Best Translated Book Award 2011
“Yes, I knew you were working for the police. But it doesn’t matter! I also know what a man is reduced to in order to earn his daily bread. Your profession is no different from any other. By whatever means you participate in this despicable world, even by the tiniest job, you inevitably betray someone. We live in a society based on betrayal. That’s why your job as an informant never seemed dishonorable to me. I’ve always liked you.”
The characters in Albert Cossery’s bohemian romp, A Splendid Conspiracy, meander about in their sorry excuse for a city searching in cafes, alleyways and brothels for the life of a dandy. As close as you’ll get to an homage to the life of a libertine, Cossery introduces three young gentleman whose most pressing interest is to live the true life of a bon-vivant in their fair Egyptian city. There’s Teymour, a young gent from a well-off family who just spent six years in Paris tasting only the best of women and wine while his father thought his toiling away earning a chemical engineering degree so that he could work in a factory of which he owns stock. Teymour does return with the degree, but only because he paid top dollar for a replica of a real degree in order to continue his self-education:
From the very outset of his stay abroad, he had to admit that he never could have imagined such magnificent debauchery. Amazed at the variety of sensual pleasures, the multitude of temptations, he devoted himself furiously to them all, continually putting off his tiresome studies. Even had he wanted to, he couldn’t have found enough spare time for any serious activity. Little by little he managed to persuade himself that it would be a waste of his time and his youth to study all those absurd subjects destined to turn him into a functionary. Consequently, he had not enrolled in any university, had not bought a single chemistry book; instead he had purchased a stylish and costly wardrobe that was indispensable to his taste for show. During endless nights he had made love to sublime women and experienced emotions and adventures of all kinds. A few months of this glorious existence had sufficed to make him forget that he was there to earn a degree, except for those rare occasions when he receive a letter from his father worrying about the state and progress of his learning. This call to order mortified Teymour for a few hours; then he got caught up once again in the pulse of his new life and thought no more about it.
His childhood friend, Medhat, is a soft-hearted family man who does so out of guilt not love and spends his evening in the arms of any such young lovely. And rounding of the debauched trio is Imatz, a handsome actor who gave up acting because, even though practically blind, he refuses to wear glasses and caused a scandal when he made a mistake on stage that made the public question his ‘virility’.
This group takes looking for the easy way out to new heights. They loaf around the city, jawing about the foolish life of those who work. Who among us wouldn’t like to abandon our jobs and partake in all the vices a city can offer? Those in the real world know that food and housing call and the life of Reilly is none too helpful when it comes to paying the bills. No such worries for our three friends. No they have other worries–like the rich men of the city keep disappearing and the police chief, Hillali, thinks this dangerous trio is responsible. With this in mind, he employs the help of a young boy, Rezk, who is more of a kindred spirit with the three bohemians than he is with Hillali. Rezk is poor and is paid modestly to be a mole for Hillali and is sent to shadow Teymour and his friends for any behavior that will reveal their guilt. They couldn’t be less guilty because they seek only the pleasures of the city and aren’t interested in anything that takes planning, evil and effort. All the connections between these characters comes to a head with each of their involvements with the old lascivious lech, Chawki.
There’s also several torrid and blossoming love affairs, most disturbing is Teymour’s affair with Felfel, Rezk sister. Felfel is a young Lolita of a girl working as a circus performer/girl-for-hire who seems to be, well, under sixteen. Of course Teymour moves in with this nubile schoolgirl, shacking up in a sparsely decorated apartment in the seedier part of town. Ah, young, illegal love.
By the end of the
A Splendid Conspiracy, mystery solved and love affairs settle down into a quiet domesticity. Written in a style that feels similar to early 20th century novels, I couldn’t help but think of Robert Walser while I was reading Cossery. Alyson Waters does a good job with the translation so that Cossery’s satircal, highbrow prose comes through and does so evenly. This is a novel that extols the virtues of life well-lived, but not in the way most people think of it. Cossery wants is to explore the pleasures of the life around us instead of thinking that they always lie in places we are not. A true guidebook for the debauchee, it is a fun read although perhaps not having the weight to be taken as a serious novel. Which is just fine with Cossery, I am guessing.
Check out Cossery’s other title, The Jokers, that also appears on the longlist for the Best Translated Book Award 2011: