Saturday, March 12, 2011

Laughing At Big Brother In The Middle East

This appeared in today's The Indian Express

THE JOKERS Albert Cossery

With the cries from Tahrir Square still being heard all over the world, Albert Cossery’s The Jokers is a tart reminder that there’s more than one way to skin a cat. Written in French in 1964, and now translated by Anna Moschovakis, this slim, elegant work deals with challenging a repressive regime through the weapons of derision and mockery. As such, it is suffused with irony and gleeful malice.

The Cairo-born Cossery moved to Paris after World War II, where he lived till his death in 2008. The Jokers, the fifth novel of the author who was referred to as the Voltaire of the Nile, is set in an unnamed Middle Eastern city, although James Buchan’s introduction specifically states that the setting is Alexandria.

In this city, a group of people come together to oppose the bug-eyed governor, a symbol of the administration, whose latest decree is that beggars be removed from the streets. For this new breed of revolutionaries, the governor and his ilk are “nothing but puppets pulled by strings, their words and gestures nothing but the grotesque convulsions of a buffoon”.

The four of them – a charismatic landowner, a louche man-about-town, a self-made businessman and a schoolteacher – come up with a plan to paste posters all over the city that praise the governor to such an extent that laughter would be the only possible response. Later, they write to the newspapers calling upon the public to donate money to be able to erect a large statue of the governor. This, then, is revolution via ridicule: a refusal to take corruption and venality seriously, to laugh in the face of Big Brother.

As a counterpoint, Cossery also depicts a more typical, violence-prone revolutionary, mocking his misplaced sense of pride and determination to engage with the authorities at all costs. The ringleader of the jokers, on the other hand, claims that he wants to let “tyrants lead the way and [be] even stupider than they are…they’ll have to prove themselves the greatest buffoons of all”. It’s a statement that brings to mind the actions of Jaroslav Hasek’s good soldier Švejk.

It’s not wonderfully entertaining all the way, though. At one point, the interiors of a casino are described as being reminiscent of “a Hindu tomb”. Indeed. While this may be a fault of the translation, a larger issue is the casual misogyny with which Cossery treats his female characters, and the fact that one of them, a daughter of the governor’s powerful ally, is shown to be a seductress manqué when she is merely “almost seventeen”.

For all that, The Jokers is memorable for its subversive satire that masks a deep-seated contempt for oppression and human vanity. It’s said of one of the book’s characters that “he delighted in the endless spectacle of man’s folly and, like a child at a circus, never failed to find life wildly entertaining”. Throw in a dash of disdain, and it’s a statement that could well be applied to the author himself.

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