27 December 2014

Albert Cossery: Les Couleurs de l'infamie | The Colors of Infamy (1999)

I moved straight from Albert Cossery's first book of short stories to his last novel, mainly to gauge the difference. Les Couleurs de l'infamie took fifteen years in the making – or possibly prevaricating is a more appropriate word, as there must have been many distractions. But it was beyond doubt well worth the wait: in Premier bilan aprés l'apocalypse (2011) Frédéric Beigbeder considers this one of the best books in the previous one hundred or so years, and who could argue? At the moment of writing I've only read Cossery's novel Un complot de saltimbanques and his short story collection Les Hommes oubliés de Dieu, so I'm definitely in no position to call this Cossery's best novel, although Les Couleurs de l'infamie will take some beating. When it was first published Cossery was eighty-six years old, and it shows him as a master of suspense: short it certainly is, and I couldn't put it down until I'd finished it.

The main character is the twenty-three-year-old Ossama, who is a thief and dresses like a dandy not because he's rich – he certainly doesn't want to be rich – but because he has far more chance of being a successful thief if he dresses smartly than if he dressed as a beggar. He's a Cossery character and his ideology can be very neatly summed up by his rather Fagin-like former teacher Nimr:

'There is nothing more immoral than stealing without risk. Risk is what distinguishes us from bankers and their like who practise legalised theft under the government's patronage.' (My translation.)

Yes, Cossery was well on the ball, and might even have been predicting a global financial crash. In his topsy-turvy world, the goodies are those whom most people would call the baddies, and vice versa. For Cossery, the bankers and their allies are the bastards, and the particular bastards in this novel are property speculators.

The initial underworld setting starring Safira, the seventeen-year-old tart with a heart and her beloved but unloving Ossama soon gives way to the central point of interest: Ossama steals a crocodile wallet, which as well as containing money contains a government letter with very valuable incriminating evidence.

The letter is a rejection of Abelrazak's interest in the property interests of Suleyman, whose dangerous cheap housing has killed fifty tenants. Suleyman had tried to buy away the housing scandal as an earthquake, but the letter risks incriminating him, so he thinks he can buy it from Ossama to shut his mouth. Ossama (with the help of friends) decides to keep the letter tied to his chest as it will serve him for future alibis. When Suleyman calls him a thief, Ossama points out that he's nothing like the thief that Suyelman is. Ossama's former teacher finds this all very funny:

'Nimr burst out laughing, a laugh like no other, a revolutionary laugh, the laugh of someone who has just uncovered the ignoble, grotesque face of those who hold the world's power.' (My translation.)

My other Cossery posts:
Frédéric Andrau: Monsieur Albert: Cossery, une vie
Albert Cossery: Proud Beggars
Albert Cossery: Cimetière du Montparnasse
Albert Cossery: A Splendid Conspiracy
Albert Cossery: Men God Forgot
Albert Cossery: Une ambition dans le désert


David Bingham said...

I read this a few weeks ago after you recommended him (in English translation). I enjoyed it but slightly surprised to see anyone calling it one of the best books of the last 100 years. Maybe I need to read it again but more slowly this time.

Dr Tony Shaw said...

I'll never be able to work out to what varying extent 'quality' is purely subjective, but Cossery's work in general is wholly original, and this book in particular - and, I think particularly in the second half - is hilarious and full of delicious suspense. I only hope that the translation carries its atmosphere over.

Beigbeder considered this book number 68 out of his top 100. My post about his book is here: http://tonyshaw3.blogspot.co.uk/2013/10/frederic-beigderer-premier-bilan-apres.html