By Albert Cossery
Paperback, ©1955, 1981, Black Sparrow Press
Review ©2007 Sabrina Williams
Proud Beggars is an intellectually stimulating novel by Albert Cossery, a challenge to the morals and doctrines imposed by society, set in the slums of Cairo. It is one of Cossery’s few novels translated into English, which is frustrating as Proud Beggars certainly leaves the reader wanting more, and my rudimentary understanding of the French language certainly wouldn’t carry me through an entire novel. Je ne peux pas comprendre.
While the story centers around the murder of a young prostitute and the subsequent investigation, the actual core of the novel is based on the interactions of the key players, who for the most part are vagrants living in stark contradiction to the rules of modern society. Gohar is a former professor who has chosen a life of poverty and drugs so that he may be truly free. “The notion of the simplest comfort had been banished from his memory long ago. He hated to surround himself with objects: objects concealed hidden germs of misery–the worst kind of all, unconscious misery, which fatally breeds suffering by its unending presence.” He assumes a bit of a fatherly role for the others, who bring him necessities of survival, put their own lives at risk for his well-being, and clamber for the gift of his conversation. As somewhat of a local celebrity, Gohar amuses himself daily by observing the absurdity of human action.
Gohar’s loyal following includes El Kordi, a clerk who despises his low-wage job, but manages to maintain it only by feeding off the hatred of his colleagues. El Kordi is in love with a dying prostitute, and his need for attention and drama provokes his own confession to the murder he did not commit. The poet Yeghen is Gohar’s source of hashish, a con artist with a reputation for informing on his suppliers. He harbors his own form of love for a teenager he has never met, only passed on the street.
Inspector Nour El Dine aspires to unquestioning conformity, but conceals his relationship with a young college dropout so as not to upset his reputation. The middle-class dropout, Samir, despises El Dine for his desire to assimilate into the majority and understands the lifestyle of the beggar and the possibilities it affords. El Dine becomes astonished by the beggars’ indifference to material comforts and longs to experience the same contentment they possess in their lack of worldly possessions and commitments.
Though certainly anything but a love story, the theme of forbidden love flows freely among many of the characters. It seems even the most enlightened individual cannot escape infatuation. And in the middle of all this longing, constant indicators of sexism and general disgust for women remind the reader of the locale and era in which the story takes place.
While Proud Beggars is a product of the early twentieth century, its message is even more poignant today with masses of people questioning the wisdom of a life of consumption and enslavement to establishment. I look for the popularity of this author to resurface with today’s intellectual and environmental movements.
Thanks to Henry Martin for this excellent reading suggestion. This one is going to find a home in my permanent collection.