11 October 2014

Albert Cossery: Un complot de saltimbanques | A Splendid Conspiracy (1975)

Albert Cossery (1913–2008), whose grave I photographed below, was an Egyptian-born French-speaking writer who lived a long life but only wrote eight books. He took his time, watching life go on from the Café de Flore, the Brasserie Lipp or the Jardin du Luxembourg. His philosophy involved regarding possessions, having ambitions and creating wealth as anathema. Laziness is a virtue, enabling freedom. From these thoughts, tramps, beggars, the unemployed, the outsider, the forsaken are the heroes of the earth. Many would see this as an inverted version of the norm, as anarchistic, a threat to the order of society, and this is very much what Un complot de saltimbanques – translated as A Splendid Conspiracy, and so avoiding the interesting collective noun – is about.

Although Cossery lived for over sixty years in Paris his novels are all set in Egypt, or at least a country resembling it. The country in Un complot de saltimbanques isn't actually mentioned, but Teymour returns there after spending six years abroad. Ostensibly he was studying to be a chemical engineer, although in reality he was squandering his father's money, and when called back home he spent a small fortune buying a fraudulent diploma which his father is proud to show off.

Teymour initially thinks that he's come back to a very primitive environment and as he sits on the pavement area of a café feels, in the words of the first sentence of the book, 'as unlucky as a flea on a bald man's head' ('aussi malchanceux qu'un pou sur la tête d'un chauve'). But he soon settles into a lazy life with his old schoolfriend Medhat (who thinks all professions represent slavery) and the myopic actor Imtaz, who – following a harmless action onstage that could be interpreted as homosexual – has retreated from the limelight of the big city to a smaller one. Imtaz's reaction to Teymour's confession that his diploma is a fake is: 'I don't think you should concern yourself over that. We live in a world where everything is false.'

So Teymour, like his friends, decides not to work, simply to spend his time with them in cafés, playing games on people and interesting themselves in (rather too young) girls. But the act of procuring a schoolgirl's uniform is in order to play a trick on the gruesome rich buffoon Chawki, who doesn't realise that his rendez-vous is in fact with a local prostitute.

However, the police chief Hillali is fooled by the uniform too, and thinks that school satchels can hide bombs: he sees conspiracy everywhere, and can only see subversion in the young characters. He gets Rezk – a kind of foster child of his – to spy on them, although the result is that Rezk becomes increasingly attracted to the young ones' lifestyle.

If at the end it's discovered that 'important' people who have disappeared in the town have been killed by the brothel keeper, then that's a good thing (according to Medhat), it's fewer bastards in the world. And it's even a positive thing that the student Samuraï has met the same fate, as he had a slave mentality, he was an ambitious person who wanted a diploma to ensure himself a place in the society the non-ambitious ones hate.

The world of Albert Cossery is a truly bizarre one: 'unique' is a term often applied to his work, and it's one that fits well.

My other Cossery posts:
Frédéric Andrau: Monsieur Albert: Cossery, une vie
Albert Cossery: Cimetière du Montparnasse
Albert Cossery: The Colors of Infamy
Albert Cossery: Men God Forgot
Albert Cossery: Une ambition dans le désert

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