Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Problems of universal importance

Proud Beggars, by Albert Cossery, is a very funny book, and proved to be a delicious palate cleanser after having read a couple detail-intensive historical novels that went on a bit too long.

Written in 1955, Proud Beggars is surprisingly fresh, and in light of the Arab Spring, its revolutionary spirit can be viewed as relevant — not exactly prescient, but insightful into a simmering antiestablishment, life-affirming attitude.

It's set in Cairo, and in the second chapter there's a murder in a brothel. We know who did it — this is no police procedural or cat-and-mouse tale.

The story is about three friends, barely concerning itself with how they are implicated in the murder.

The novel starts with Gohar, who lives ascetically in a single room in a slum. He wakes to find it flooded and determines that the best course of action is to do nothing and wait for a miracle. But he's freaking out, so finally he makes a run for it, and only once he's well away from the building does he realize he's left his drugs behind, but he's too freaked out to go back. He spends the rest of the day affected by paranoia and hallucinations and sudden clarity and withdrawal, trying to track down his dealer. He dreams of finding passage to Syria where he can spend his days frolicking through fields of hashish. He gave up his professorial gig at the university some time ago; his literary talent now earns him some coin at the brothel, for to "write the love letters of illiterate whores seemed to him work worthy of human interest."

Yeghen is (he seems to think) a very ugly man, which quality is deemed to be central to his character, that of romantic and poet — a popular poet, a populist poet, giving the people voice in the people's own language. He makes his living by dealing drugs and, no doubt, engaging in other nefarious activities.

El Kordi is a revolutionary in his head, but by day he plays the role of government clerk:

It was eleven in the morning. Seated behind his desk in the Ministry of Public Works, El Kordi was growing bored watching the flies buzz about. The large room, lit by high windows and containing several desks behind which other clerks were labouring, was as odious to him as a prison. It actually was a sordid kind of prison, where one was in eternal contact with common-law prisoners. El Kordi would have accepted being in prison, but in a private cell, as a political prisoner. His rancor against such overcrowding derived from noble, aristocratic instincts of which he was not at all aware. He was embittered by the lack of privacy that became intolerable in the long run. How could he reflect at ease on problems of universal importance in front of these dusty, congealed figures devoted to unending slavery? To protest against this injustice, El Kordi abstained from practically all work, intending thereby to show his disapproval and his spiritual independence. But since no one noticed his protest, he grew bored.

[...]

From his chair, he distractedly contemplated his sorry colleagues and thought he saw the chains of slavery everywhere. These constraints imposed on his freedom several hours each day made him extremely sensitive to the sorrows of the oppressed masses of the universe. He stirred in his chair and sighed loudly. Some of the slaves, seriously occupied with their work, raised their heads and gave him a look full of incomprehension. El Kordi answered these sad looks with a kind of aggressive pout. He despised all of them. The revolutions would not be carried out by this wretched breed. They'd been there several years — how many, no one could say — rooted to their chairs, covered with dust, with their mummified faces. A veritable museum of horrors. At the thought that one day he might be like them, El Kordi shivered and felt like leaving at one. But then he told himself that it wasn't yet a decent hour to go, and so he stayed on quietly being bored.

Besides the motley trio, the investigating police inspector is himself quite a character, a man of peculiar habits and aspirations. He rounds out the novel's absurdities and brings it to a perfect close.

Along the way, adding to the rich tapestry of impoverished Cairo life: Yeghen's mother ("She was skilled in the art of distilling sadness; she spun misery like a spider its web."); the consumptive whore El Kordi intends to save; and Gohar's limbless beggar-neighbour and his jealous wife.

Despite the material poverty of the surroundings, there's a freedom of spirit and life-is-beautiful vibe throughout the book, and it's more than implied that such joie is absent among the oppressors, and only through relinquishing bourgeois extravagances can one know what is truly important. Of course, so many ideas are turned upside down in this book; ironically, the dead whore's life isn't given much value at all — she's of no consequence, just a casualty of the revolutionary ideas of a few self-important, if beggarly, men. So it seems Cossery is mocking the life-is-beautiful attitude as much as he's embracing it. Either way, it's something to smile about.

The novel has been adapted to a graphic format (French original, Mendiants et orgueilleux), extracted in Words without Borders.

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