5 February 2015

Albert Cossery: Mendiants et orgueilleux | Proud Beggars (1955; repr. Joëlle Losfeld 1999)

Préface de Roger Grenier
Nouvelle édition augmentéé et enrichie

This book is something of an Albert Cossery feast because Mendiants et orgueilleux (Proud Beggars in the English translation), in its 234 pages, contains much more than the novel itself: there's also a Preface by Roger Grenier; there are several photographic plates of Cossery, including one of him with Lawrence Durrell, one with the singer-songwriter Georges Moustaki, and one of Cossery in 1995 looking at Golo's illustrated version of his book at the salon littéraire in Vienne; there are the first pages of an unfinished novel; there's a Preface of Les Hommes oubliés de Dieu by Edmont Charlot; there are some quotations from prominent people about him, including even a passing mention by Patti Smith; there's an obituary by Christophe Ayad from Libération; there's a note by Moustaki, who worked on the film in Tunisia with Cossery (when Cossery could tear himself from the beach), and states that he recognised in him 'a childhood friend met later in life'; and so on.

A cynic might argue that Cossery wrote the same book all the time, but although his worldview is unchanging the stories – virtually always set in Egypt, never France – are always very different from each other, and always very engrossing. This one, which is a rather black comedy, is also much funnier than the short stories in Les Hommes oubliés de Dieu and the other two novels I've read: Un complot de saltimbanques and Les Couleurs de l'infamie.

The tone of the book is set by a joke that Gohar, the philosopher lecturer-turned-beggar, hears from an acquaintance: in an election in a nearby village almost everyone votes for a donkey, but the vote is rejected because the officials don't want a four-legged ass but a two-legged one. Cossery is always anarchic, always anti-political, and always anti-authority – in many ways he was ahead of his time.

In Albert Cossery's world it is the underclass who rule, who have the last laugh, who run rings round the establishment. The laziness card always trumps the go-getting one, the beggars are always praised and the capitalists mocked, those who work for government are scorned in favour of those who refuse to work. In this particular book, even a man with no arms or legs ('un homme-tronc') is seen as more sexually desirable than a fully-abled man: wonderfully seditiously, Cossery subverts all the norms, all the niceties of respectable society.

As in Les Couleurs de l'infamie, a police officer and a brothel play an important part in the story. Gohar wakes up to find that the 'mattress' of newspapers he sleeps on has been soddened because his neighbour's relatives who have been washing her dead body. Gohar at first worries that the dead woman may have had an awful illness that he might catch from the water, but his concerns melt away as he realises that he must have his daily blast of hashish, which instead of smoking he rolls into a small ball and sucks, anaesthetizing the horrors of a world ruled by madmen and idiots.

The trusty, faithful Yéghan is his supplier, and he tracks his last sighting down to the local brothel, where as a former academic his writing and intellectual skills are regularly used for paperwork, etc. But there he learns that Yéghan has left and everyone else has gone on a day out apart from the new prostitute Arnaba, who is as illiterate as the others: what is the point of reading and writing when you are a good looker and can use your body, she argues. But she wants Gohar to write her a letter to her uncle and promises him that she will repay him.

Gohar isn't too certain how a prostitute would write to her uncle, and initially becomes distracted by Arnaba's shapely naked body under her dressing gown, but this quickly gives way to a strong craving for his daily dose of dope. Arnaba thinks he's excited by her body, but another thing has excited him far more: her gold bracelet, which Gohar mentally tries without success to convert to specific quantities of dope, plus emigration to Syria, where the substance is legal. The letter finished, Arnaba presents his payment by spreading out on the bed, whereupon Gohar falls on top of her and strangles her and then realises that of course the gold is fake.

All of this takes place within the first forty pages, and it's certainly not my intention to relate the full story, but let's just say that also deeply involved in the novel is the obnoxious, concupiscent homosexual cop Nour El Dine, who towards the end strongly suspects that Gohar is the murderer, and that Yéghan knows the killer's identity. Gohar has indeed told Yéghan that he's responsible for the murder, although the small time dope dealer has already decided that he won't grass Gohar up, not even under torture.

Sure enough, the cops start meting out the blows to Yéghan's head, but then Yéghan hears midday being announced far away, so he suddenly announces that it's lunchtime, Nour El Dine concedes defeat and has Yéghan thrown out, then decides that the best thing he can do is hand in his notice and become a beggar himself.

Classic Cossery.

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

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