28 January 2018

Albert Cossery: Une ambition dans le désert (1984)

Une ambition dans le désert is a gem from Albert Cossery, and I can only describe it as an anarchist rant thinly hidden within a kind of detective story. Not that the 'how' and the 'why' are too important here though, as the back cover tells us the basic plot before the reader begins the book: sheikh Ben Kadem is prime minister of a fictitious, poor, oil-free gulf state and wants to change things round, to make people on the international scene look to him as an important leader instead of those in the rich states. So he invents a ghost opposition by having bombs go off at unimportant targets in the hope that his people will rise up against the imaginary terrorists and make him a world hero. But, as we learn on the back cover, his son Mohi is killed in a bomb explosion.

Knowing all this already, and a whole lot more, the interest of the book focuses on the description and the activities of the characters, which is Cossery's forte here: he's far more interested in psychology and colour than plot. We know that Shaat is performing the intentionally impotent bomb attacks for Ben Kadem, and that the central character is Samantar, the 'marginal aristocrat [...] who embodies scepticism, intelligence, wisdom and phlegm, dear to all Cossery's heroes'.

Samantar has inherited a little land he's never seen (he hates cars as they're part of the modern world he loathes) and rents it out to a man who pays him regularly and also includes a chunk of cannabis in a cigarette packet when he does so: it would in any case be against Samantar's interests to enquire further into what his tenant farmer is actually growing on his land. Samantar's land interests mean he doesn't have to work, and can live a relatively poor but calm existence enjoying reading, young women, smoking, and lazing: who wants anything more.

But Samantar is even put off love-making by this wave of apparently meaningless bombs attacks on nothing, which have injured no one. He wants to know what's behind it, why the peace of Dofa (the capital, where the whole story takes place) is being disturbed. So he goes to see Hicham, whose twelve-year-old daughter has learnt to skin up a mean spiff while the men try to figure things out.

They visit one of the seedy bars where shady characters hang out and Samantar is surprised to see that Shaat has been let out of jail so soon after being handed a stiff sentence for gold smuggling. Shaat was the son of the family servant and Samantar grew up with, they became close friends and Shaat has always had similar ideas to Samantar's, which is why it's very odd that he's dressed like a spiv and arrives in a vintage car. Could Shaat be behind the jobs at all? It doesn't seem to be in his nature, although the yarn that Shaat spins him about his early release and having a new job selling household electrical goods in the villages in the north rings false: what use would any villager have for an electrical product when they have no electricity?

Gradually the truth unwinds through Ben Kadem (who is his richer cousin who likes to chew the intellectual fat with a kindred intellectual (if not spiritual) mind, but more through the town idiot Tareq, who just stands near Higazi (Shaat's apparent partner in crime) as he sits in the bar for low-life, looking towards Shaat as if pointing to a very important lead: is he an idiot savant, I couldn't help wondering?

Now, Ben Kadem has an unknown son by a poor girl with whom he had a relationship, but Mohi has always denied his father, always hated him. And things come to a head (really an end) when Mohi is found dead is the street, killed by a prematurely exploded bomb while he was on the way to kill his father and himself with him.

Samantar learns the truth from Shaat, also from Tareq (who's been setting up his own mini-bomb factory) and is also a (hidden) member of Dofa's intelligentsia, merely posing as an idiot: you can learn everything that's going on when no one cares about your presence because they think you're an idiot.

And Samantar also hears Ben Kadem's version of the truth, although he doesn't understand why he is so sad, why he will no longer be sending Shaat to make more bombs: no one will ever learn the truth of who Mohi really was.

My other Cossery posts:
Albert Cossery: Cimetière du Montparnasse
Albert Cossery: Proud Beggars
Albert Cossery: Un complot de saltimbanques
Albert Cossery: The Colors of Infamy

Albert Cossery: Men God Forgot
Frédéric Andrau: Monsieur Albert: Cossery, une vie

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