Violence and derision

March 1, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

The Jokers. Albert Cossery, Anna Moschovakis, trans; $17.95 paper 978-1-59017-325-1, 150 pp., New York Review Books.

The ongoing unrest spreading across the Middle East provides a suitable opportunity to revisit Albert Cossery’s short 1964 novel The Jokers, a book about a group of political upstarts that seems bracingly relevant in the context of protests in Lybia, Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, and elsewhere in the Arab world.

Cossery’s novel is set in a city in an unnamed Middle Eastern country where a brutally repressive yet incompetent governor holds complete sway. The governor has banned panhandling, effectively criminalizing the impoverished segment of society. Vagrants and beggars have been rounded up by police enforcing the governor’s dictate that “the city must be liberated from the lowlifes that had taken to swarming like ants at a picnic in even the most respectable streets.” As the novel opens, a policeman is preparing to roust a beggar from a storefront. After attacking the vagrant with peals of verbal abuse that are ignored, the policeman – “this zealous servant of a mighty state” – physically assaults the figure. As he shakes the man “with savage fury,” the beggar’s head pulls away from his body and the policeman is left clutching it “like a bloody trophy.”

The opening scene of the novel presents a microcosm of Cossery’s tone and approach. The scene is dripping in irony: the policeman is depicted as a perspiring buffoon mopping at his face with a handkerchief that is “as coarse and dirty as a dishrag.” The beggar, by contrast, is “a finer specimen” of vagrant than the policeman is used to seeing, and he appears “lounging comfortably at the corner of a brand-new, quite splendid building.” The building houses a bank and a jeweler’s, two businesses “that demanded immediate protection from the rabble.” Cossery reverses our expectations by depicting the policeman as the more slovenly of the two characters, and establishes the social order of the city by underscoring the need to protect the rich (bankers, jewelers) from the ravages of the poor (vagrants and beggars). The irony is intensified when the policeman assaults the beggar, who assumes “the proud and thoroughly disdainful attitude of the dead”; a dead bum is “worth less than nothing” and “might even get him fired,” the fear of which prompts the policeman to try to shake the beggar awake, in the process detaching the head.

It becomes clear that the policeman has not beheaded a human being: the beggar is a mannequin left on the sidewalk by Karim, one of the jokers of the book’s title. Karim’s bit of sport pays off as the crowd that has gathered fills “with the sense of gleeful malice that is felt on the street whenever some representative of authority is dealt a blow.” Along with his partners – Khaled Omar, an illiterate businessman, Heykal, an unemployed man living off a small inheritance, and Urfy, a schoolteacher – Karim has devised a plan to subvert the authority of the governor and call attention to the incompetence of the city’s administration. They plan to plaster the city with posters praising the governor in such effusive terms that no one will be able to take them seriously. By drawing ironic attention to the governor’s inadequacies, they hope to expose him for the fraud he truly is.

The practical jokers in Cossery’s novel undertake to confront the absurdity of governmental incompetence with a concomitant absurdity in their rebellion against it. In this, it is Heykal who acts as their mouthpiece, claiming to know two things about challenging authority: “Number one is that the world we live in is governed by the most revolting bunch of crooks to ever defile the soil of this planet … Number two is that you must never take them seriously, for that is exactly what they want.” Heykal understands that taking the governor seriously would only lend him an undeserved legitimacy:

Each day brought more proof that in his initiatives and public speeches the governor dreamed of nothing so much as making Heykal happy by gratifying his sense of the absurd – as if he suspected that someone, somewhere in the city, was just waiting to rejoice over yet another non-sensical deed. As a buffoon he lacked for nothing; how could Heykal not love him? To kill him would be blasphemy. That’s what the pigheaded revolutionaries who fought him outright didn’t get: that they were giving him a reason to take himself seriously. To Heykal, the crimes of power were so obvious there was no need to shout them in the streets. Even a child could see.

Heykal is the ringleader of the group; he is also the focal point for Cossery’s blistering ironies. His philosophy of meeting absurdity with absurdity is counterpointed in the novel’s latter stages with that of Taher, a revolutionary dedicated to overthrowing the governor by more conventional, violent means. Taher represents a manifestation of the frustrated disenfranchisement that results from repression and government coercion, but he is also blind to the unintended consequences of his plan of action. By embarrassing the governor, the jokers hope to rob him of his power; by killing him, Taher will unwittingly make him into a martyr. The philosophical divide is laid out in an extended dialogue late in the novel:

“Games,” [Heykal] said, looking pensive. “You’re right to talk about that. Because we’re all playing a game, aren’t we, Taher effendi? I profoundly regret that my game has given you offense and caused you trouble. But any man has the right to express his rebellion in his own way. Mine is what it is; at least it doesn’t harm the innocent.”

“How infantile!” Taher retorted disdainfully. “I don’t doubt your intelligence, Heykal effendi, not in the least. But excuse me if I tell you that you’re just having fun while the people are suffering from oppression. Fun is no way to fight. Violence must be met with violence. And forget about innocence!”

“Violence will never get to the bottom of this absurd world,” Heykal responded. “That’s just was these tyrants want: for you to take them seriously. To answer violence with violence shows that you take them seriously, that you believe in their justice and their authority, and it only builds them up. But I’m cutting them down.”

“I don’t see how! There is no historical basis to what you do – to your insipid farces!”

“How? It’s easy. By letting the tyrants lead the way and being even stupider than they are. How far will they go? Well, I’ll go farther. They’ll have to prove themselves the greatest buffoons of all! And my pleasure will be that much greater.”

“But the people!” cried Taher. The poor people! You forget about them. They’re not laughing!”

“Teach them to laugh,” Taher effendi. “Now that is a noble cause.”

This exchange is perhaps too didactic, and Cossery lays out the opposing poles of his argument perhaps too explicitly. Nevertheless, the philosophical underpinnings of his story are strong and the stakes that the characters play for are high. The novel’s original French title, Violence et la dérision, is at once more subtle and more closely linked to the story’s underlying themes. If the entire novel can be seen as an extended debate about which of the two is a more effective weapon against tyranny, by the end of the book little doubt remains as to which side the author comes down on.

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