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Albert Cossery: La violence et la dérision (The Jokers)

Another Cossery novel where the English title is not a literal translation of the original French. Both titles represent aspects of the novel, the French being more a summary of the philosophical background, while the English focuses on the plot. Indeed, we start off with a joke, that is, a practical joke. The governor of the unnamed city, presumably based on Cairo, has decided to clean up the better-off areas of the city and that means driving the beggars away. They are forcibly rounded up and imprisoned or driven out. So imagine the surprise of one police officer when he sees a beggar nonchalantly sitting in front of a new building, begging. He approaches the beggar and berates him but there is no response. He continues to do so but there is still no response so he kicks him. The beggar falls over but does not move. The police officer is worried that he might have killed him so he grabs his turbaned head which then comes off. By his time there is a crowd watching him and they jeer him for having killed the beggar. Their jeers turn to mockery when he and they realise that the beggar is not a real person but a fake.

The author of this jest is Karim. Karim is a former revolutionary who got into trouble with the police and has retired from revolutionary activities. He now earns his living making kites for children. However, he is friendly with Heykal, a man who is something of a dandy and who enjoys making mischief, hence the English title of this book. Heykal is currently preparing some plot against the governor but it will be a plot aimed at mocking him, not killing him. Meanwhile, Karim is spending the night with a prostitute, whom he manages to trick out of her fee. However, he soon gets a visit from a police officer, telling him that his new rooms are located on a strategic route, i.e. where rich foreigners and local dignitaries might pass, and, because of his past activities, he has to move. Karim manages to come up with a good sob story but is told that the detective will prepare a report and Karim will have to have an interview at the police station. Karim also has to go to his friend, Khaled Omar, a successful (but illiterate) merchant in order to borrow money for Heykal’s plot. Khaled Omar, who learned his trade in prison, is no supporter of the governor and is happy to help.

Heykal has already had one attempt at mocking the governor, besides Karim’s fake beggar. He has organised a campaign to write letters to the pro-governor newspapers, heaping more and more praise on him. The newspapers naturally could not refuse to print these letters but, at the same time, they gave the impression that the governor was orchestrating a campaign in favour of himself. The newspapers have now stopped printing them, hence the new plot. The new plot involves printing posters with the governor’s photo on them and text praising him to the skies. People will think that the governor arranged for them and turn against him. The text is to be written by Urfy, who has set up a school where the children are given free rein. The school also teaches adults such as Khaled Omar. Heykal also has other, similar ideas planned.

While the poster scheme is promising, it does have one unintended consequence. However, as the French title shows, there is also the violence aspect. Taher, one of Karim’s former revolutionary colleagues, emerges (after having spent time in prison). He is opposed to the plot and wants a revolutionary (i.e. violent) attack on the governor. Karim, of course, is caught between Taher and Heykal. Once again, Cossery tells a very clever story, brilliantly showing that derision rather than violence may well be the solution to overthrowing tyrants. I am not sure how it would work in real life but it does make for a fascinating novel.

Publishing history

First published in 1964 by Julliard
First English translation in 2010 by the New York Review of Books
Translated by Anna Moschovakis