Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Killing jokes

A friend happily recommended Albert Cossery's short 1964 novel The Jokers, a very funny satire on a dictatorial Arab governor. Cairo-born Cossery died in Paris a few years ago aged 94, having lived most of his life on the fourth floor of the same St Germain hotel - La Louisiane. He produced less than one book for each decade of his life.

The cover (pictured) for the NYRB's translation (from French), by Iranian photographer Abbas, is presumably an image of Syrian ruler Hafez al-Assad and underlines the book's continued relevance. An obvious parallel is Milan Kundera's The Joke (1967), which also takes for its starting point authoritarian states' fear of mockery.

Cossery's philosophy is closer to that of the pleasure-seeking Tomas in Kundera's most famous work, The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984), though The Jokers' mordant denouement shows there's nothing more serious than humour. I'll definitely be looking up more work by Cossery, thanks for the tip, Andrew!


  1. It's a good one, isn't it? NYRB have another Cossery coming out later this year, though I forget the title, which I'm going to have to get.

  2. Wow, thank you James, have you read everything? Like the cover of this one, too. Hope all very well with you.

  3. I try! 'Proud Beggars' is the new Cossery: 'Cossery’s proud beggars—a former university professor, a hashish-dealing poet, and a would-be revolutionary office-clerk—live on the fringes of Cairo society, and they wouldn’t have it any other way. Each is suspected in the death of a young prostitute, but the detective charged with getting to the truth of the crime finds that he is no match for this band of outsiders.' Sign me up!