Albert Cossery may have a better understanding of the people he writes about than any other writer I’ve ever read. If that sounds like it is a big statement, it is only because I am sitting here with mind blown after reading two of his books back to back THE JOKERS and MEN GOD FORGOT.
Cossery’s books take place in an Arab country sometimes implicitly described as his native Egypt sometimes as a fictional country not named but resembling Egypt very closely. Cossery himself was Egyptian but left in his early 20’s for Paris where he spent the rest of his life.
In THE JOKERS Cossery tells of a group of radicals who seek to bring down the corrupt bureaucrat who runs the city where they live using not violence but mockery. For example, after a law is passed banning begging, the jokers put mannequins dressed like beggars on the street which leads the police to attack them not realizing they are dummies and making fools of themselves.
Cossery is not a political writer like Naguib Mahfouz. He does not have an axe to grind for a specific target and seems to take everything in almost Buddhist type of way. Yes, governments are unfair but people are also responsible for the traps which they construct for themselves. Cossery uses humor better than almost any writer I can think of. He uses it to cut the narrative the way a cook might use a spice to make food palatable or more interesting. He uses it to make his characters ridiculous and therefore stop the reader from getting lost in too much emotion for them be it love or more likely hate.
One of the most interesting scenes in THE JOKERS is when a main character who has joined the jokers has a conversation with a friend who is a typical bomb throwing radical. The friend is angry because even though the jokers have had success in the campaign he thinks they are not serious and an insult to real rebels. It gets better when the leader of the jokers talks to the radical. In the end, the jokers’ way is shown to be the best but is ruined by the usual violence of the less enlightened.
Cossery’s writing is effortless and simple to follow. This makes his books fly by at supersonic speed. However, the images he puts to paper stay with you for a good long time afterwards. THE JOKERS is an amazing book-one that fleshes out so many characters in under 200 pages and one that has a message I totally agree with. It is much worse to be laughed at than opposed by violence.
MEN GOD FORGOT, Cossery’s first book, is a series of five long-ish short stories that take place in the same crowded slum in Cairo, Egypt. Cossery’s tone is not as light as on THE JOKERS but if anything his language is more superb. I also especially like how each story ends with one of the character’s having a huge revelation such as their poverty stricken life cannot last forever-the next generation or the one after will make it right, that old ways must disappear to be replaced by a chaotic future, that information is power, that love is all we have that is our own.
I also like Cossery’s description of women. They are not the main characters but they are sexual beings and fully fleshed out-This was a writer at least 20 years ahead of his time in these multi-dimensional depictions of women.
MEN GOD FORGOT tells incredible full realized stories of human daily life in the most wretched of settings. However, he finds reasons through his characters for them to persevere on. He is a champion and a hero and a crusader for his characters.
Cossery’s apolitical life of individualism coupled with his odd lifestyle-lived in a hotel for almost all of his life, eschewed personal possessions except for fancy clothes, slept with 2,000 women, and practiced a sort of studied laziness are described here in this obituary from 2008 http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/booksblog/2008/jul/08/anegyptianinparis
Personally, a good writer is lazy in the sense that he is an observer. He is lazy like a python is lazy, unmoving until his prey comes close and then it moves fast to snatch it. I imagine Cossery was a fabulous observer of life as all great writers are and he snatched what was important from it.