The Proud Beggars by Albert Cossery. Translated by Thomas W. Cushing.

I often wonder about sentences – about their impact, their purity, their necessity of being. I wonder about wasted words, wasted pages, and wasted stories. I wonder every time I read.

Yet, whenever I reach for The Proud Beggars (Black Sparrow Press, 190 pages), I find myself in awe, mesmerized, a captive to Cossery’s mastery of language, his scenes, his characters, and his ideology. If there ever was the perfect literary book, for me, it is this one.

No matter how many times I read this book, it never fails to grab me anew and bring me to my knees.

Through his easy flowing, imagery-rich writing, Cossery breathes life into his main characters: Gohar, a wealthy, respected philosophy professor, who leaves everything to become a beggar; Yeghen, a hideous derelict poet, who values friendship above his own life; El Kordi, a government clerk, who is too occupied with noble ideals to actually perform any work; and Nour el Dine, a pederast police inspector, who wonders whether all he serves and believes in is only a sham.

Cossery’s mastery of language (and Cushing’s excellent translation) delivers an astounding experience, both visual and emotional. His writing is renown for giving voice to the least fortunate of men, and he continues this tradition in The Proud Beggars. Using the Cairo slums as a background, Cossery is not satisfied with merely painting the surroundings…he delves deep and bores through the fabric of societal hierarchy all the way to the deepest bottom, to circles where one does not need to pretend anymore. A world of men only a modern society is capable of producing, a world where misery seeps from every pore ad infinitum. An obscure world of cigarette-butt scavengers, prostitutes, secret gay lovers, street vendors, drug dealers, and the worst of the scum, while across the river the lights shine brightly on the most exquisite merchandise.

Although the story takes place in pre-WWII era, Cossery’s philosophy proves itself timeless and remains relevant today: A man is only free when he has nothing to lose. Society, and the middle class in particular, is merely tied down, chained by its priced possessions, and forced to forfeit liberties in exchange for meaningless artifacts. Can we argue with such a view? Certainly, and we should. But how different are we really? How different is life in these ‘glory days’? We might not have the need to scavenge for food, but we continue to chase after the coolest gadgets, the latest fashion, the shiniest jewelry, and the best living spaces. We continue to sell part of ourselves for these comforts.

This book, however, is not about the absurdity of modern-day society. (Nor am I standing atop a soapbox.) It is, first and foremost, a human story — a story of dignity, of man’s weaknesses and strengths, of enlightenment and perversity. It is a story of the blind tearing off their veils and seeing, for the first time, what really matters. And from there, we are on our own, as Cossery, after a spectacular ending, leaves to us the choice to see or not to see.

I would recommend this book to any one who enjoys deep psychological dramas.

–Henry Martin, author of The Mad Days of Me (2007).

Excerpt:

…He hurried now, slipping through the maze of alleys, passing innumerable huts made of boards and empty gasoline tins. He had regained his martial, conquering air, but in this quarter of ill-repute his police inspector’s uniform didn’t impress anyone. To fear the police you had to have something to lose, and no one here possessed anything. It was total, inhuman poverty everywhere, the only place in the world where an agent of authority had no chance of winning respect. Nour El Dine knew the mentality of the inhabitants of this area; he knew that nothing could terrify them or shake them from their strange somnolence. There was neither rancor nor hostility in them, simply silent contempt, an enormous disdain toward the power he represented. They appeared not even to know that a government, a police force; and a progressive mechanized civilization existed. The characteristic state of mind of these illiterate people wounded Nour El Dine in the deepest part of his being, showing him the futility of his efforts. He couldn’t help taking this stubbornness, this refusal to collaborate as a personal insult. With every step, he had the feeling that they were spitting in his face. Prey to a growing uneasiness, he perspired. His nervousness soon turned to panic and he stupidly began to run. But immediately he slowed down again, cursing himself and feeling like an imbecile. Anyway, these bastards weren’t going to scare him. He composed his nerves, resolved to walk with an easy stride and fixed his eyes straight ahead, with the air of a thinking man who moves on a higher level above the crowd.

This would-be superior attitude was almost fatal. Looking straight ahead, he stepped in a puddle of water, slipped, and nearly fell on the ground. Stunned, his movements ungainly, he took refuge near a hut and inspected his shoes and the mud-spattered bottoms of his pants. The feeling of shame, of irreparably having lost his prestige, made him stand a moment without moving, not daring to lift his head. What a laughable spectacle he must have offered to these wretches! Furry gripped him and he swore in a low voice. Then, panting with rage, he straightened up, expecting to hear jokes and laughter fly. But no, no one laughed. Yet it was worse than if they had made fun of him. The vexations of Samir, still present in his memory, were nothing in comparison to these gazes fixed in eternal dismay that rested on him as though to tear away his supreme justification, to strip him of the only clothes that rendered him inviolate. He could, at least, defend himself against Samir’s hate and sarcasm, but how could he respond to this monstrous indifference, more ferocious than the most implacable hate? Nothing in their behavior expressed aversion or revolt. They seemed to look at him as a mangy dog, or vermin. Why didn’t they throw rocks at him? Nor El Dine waited for a movement, but nothing happened. Still, his immobility this deadly indifference. It was only as he resumed his walk that something astounding took place. Standing in the middle of the alley, a little six-year-old girl with features blurred by dirt, lifted the bottom of her dress and showed him her sex in a gesture of moving simplicity. Nour El Dine blushed and, for a moment, seemed to totter on his feet, then turned his head away and escaped as quickly as possible.

He wondered about the meaning of this hallucinatory scene. The young girl’s gesture seemed to belong to a savage, incomprehensible universe. It was a fantastic act that went beyond intelligence, coming straight from the accumulation of rubbish and age-old decay. “Cursed breed! Am I condemned to spend my whole life among these pariahs?” Thinking of the role he played in this grotesque drama, a wave of bitterness rose in his throat. What an inept role! What was the government thinking about, entrusting him with such an ungrateful job! What justice could dawn in this trash heap, this field of death and desolation! To look for a criminal – even a first offender – in this gray and sticky mass was an absurdity. He would have had to imprison all of them. Nour El Dine didn’t fool himself; he knew that they were stronger. Fro years he had learned this from sad experience. Their inalienable misery, their refusal to participate in the destiny of the civilized world, concealed such a strength that no earthly power could exhaust it.

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