BTBA 2011 First Look-The Jokers by Albert Cossery

Best Translated Book Award 2011

Albert Cossery~Egypt

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Soad’s father epitomized the greedy, power-hungry bourgeoisie who reigned over the city like a pack of jackals ripping into a carcass.  He restricted his associations to his own kind–but only the more servile among them, people he could lord it over and put down as he pleased.  He was insolent, disdainful–even with the governor.  Soad, powerless and mortified, had listened for years as her father cut people down with the precision of an executioner. 
The Jokers is the second title by Egypt’s Albert Cossery to make the Best Translated Book Award 2011 longlist.  And, in fact, it is a bit redundant considering that Mr. Cossery’s other effort, The Splendid Conspiracy , is the stronger of the two.  The same themes are covered here–political corruption, power-hungry fools, and youth-fueled rebellion. There is the Cossery trademark subversive humor, the trenchant irony that trumps political prowess.  Like in The Splendid Conspiracy , a motley crew of young guns–an ex-con turned businessman, a hood with macabre sense of humor, an educated teacher hellbent on civil disobedience and a mastermind–come together to expose the current governor’s underhandedness into  through an intricate plan of mockery and derision.  These characters, Urfy, Karim, Heykal and Omar, are just as inept as the governor but have so much less to lose than those who run the unnamed Middle Eastern city. 

Each of these books stand alone, but when you read both, you realize you’re reading the same book.  Yet,
The Jokers presents all characters in their own foolish light whereas the characters in The Splendid Conspiracy are more developed and drawn out.  Not to say that The Jokers is not a quick, interesting read with its moments of humor, it is.  But there are similarities between the two that begin to undermine his style.  There is the repetition of a character with myopia which is
either a thinly veiled attempt at personifying a character weakness or a
preoccupation of the author.  Also, in both books there is pubescent girl(Felfel in The Splendid Conspiracy and Soad in The Jokers) that serves the role of seductress to one of the men.  For women readers it is difficult to overlook because it’s not a particular element specific to plot or character, it’s suspicious that it reoccurs for no seemingly good reason.  I couldn’t help but sense a subtle misogyny in his work.  Perhaps this is an accurate reflection of societal beliefs, but there are glints of it buried within the narrative that made me wince only because I am not sure if this partly due to the authorial voice coming through or an attempt at cultural parody:

Karim silently rejoiced.  Games of love like this made him happy.  Whether they were seven or seventy, women always fell for the same tricks.  Age didn’t matter:  you seduced them all the same way.

Although these aren’t major problems, they do point to the fact that as far as the development of a writer, Cossery doesn’t want to move beyond the political court jester role by employing used characters and character traits.   He merely writes the same book, albeit well, twice.  He is a good writer and I would need to read more to determine whether he grows beyond these themes or simply explores them through different storylines.  Like Alyson Waters who translated The Splendid Conspiracy , Anna Moschovakis does a nice job with capturing the irony and the wit of The Jokers.  Albert Cossery was a talented writer who skewered the ideas of upper class and political oppression with a light touch and a discerning eye, but as with any joke, the more you hear it, the less funny it is.

The Jokers

By Albert Cossery
Translated by Anna Moschovakis
New York Review Books
Paperback, 145 pp.
ISBN: 9781590173251

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