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Of the many novels with settings in Cairo, Albert Cossery’s The Colors of Infamy captures the frenzy of the metropolis more vividly than all the others I have read. Cossery’s novella was published in French is 1999, more than a decade before the recent events that have altered Egypt so thoroughly, though all the seeds of the current revolution are present: the decrepit sections of the city; the traffic on the streets, making them impossible for pedestrians to cross; the minions of street-people with little hope or expectations in their lives. The narrator—a professional thief—is stopped short in his tracks one day when he discovers a new occupation: Street Crosser.
“This was a new trade, even more daring that that of thief because one risked a violent death; it was a trade he could never have dreamed up even in his wildest theories about the ingenuity of his people. The man who had invented this astounding profession in order to make ends meet deserved his admiration and undying friendship. He would have liked to congratulate him and even write to the government to request that he be decorated as a model for a new generation of workers. This inventor of a job as yet undiscovered by the hardened unemployed of the beleaguered capital was unquestionably entitled to a medal.”
Ossama himself—Cossery’s hero/thief—isn’t lacking in imagination. The thinks of himself, “Not as a legitimate thief, such as a minister, banker, wheeler-dealer, speculator, or real-estate developer; he was a modest thief with a variable income, but one whose activities—no doubt because their return was limited—have, always and everywhere, been considered an affront to the moral rules by which the affluent live.” Sound familiar? Ossama is simply trying to survive in a society ruled by crooks, “without waiting for the revolution, which was hypothetical and continually put off until tomorrow.” And the system he’s worked out? Dress like the well-to-do in expensively tailored suits and hang out in the haunts where the rich spend their time. He’s been, in fact, rather successful, since anyone looking at him would never conclude that he’s a simple pick-pocket.
One day the billfold that he picks from a man leaving the “Club of Notables” not only contains the anticipated money but also a letter addressed to a man who has been the center of an on-going scandal in the news for days. The “fabulously wealthy real estate developer was being sued for causing the deaths of some fifty tenants of a low-rent apartment building constructed by his firm,” i.e., constructed from shoddy materials. And the letter, “written by hand on the letterhead of Ministry of Public Works,” identifies the real estate developer’s accomplice in the government who, because of kickbacks, has hugely benefited. Ossama reads the letter several times, recognizing its enormous economic potential for blackmail, yet also realizing that “he was holding a bomb in his hands and he did not know how to explode it.”
What slowly evolves is a dialogue about honor for Cairo’s poor. Ossama’s education got him nowhere. He was “starving to death in honesty and ignorance,” while the people at the top were getting filthy rich. When he switched to pick-pocketing the rich, he felt that he was at least contributing something to society and to the economy. The money he stole he spent at shops that would be out of business were it not for him and his peers. As another character observes, “Honor is an abstract notion, invented like everything else by the dominant caste so that the poorest of the poor can boast about having a phantom good that costs no one anything.”
The ending of this deliciously wicked novel pits Ossama against the owner of the billfold, Atef Suleyman, the corrupt businessman, in a clever debate of values, class differences, and questions of one’s fate. The dialogue—especially because of Alyson Water’s delightful translation—becomes the highlight of the The Colors of Infamy. Sadly, this was Cossery’s final novel, reasserting once again his unofficial title: “Voltaire of the Nile.”
The Colors of Infamy
By Albert Cossery
Trans. by Alyson Waters
New Directions, 96 pp., $12.95
Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org