Cossery’s Clever ‘Color’ Combines Commentary and Comedy

'The Color of Infamy' by Albert Cossery (New Directions)

It seems incredible that a novella first published in 1999 by a Francophone Egyptian author––now three years deceased––might hold even more relevance in today’s political landscape than it did at the time of its own writing. It seems incredible, that is, that such a novel might capture the rampant corruption and government censorship in Egypt that spurred the nation’s uprisings in early 2011. But “The Color of Infamy,” Alyson Waters’s translation of acclaimed Egyptian ironist Albert Cossery’s eighth novel, does just that.

However, the real power of the novel lies not in the serendipitous relevance of its themes but in the sheer cynical joy it takes in expressing them. Rather than rallying, rebelling, and righting the wrong, the protagonists of Cossery’s novel mockingly reject the entire sociopolitical framework that allows the existence of widespread corruption. “The Colors of Infamy” recounts just one episode in the life of Ossama, a former student disillusioned with the power of knowledge who has settled comfortably into the life of a thief—“not a legitimate thief, such as a minister, banker, wheeler-dealer, speculator, or real-estate developer,” but a professional pickpocket who attires himself in a fine linen suit and suede shoes to escape the suspicion of the police.

On the job one day, Ossama manages to relieve the wealthy and corrupt real-estate developer Atef Suleyman—whose “physique [is] repugnant enough to disgust a nanny goat in heat”—of a letter implicating the shady brother of the Minister of Public Works in a recent housing scandal. The scandal arose when a public apartment complex built by Suleyman’s firm collapsed a mere three months after its unveiling, to the demise of 50 impoverished inhabitants inside. On finding the letter, Ossama feels he is “holding a bomb in his hands and he [does] not know how to explode it.” To find out how, he turns to his old master in thievery Nimr and notorious and pursued dissident journalist Karamallah, who has recently inhabited his family’s mausoleum to escape the attentions of “a pack of uneducated creditors … without leaving a forwarding address.”

Cossery’s narrative is interwoven with political commentary of a kind that might be distasteful were it not for his trenchant wit. His denouncements are sweetened by a cynical sense of humor. Thus the Egyptian government is not just a friend to censorship, it is “ferociously hostile to all information having any relationship whatsoever to the truth.” Theft is not only a profession to which the poor masses are driven in desperation, but “an activity that enjoy[s] international approval in proportion to the amount stolen.” The scandal at the focus of the narrative is itself absurd, especially when Suleyman tries to pass off the building collapse as the result of a selectively localized earthquake.

Nor does Cossery aim his wit exclusively at political targets. He has an eye for the subtleties of complex social interactions, and his treatment of a young girl’s unrequited love for Ossama is just as deliciously acerbic as the rest of his commentary. Safira’s situation is just as tragic as many others’: she is a painfully naïve, destitute 17-year-old girl who tries to support herself and her mother by becoming a prostitute. None of this, of course, keeps Ossama from being irritated by her clingy attention. Her sudden appearance beside his table is a cause for panic about the ensuing “pointless, poignant conversation detrimental to his optimism.” Her contrived surprise at finding him there leads him to suspect she’s tracked him through every road of the city. This is not to say the thief is entirely heartless; Cossery portrays a man torn between a sense of responsibility for the girl, frustration with her bumbling innocence, and annoyance at the timing of the whole encounter. It is ultimately Ossama’s complexity that makes him relatable; in a later scene he inadvertently betrays his concern for his blind and delusional father, who lives in a symbolically crumbling apartment. But in his inner candor—exemplified by his admission that Safira’s unrequited love is little more than an inconvenient and awkward distraction—Ossama also establishes himself as the comic star of Cossery’s novel.

But Cossery’s humor is more than just comic relief from the descriptions of Cairo’s destitution. Humor offers the only true escape from a world sagging under the weight of governmental greed. The self-important sobriety of those who try to formulate deep or academic pronouncements on the state of the nation is rejected as entirely impotent. He labels philosophers “inveterate scoffers … who believed that the city’s spectacular deterioration had been expressly created to hone their critical faculties.” Any academic pursuit is rejected by the wiser cynics of the tale as “a sure road to slavery.” Cossery is a kind of Jon Stewart of Francophone literature, an author who sees levity and irony as necessary prerequisites for sanity in a myopic political climate. According to Ossama, “nothing on this earth is tragic for an intelligent man,” and one can’t help but feel that Cossery feels exactly the same way.

Staff writer Antonia M.R. Peacocke can be reached at peacocke@fas.harvard.edu.

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