Book review: Albert Cossery’s ‘The Jokers’

Set in a nameless Egyptian city in the early 1960s, “The Jokers” (NYRB 2010) is a ruthless send-up of power, corruption and ambition, as found in government institutions as well as revolutionary cabals. Yet if it’s satire, it belongs to a peculiar and oblique breed; its presumed targets, the centralizing Nasser government and its traditional revolutionary opponents, seem strangely faceless — stock, almost cartoonish abstracts rather than concrete figures embroiled in the religious and social upheaval of that era.
Part of this could be explained by the background of the author. Born a Greek Orthodox Christian in Cairo just before World War I, Albert Cossery attended French schools, where he developed a taste for surrealism and other trappings of the Western European avant-garde. This education placed him outside of not only his native land but also his own family – his mother was illiterate and his father read very little.

At the end of World War II, Cossery settled in Paris, in a Latin Quarter hotel that would remain his residence until his death in 2008 at the age of 94. Yet from this accommodating and distant perch, Cossery remained fixated on his native land, setting all but one of his novels in Egypt.

“The Jokers,” written in 1964 and newly translated into English, takes place in a city (that many identify as Alexandria), beset by a new governor bent on consolidating his power. In the opening chapter, we learn that the government has begun campaigning to rid the streets of beggars, prostitutes, peddlers “and other minor scofflaws.” Cossery writes of the governor, “He talked about the streets as if they were people,” showing a keen appreciation for the peculiarities of the authoritarian mind.

Opposing this nascent autocrat is a band of unusual freedom fighters: Karim, a young kite-maker and former political prisoner, Khaled Omar, a wealthy and illiterate businessman who got his start in the black market, and Heykal, the mastermind, a minor landlord dedicated to undermining authority. But these rebels aren’t socially conscious soldiers struggling for a noble cause, nor are they fanatics obsessed with a new world order. They aim to merely topple authority through mockery and curious public stunts. In the opening scene, a dummy beggar built by Karim and deposited in the public square attracts the ire and boots of a local policeman. Later, the group plasters over-the-top, pro-government propaganda all over the town, essentially embarrassing the top brass into submission.   

It’s here we begin to realize another reason for Cossery’s odd detachment. His  protagonists don’t see the government as a particular threat, as an agent of specific, odious policies. To them, all government, regardless of nationality, creed or bureaucratic makeup, is the same: rotten to the core. The world is an “eternal fraud” full of “madmen and thieves.”  Power is endless exploitation, a house of cards eternally rebuilt on fear, ignorance and oppression. The only sane response is to expose this brutal truth while at the same time wallowing in its crapulence. “The thought of a whole society given over to sheer bloody-minded rapacity gave him limitless pleasure,” is a fairly typical line.

It’s hard not to detect a distinct whiff of French existentialism in these awakened, bleakly ironic men, and indeed this slender, amoral novel often reads like Dostoevsky’s “The Possessed” as reimagined by Jean-Luc Godard. Societal context is largely absent, and we hear next to nothing about religion or the humdrum undercurrents of daily life.

The nature of the  government is thus merely sketched–an unchanging police force propping up a grasping and pompous upper class and lurking in back of it all, barely visible, the army. “The Jokers” points more toward the French unrest and street theatrics of 1968 more than it does the Six-Day War, which was already an enormous source of embryonic tension in the Egypt of 1964.

Politically engaged readers of any stripe may well find “The Jokers” disquieting or even irritating – the one character concerned with justice, (a word that appears only once in the book) Taher, a committed leftist revolutionary and former colleague of Karim’s, is painted as deluded, self-serious and slightly ridiculous. Although he is known for carrying a bomb with him everywhere he goes, when we first meet him, he’s instead toting his shoes to the cobbler.

Yet if Cossery’s distance from the world that he’s writing about can be overly extreme, it can also result in some astoundingly wicked comedy. A conversation between a downtrodden policeman and Karim, about the latter’s more traditional revolutionary past, brims with dark and ludicrous farce:

 “’I’ll tell you in all frankness that I look up to the current government the way I look up to my own father. What more can I say to show my respect?’”

 ‘Since you brought it up, where is your father?’

‘He’s dead,’ Karim replied.”

In a world full of such hilariously twisted power relations (at the end of the interrogation, the policeman grudgingly buys a kite from Karim), verisimilitude is beside the point.

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