A gentleman pickpocket, an experienced fatherly thief, and a sophisticated journalist who lives in a cemetery—those are just some of the characters that populate Albert Cossery’s latest work, The Colors of Infamy.
Albert Cossery, nicknamed the Voltaire of the Nile, was one of the most interesting (and least-known) Egyptian literary figures. Born in Egypt to parents of Syrian descent, Cossery left his home country as a teenager to study and live in France. Despite never returning to live in Egypt, Cairo has haunted nearly all of his literary works. Even as he wrote in French, all his characters were Cairenes, navigating the city with a thousand faces. “I do not need to live in Egypt or write in Arabic,” Cossery had explained, “Egypt is in me; it’s my memory”.
Written when he was 85 years old, the latest of Cossery’s work, The Colors of Infamy, is similar to his other works, though not identical. In typical Cossery-fashion, the novel is populated with characters who live in the margins of Cairo, and it takes place in the city’s alleys and corners and its cafes and slums. It may sound grim, but it’s anything but that.
The Colors of Infamy is led by Ossama, a pickpocket and a thief, who dresses like a gentleman to mingle among the rich because his personal morals prevent him from stealing from the poor. On a lucky day, Ossama finds an incriminating letter in a rich man’s wallet that he’d recently snatched. His contemplation over the letter leads him on a small but joyful adventure that makes up the 96 pages of the novella.
It’s stories like these that represent Cossery’s touch—he prefers to write about the poor and the oppressed, but unlike most writers who do so, he doesn’t let his characters be victims in the strict sense of the word. Instead, his revolutionary characters face life with amusement, laughter, and a mockery that is neither bitter nor righteous, even in the face of oppression.
Described as a man whose eyes “shine with a glimmer of perpetual amusement”, Ossama immediately disregards the opportunity to incriminate or expose the corrupt rich when he has the chance to, instead opting for a plan with the end goal of amusing himself. Karmallah, one of the book’s secondary characters, laughs in the face of his political tortures. Even that arrogance, though, doesn’t come from a sense of moral high ground or “honour”. Speaking for Cossery, as most of the author’s characters do, Karamallah disregards a concept fed to the poor by the rich as an illusion. In the novella, Cairo is a city in perpetual decay but is also one that is full of laughter, mockery, jokes, and stories—not regardless of the misery, but in spite of it. In all his books, Cossery aims to depict the Egyptian spirit in all its glory.
Brief as it is, the novella is delightful with sharp irony and coy criticism. The characters are interesting, simple but not shallow, but they still sometimes feel like outlines of a certain category of people, rather than full characters in their own right. In this novel, Cossery falls to type-cast his characters, who don’t seem fictitious though they often lack a distinct voice from each other.
Moving from his content to his prose, we have to say that while the novella is literary, its first half lacks the temperance and maturity a writer like Cossery must possess. He falls to the tendency to overwrite like an eager young poet just discovering the marvel of words. It leads to a clog-effect in his sentences, rather than having them flow elegantly, as his writing often does. If anything, Cossery’s words evoke a cluttered river of sentences.
Overall, Cossery is an original writer whose depictions of Cairo and Cairenes deserve their place among the Cairos written by the likes of Naguib Mahfouz and Taha Hussien. His last novel highlights the ideas he curated to most of his life, and thus it’s full of humour, sarcasm, a poignant look at Egyptian society, and characters who will amuse you for the full span of its 96 pages.