There are hundreds of languages in the world, but a smile speaks them all - Anonymous
Those in power have always hated being laughed at. In our neck of the woods, this is taken to the point of hauling up stand-up comics for jokes they haven’t even uttered yet.
From before Aristophanes to after Shrilal Shukla, writers and artists have recognised how potent a weapon humour can be. As Bassem Youssef, known as the “Jon Stewart of Egypt”, once said: “Comedy takes away that fake respect authoritarian regimes surround themselves with.” This is also why jests that support the status quo are almost never funny – they’re just punching down, often with a bullying tone.
In his short, sharp and satirical The Jokers, Albert Cossery takes these elements to a farcical yet effective extreme. The novel deals with a small group of disaffected citizens who come up with a plan to destabilise the administrator of their province. It’s a stratagem that combines anonymity and absurdity in style.
Cossery, who was called “the Voltaire of the Nile,” is known for work that blends idealised low-life preoccupations with an effete outlook. Born in Egypt, he spent most of his life in Paris writing in French about fictional situations in the Middle East that often pit the powerful against the powerless.
Though his canvas is small, the mockery is potent. His characters despise authority and show their contempt for the ambitions of the world by leading lives of indolence and making fun of the rest. In the words of James Buchan: “Against bourgeois society, with its tyrannies, pitiable privileges, and futile exertions, Cossery pits flânerie, idleness, nonchalance, ridicule, and the insolence and sexual frigidity of the dandy.”
In The Jokers, first published as La Violence et la Derision and translated into English by Anna Moschovakis in 2010, the main characters are candid about their philosophy. One of them sums up the two principles that motivate his actions: “Number one is that the world we live in is governed by the most revolting bunch of crooks to ever defile the soil of this planet. Number two is that you must never take them seriously, for that is exactly what they want.”
The book, as I’d written in an earlier review, reveals a subversive and deep-seated contempt for oppression and human vanity. Set in an unnamed Middle Eastern city taken to be Alexandria, it concerns itself with the actions of an iconoclastic crew: a languid kite-maker, an illiterate businessman, a dandy with only one suit, and a teacher who advises children not to listen to adults.
With a fine sense of irony, not to mention gleeful malice, the four devise a scheme “of subtlety and scope” to undermine the governor’s authority. They create posters to plaster across the city’s walls that, paradoxically, praise him to the skies.
This flattery is so outrageous that even the most naïve citizens have no option but to laugh, and the authorities have to wonder whether it’s a publicity stunt pulled by the governor himself.
The group resorts to this not only because of its entertainment value but because “the papers were all in the governor’s pay; they’d never dare to publish a story that might turn him into a laughing stock for kids.”
The plan effectively sticks a pin into an age of inflated subservience. After all, the newspapers’ sycophantic treatment of the governor “had exceeded every precedent in the history of baseness and servility…if you believed the press, the whole city was singing the odious man’s praises.”
Later on, the conspirators also decide to petition the public to donate money for a flattering statue of the governor. This, then, is their version of revolt by ridicule: an absurdist refusal to meet authority on its own terms.
The deliciousness of this premise is unfortunately undercut by Cossery’s prejudiced views of women. In The Jokers, some of the characters display casual misogyny that can even be said to be streaked with cruelty. The women have overblown passions or saintly sentiments; it’s up to the men to think and take action.
With this caveat in mind, the book is worth reading because of the derisive manner in which it lampoons convention. It is said of one of the characters that “he delighted in the endless spectacle of man's folly and, like a child at a circus, never failed to find life wildly entertaining”.
Comedy of this kind, however, is not an end in itself. As Brecht pointed out in The Caucasian Chalk Circle: “It is our job to entertain. It is your job to draw conclusions.” From those conclusions come convictions, and from convictions come action. Precisely the reason that humour is so feared by the powerful.