THE LAST OF THE PROPHETS, ALBERT COSSERY

I am taking a fortnight’s holiday and the next post will be on or before 31st May

THE LAST OF THE PROPHETS, ALBERT COSSERY

‘The Lane of The Pissing Child led to the school of beggars. It was the most squalid and also the narrowest in the district. The hovels there are more wretched and dirty than anywhere else; the old petrol tins which compose them are cracked and rusty in the extreme. They all seem ready to collapse; but the eternal misery which built them with its wild hands, had left on them its imprint of eternity.’

Men God Forgot by Albert Cossery

The Egyptian author Albert Cossery (1913-2008) was known as ‘the Voltaire of the Nile’ and he was a friend of celebrated iconoclasts such as Albert Camus, Henry Miller, Lawrence Durrell and Alberto Giacometti. Born in Cairo of Greek Orthodox parents of Syrian origin (originally known as al-Qusayr), he emigrated to Paris in 1945 and although all of his half dozen novels are set in Egypt, he wrote exclusively in French. His family was wealthy but much of Cossery’s fiction is about the atrocious poverty of Cairo’s myriad disenfranchised; beggars, thieves, street cleaners, out of work actors and hashish addicts. The titles of his books speak for themselves: Men God Forgot (1940) and Proud Beggars (1955) but he also wrote novels where certain rich Cairenes behaved in highly unorthodox and rebellious ways. At times these middle class Egyptian rebels behave in a manner surreal beyond belief. For instance, in The Lazy Ones (1948) a pampered young man protects his bereaved mother from a paralysing grief, by acting the part of his recently deceased brother in regular improvised 2- hander dramas, which of course necessarily involves his constantly shifting chairs.

His first book Men God Forgot, less than 100 pages long, is a collection of 5 short stories of phenomenal and quite unhinging power. It is all about the down and outs of Cairo as Cossery knew them somewhere around the late 1930s, but it is fair enough to assume from the authoritarian nightmare which constitutes modern Egypt that very little will have changed for the poverty-stricken in the intervening decades. I use the word unhinging because most fiction writers who deal with extreme poverty understandably treat it in straight realistic, possibly impassioned and angry style. The shamefully neglected Ignazio Silone (1900-1978) for example, author of Bread and Wine and The Secret of Lucca writes about Italian peasants slaving all day in order to afford a single plate of unadorned polenta. Ditto the startling 1962 autobiographical novel The Countrywoman by Dubliner Paul Smith (1920-1997) who recounts his unbelievably harrowing childhood when he was a wage earner as a mere infant, and the desperation of his mother in the face of his feckless boozing father. Cossery by contrast turns the pathos coordinates upside down when he elects to treat of what is atrocious with a kind of black gallows humour. In a single word, all his down and outs are irremediably stupefied by the situation they find themselves in, for their lives are so hopeless and so desolate that they constitute a kind of mad dream by which their victims are continually amazed as well as horrified.

The characters in the 5 linked stories cope with the horror of absolute destitution in radically different ways. Nonetheless, there are 3 principal strategies for dealing with a living hell: one can sleep as much as possible; smoke dope as much as possible, or if you are a man, you can go home and vent your misery by beating your wife. Thus, an illiterate laundryman who has no customers to speak of spends his day sleeping, and at night he has his cronies round to smoke the poor man’s panacea, hashish. However one day a postman cruelly ruins his daytime sleeping with a letter from his landlord threatening eviction after 6 months of arrears. As well as viciously cursing the postman (‘and now son of a dog you are going to read it to me, or I’ll kill you’) he decides to go home and beat his wife if only because her parents cannot stand the sound of her wails, and so will give him the backlog of rent. Later, in ‘The Danger of Fantasy’ we have the mindboggling dialogue between Abou Chawali, ‘Professor of Mendicancy’, and the man of letters Tewfik Gad. The Professor who coaches child beggars to look as horrifying as they can, as the only means of melting the hearts of the callous rich, is incensed by Gad suggesting that a handsome little girl should toff up to look as beautiful as possible in a pretty red dress. To compound the irony, the man of letters suffers from chronic diarrhoea which means he is always racing a full kilometre to use the public toilets. The Professor mocks not only his Fantasy/Pretty Dress approach to the reality of mendicancy, but the fact he avoids defecating next to his house like everyone else, presumably because he doesn’t want the world to see his backside. Meanwhile the Professor’s notion of the power of realism when it comes to effective begging, is economically and appallingly stated.

‘It was the turn of little Olla, a new recruit whose case seemed very interesting…In her arms she held a child some months old, blind from birth and wrapped in all kinds of filthy rags. The child seemed to have been dead for a long time and its face had a green pallor.

“Well…” scolded Abou Chawali. “What are you doing with that bundle in your arms. Are you by any chance taking a walk with your trousseau?”

“This bundle is my brother,” said the little girl…

“Does he eat?”

“No…Only he opens his mouth sometimes.”’

Remarkably, the anguish of total destitution is even more harrowingly rendered when a penniless tinker’s little boy turns up to give his Dad an armful of clover to feed the Holiday Sheep, meaning the one sacrificed on special religious days. The Dad has no sheep of course, and his little son’s distress is all too much for him on top of the infernal baseline of a normal pauper’s desolation.

‘“If we are poor it is because God has forgotten us, my son.”

“God!” said the child. “And when will he remember us, father?”

“When God forgets someone, my son, it is forever.”

“All the same I’ll keep the clover,” said the child.’

Later an out of work actor Sayed Karam ( an avatar of the young Cossery perhaps?) suddenly wakes from his idle stupefaction and decides that something needs to be done about the cruel paralysis of all these derelicts he has long been safely observing at a distance. He repents his vicarious and amoral ways, for while he lazes at home, Raya the woman who loves him and who is dying of TB, is out there earning a hotel clerk’s pittance to keep the pair of them off the streets. It is here for once that theology raises its powerful head in Cossery’s fiction, and his character suddenly understands what the truly diabolic amounts to.

‘There was nothing forced here about the demoniac spirit, nothing falsified. It was simply reality, mean and unrehearsed, the violating reality of every day at every moment. Sayed Karam now felt his heart beat at the sight of certain details that the street in its complete nakedness no longer knew how to hide.’

POSTSCRIPT

I was privileged to meet Albert Cossery in December 1997, when he was 84, in his favourite café next to the Paris hotel where he had been living since 1945. My introduction was supposedly because I had published a piece about him in London Magazine, but in fact Cossery was unaware of this and assumed I was someone else. Nevertheless he knew more English than I knew French, and he was very courteous and kind towards his 47-year-old English fan.

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