Sunday, June 6, 2010

"only people of leisure can attain a way of thinking that is truly civilized"

A Splendid Conspiracy
By Albert Cossery
Translated by Alyson Waters
213 pages
New Directions Publishing
May 25, 2010






Teymour was waiting for Felfel in front of the statue of The Awakening of the Nation. In her stylized dress the woman was still raising her arm to encourage a heedless people to revive but, as if responding to her ludicrous call, against the metal railing that surrounded the monument, a vagrant was sleeping, snoring shamelessly and thus undermining the morale of his fellow citizens with his unfortunate conduct; whether by coincidence or design, serious damage was being done to the government's attempt - by means of this insomniac and imperious peasant woman - to rouse the crowds from their torpor.

Albert Cossery (1913-2008) was a French writer born in Cairo to a family of Greek Orthodox Syrian and Lebanese descent. Inspired by Honor├ę de Balzac, he moved to Paris at 17, ostensibly to study, which he never did. In his 60 years of writing he only produced eight novels, in keeping with his personal philosophy of laziness as a form of meditation and contemplation. Although he lived in Paris all his adult life, Cossery's ironic, irreverent books set in Arab countries established him as "the Voltaire of the Nile."

A Splendid Conspiracy, originally written in 1975 as Un Complot de Saltimbanques, opens with Teymour, a young man whose wealthy father has recently called him back from Europe to their small, unnamed Egyptian city. Although Teymour had been sent abroad to obtain a degree in chemical engineering, he never actually enrolled in any classes and spent the entire six years learning about the various forms of debauchery found in the great Western capitals. His "diploma" was purchased for a large sum of cash several days before his departure.

Luckily, Teymour's self-pitying funk doesn't last for long. His childhood buddy Medhat reminds him that every country has its share of "imbecils, bastards, and whores" ready to make life fun and amusing. Their mutual friend Imtaz, a disgraced actor, heartily agrees with this, and A Splendid Conspiracy is for the most part concerned with the trio's neverending drinking, dancing, and womanizing. Their crowd also includes Rezk the reluctant police informant; Chawki, a buffoon with too much money and a taste for schoolgirls; Salma, one of Chawki's former conquests who earns her revenge through his maintenance of her lavish lifestyle; and Samaraï, a lovestruck veterinary student whom the man-hating Salma enjoys tormenting. Just when things couldn't be more exciting, the town's prominent men have been disappearing and police chief Hillali thinks Teymour, Medhat, and Imtaz are the revolutionaries responsible.

It appears to be a simple enough story on the surface. Cossery's prose, though hardly minimalist, is straightforward and unadorned and rarely goes beyond candid narration. But, as Medhat explains, there are always "great gifts of madness and murderous rage" seething beneath every humdrum surface. A Splendid Conspiracy may seem like a carefree romp. But Cossery's irony is rich, beginning with the recurring image of a patriotic statue with her hand outstretched before the impassive city. It is a futile gesture. In a tale of idleness, "The Awakening of the Nation" is two-faced and ridiculous, the perfect symbol of what our trio perceives to be history's greatest con. According to Medhat (the most articulate of the bunch),
"From the beginning man's hardworking fate has made him unable to conceive of an ideal that is not material and does not correspond to his needs and his safety. All he thinks about is earning a living; this is what he is taught from childhood on. His only aim is to become cleverer and more of a bastard than everyone else. During his entire lifetime, he uses his ingenuity to provide food for himself and, once he has eaten his fill, to invent some sordid ambition for himself. When, then, does he have time to elevate his spirit and his mind? The tiniest thought along these lines is considered a criminal offense, immediately punishable by disapproval and starvation. Therefore, I venture to affirm that only people of leisure can attain a way of thinking that is truly civilized."
Such an attitude is profoundly selfish, of course, as Medhat & Co. make it clear that they care nothing for those lacking class privilege except to sleep with their women. Their "enlightened" position is made possible by a good dose of male privilege as well, and both advantages are innately bound to the oppression of others. Hence, the gang's laziness and debauchery is dependent on other people being denied the opportunity for laziness and debauchery. (As for Salma, the culture considers her a "dishonored woman." Although she enjoys playing this up for effect, she is still a social outcast dependent on the good graces of the man who ruined her.) Given the obvious similarities between author and characters, it is easy to dismiss A Splendid Conspiracy as a sexist, elitist ode to the libertine. A valid criticism - in some respects, it is: Salma is a shrill harpy and adolescent girls are naught but sex objects.

For all its blithe carousing, however, the "civilized life" is founded on a kind of nihilism that finds its starkest expression in the mystery of the missing men. Police chief Hillali's suspicion of violent, treacherous action comes from precisely our trio's seeming inaction. It is impossible to remain idle for this long, he argues, especially when you are educated, because with all that time to reflect you can't possibly have not noticed that "this world is abject and revolting." A sentiment Medhat, Imtaz, and Teymour actually agree with, but that doesn't mean they wish to change anything about such a world. They are apathetic in every sense of the word. If most actions that fall outside the realm of pleasure are stupid and ignoble, then it goes to follow that performing said actions only contributes to an overall slave mentality. Therefore, most such ambitious bastards are too stupid too live and our heroes will most certainly not lift a finger once they learn (accidentally) the true cause of the disappearances. Even if one of their friends becomes a victim. The more that go, the merrier.

I agree with another reviewer that all the characters are basically repulsive. But take comfort: Chawki, the bloated, vulgar doofus at the butt of the gang's jokes and despised by respectable society, is, in Albert Cossery's ultimate blast of irony, the very vision of Teymour, Medhat, and Imtaz's sordid future. They've already got all the ingredients. Joke's on them and their "enlightenment." Again, if someone were to condemn A Splendid Conspiracy as mere exploitation and misogyny, I would totally understand and actually agree to an extent. Still, I also found it surprisingly self-aware and self-critical and thoroughly enjoyed reading it. Am very interested in hearing what other people think.

Click here for an excerpt.




A special thanks to Alyson Waters for providing me this book and introducing me to a new author.




2 comments:

Amy said...

This sounds like a rather interesting book. I have to admit that it does sound a tad sexist and elitist, but I also like how you say he paints it that they will come to nothing, and that they are too lazy and inept to care or do anything.

E. L. Fay said...

Yeah, the similarities between Chawki and the young trio are too obvious to not be intentional.

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