A Splendid Conspiracy/The Colors of Infamy

BOOK REVIEW by Willard Manus

Thanks to New Directions, English-only readers can now enjoy the unique novels of Albert Cossery, the Egyptian-born writer who relocated to Paris at the age of seventeen and remained there for the rest of his life. Cossery, a stylist known to some as "the Voltaire of the Nile," set his novels in Egypt but made that country stand as a microcosm of the world at large--a world that was so badly flawed, so corrupt and false, that it was beyond change or redemption. The only way to survive in such a dystopia was to simultaneously withdraw from it and laugh at it, with as much gusto as possible.

In A SPLENDID CONSPIRACY, first published in 2010 (in an award-winning translation by Alyson Waters), the protagonist Teymour returns to his Egyptian hometown after six years in Europe where, instead of studying chemical engineering, he devoted himself to debauchery. Having flunked out of school, he purchases a fake diploma and an elegant European suit with which to impress the natives back home, a place where "appearances are everything."

Teymour's best friend is Medhat, a world-weary, hedonistic journalist whose sole purpose in life is to squeeze a little amusement out of it. Far from being shocked when Teymour confesses that his diploma is phony and that he isn't fit to hold down a job, Medhat rejoices in the news. Now the two of them can hook up as before and live for shared pleasure "in its most basic and ludicrous manifestations."

These ingredients are everywhere on display in their hometown "where at every step the bizarre and the humdrum seemed to spontaneously to cross paths." For some time now, Medhat tells Teymour, wealthy businessmen and landowners have been disappearing; the police chief, Hillali, is convinced that subversives are to blame for these crimes. Determined to bring these "revolutionary conspirators" to justice, he orders one of his undercover agents, a meek little twerp named Rezk, to spy on the main suspects--the wastrels Medhat, Teymour and Imtaz, a once-famous movie star now hiding in the provinces from his scandalous past.

The other main characters in this bawdy, satirical novel are Chawki, a lascivious and corrupt builder; Felfel, a beautiful, bike-riding saltimbanque (street-perfomer); Watiniya, a

madam; Salma, operator of a salon where middle-aged men can woo and, hopefully, seduce their teenaged girlfriends; and Samarai, a young veterinary student who falls strenuously in love with Salma.

Towering over all these raffish, flawed human beings is the town's main attraction, the statue of "The Awakening of the Nation." Built by Egypt's military government, the chunky female figure in her stylized peasant dress stands with raised arm "to encourage a heedless people to revive."

Unfortunately, by book's end the heedless not only do not revive but sink even deeper into torpor and hopelessness. Only the wastrels are able to enjoy themselves, thanks to their detachment from a society they abhor. They take exquisite pleasure not just from erotic adventures but from the knowledge that they had opted out of "the vast universal dupery" that made slaves of most men and women.

That theme is further developed in THE COLORS OF INFAMY, Cossery's final novel (he died in 2008). Also translated by Alyson Waters, the book has a pickpocket for a hero. Twenty-three-year-old Ossama, like Teymour, dresses elegantly, in order to evade suspicion as a thief. He mostly works in Tahrir Square at the heart of "the ancient city of Al Qahira." Ossama picks only the pockets of the rich, "his masters in plunder." His modest goal is to survive in a society ruled by crooks and knaves; he covets the challenge more than the spoils of his work.

The book's simple plot involves a letter that he finds in a just-picked wallet; the letter contains incriminating evidence about a crooked real-estate deal. Because a government minister is involved, Ossama realizes that he's got a hot item on his hands, one that could, if made public, result in a major scandal. At the same time, he knows that he can't go to the newspapers with it as "editors depended on the rich for their jobs."

Instead Ossama seeks out his mentor, Nimr, the man who taught him how to pick pockets and avoid poverty ("the poor are poor because they did not know how to steal"). Nimr first advises him to burn the letter, but then changes his mind and sets up a meeting with Karamalah, an ex-journalist (and "prophet of derision") who lost his job for insulting authority and now lives in his family mausoleum in The City of the Dead. Nimr and Karamalah once shared a prison cell together.

Ultimately, the three outcasts go to see Suleyman, the crooked real-estate developer whose pocket Ossama has rifled. They meet at the Mirror Cafe in the working-class district where Suleyman had grown up; the atmosphere of rejoicing that he senses all around him deeply irritates him; "why are poor people so happy?" he grouses.

The outcome of the meeting is best left undisclosed here. Suffice to say that it is steeped in the irony and black humor for which Cossery is famous.

As one reviewer has noted, Cossery was "one of the last and quirkiest links to the post-war glory days of Saint-Germain-des-Pres. A man who elevated idleness to an art form, he lived on his royalties and the generosity of his friends. He liked to show his hands and say, 'They have not worked for 2,000 years.'"