations of “the outcast people”, Cossery did not transcribe it into the French vernacular of the lower classes. He perilously opted for a literal translation from Arabic. The outcome is bizarre to the ordinary French ear. However no trace of exoticism is to be found: his characters are too realistic to be strange exotic creatures.
French is thus transformed into a mere tool, which allows French speaking readers to discover the Egyptian universe other than throughout the portraits of men or the description of sites. They discover it by means of a specific rhetoric, with its ritualised metaphors and stylistic figures. Writing in French does not represent a culture anymore. It is the expression, in French language, of a multitude of cultures.
This conscious resort to a linguistic calque, to a literal translation is not only the fruit of an aesthetic choice, but a requirement for a realistic writing style as well: the prostitutes of Cairo, in “Proud Beggars”, could not speak like French prostitutes. And in “The colours of Infamy” the pick pocket had to invoke God, even while committing a crime, unlike his Parisian soul mate would ever do.
Mockery, great laughter of the condemned
We could qualify Albert Cossery as a “writer of the people”, under the condition that we refuse to acknowledge him as a militant writer. The core of his work does not lay in the mystic faith of the victory of revolution. On the contrary, it is imbued in radical pessimism. No “positive heroes” oppose tyrants or owners, but the mockery of intelligent, sharp and lucid anti-heroes instead. Mockery to him was the fatal weapon of poverty, not intended to change the world but merely to survive in it.
Albert Cossery’s characters are no rebels. They trick their way around to avoid drowning in their ocean of misery, or revolt with their humour: even their excessive servility is a means to ridicule the powerful. They do not resemble those massive realistic-socialist characters. They are as disenchanted as their creator, and just as desperate as he is by the vanity of change. They don’t cry on their miseries, they laugh the tragic laugh of the condemned, which is as great as the impostures he reveals.
Desperation in Albert Cossery’s work spatters the entire human kind and all its classes to reveal its mutual defects. It then assumes the form of self-mockery. Self-mockery is the supreme stage of mockery: you mock society by mocking yourself, your pretended original nobility. While living in the worst possible place, the Cosserian anti-hero holds on to some shreds of ideal, the same ones that allowed Cossery to cross the century armed with the infinite compassion for the imperfections of his fellow human beings.