27 December 2014

Albert Cossery: Les Hommes oubliés de Dieu | Men God Forgot (1941; rep. 2004)

In 1931 Albert Cossery published his first book, Les Morsures: he was eighteen years old and it was a collection of poetry inspired by Baudelaire and written, Cossery much later said dismissively, 'to impress the girls'. Bearing the view of the author in mind, plus the fact that the book now seems to be virtually unfindable – even in the BNF catalogue – it's probably better to view Cossery's Les Hommes oubliés de Dieu (Men God Forgot) as his first work.

Les Hommes oubliés de Dieu is a collection of five short stories that I see as Cossery's apprenticeship into his own work: it's where he's collecting his ideas, but hasn't exactly formulated them completely coherently. All the makings of a Cossery novel are here though, the obsessions which will fill his seven novels to come over almost sixty years.

Cairo – or at least a place strongly resembling Cairo – is the setting of these stories. And although Cossery was firmly ensconced in Paris Saint-Germain-des-Prés for virtually all the time – from 1945 up to his death in 2008, he continued to set his stories in north Africa. His concern is for the humble, the poor, the beggars, the lazy hashish smokers, as opposed to the rich, whom he sees as 'bastards'. In fact, he also praises ordinary thieves, seeing them as in a totally different class to the 'real' thieves: those in power, those who control, the people who make the money. Cossery's gentle anarchy inverts the norm.

Postman Zouba in the story 'Le facteur se venge' is the butt of many people's anger: he may not be an immediately obvious target, but he is employed by the government and therefore possesses the officialdom gene. He wears a uniform (and so appears military, bellicose), can read letters and so has power over those who can't. As he delivers letters in the rue de la Femme-Enceinte (the Street of the Pregnant Woman) he's seen to be proud, artificial and manipulative. He's in a number of respects similar to the rich later narrators who will be attacked in Cossery's novels. And Hanafi – the ironer whose irons are rusted from disuse and who just wants to sleep all day and have dope-smoking parties – is very much like the lazy heroes of Cossery's novels.

The book takes its title from the story 'Le coiffeur a tué sa femme', in which a father – in answer to his young son's question – says that they are poor because God has forgotten them. All of Albert Cossery's books after this one will take as their subjects these very people and show their lifestyles and the way they go about defying – and so denying the validity of – the prevailing system.

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: The Colors of Infamy
Albert Cossery: Une ambition dans le désert

No comments: