Albert Cossery
Albert Cossery
Henry Miller on Egyptian author Albert Cossery

“A bud in the darkest hour of the night”

ALBERT COSSERY is a young Egyptian, born in Cairo, who spent a number of years in Paris and writes his books in French. He is rapidly gaining recognition not only in the French-speaking world but in England and soon, we expect, in America, where his first book Men God Forgot is now being published in English. He has just finished a third book, a long novel, called Les Faineants dans la Vallée Fertile, which will be published at the end of this year [1945]. All his books have been translated into Arabic and are creating a stir in the Near and Middle East. They are destined, in my opinion, to be translated into many tongues, for their appeal is universal. He writes exclusively about the unalleviated misery of the masses; about the little men, the forgotten men — men, women and children, I should say – forgotten of God.

No living writer that I know of describes more poignantly and implacably the lives of the vast submerged multitude of mankind. He touches depths of despair, degradation and resignation which neither Gorky nor Dostoevsky has registered. He is dealing, of course, with his own people, whose misery began before Western civilisation was dreamed of. Despite seemingly unrelieved gloom and futility in which his figures move, the author nevertheless expresses in every work his indomitable faith in the power of the people to throw off the yoke. Usually this hope is voiced by one of the characters apparently without hope. It is not a shout which is given forth but a quiet, determined affirmation – like the sudden appearance of a bud in the darkest hour of the night.

In Men God Forgot we have five rather short vignettes which give a foretaste of Cossery’s bite and fervour. To me the book was a complete surprise, the first of its kind that I have seen since the work of the great Russian writers of the past. It is the sort of book that precedes revolutions, and begets revolution, if the tongue of man possesses any power whatever.
Cossery here gives tongues to the speechless ones. Naturally, they do not speak like the professional agitators indoctrinated with Marxism. Their language is childlike, simple to the point of foolishness, but pregnant with a meaning which, when understood by those in power, will cause them to tremble and shudder.

Often they express themselves in fantasy, a dream language which, in their case, demands no psychoanalytical interpretation. It is as clear as the handwriting on the wall. In effect, this is precisely what Cossery is doing — writing his message on the wall! Only, he is not speaking for himself but for the multitude. He does not revel in the horrors of misery, as might be imagined from a cursory glance; he is heralding the coming of a new dawn, a mighty dawn from the Near, the Middle and the Far East.

His books are saturated with a mordant, savage humour which makes one laugh and weep at the same time. There is no separation between the author and the pitiable figures he depicts.

He is not only for them, he is of them too. In expressing their vagaries, one feels that Albert Cossery is also just learning to use his voice, to use it in a new way, a way that will never be forgotten. To a Westerner, especially an American, his types will probably seem outlandish and ridiculous, almost incredible. We have forgotten how men can sink so low; we know nothing of this abysmal level of existence, not even in our most backward regions. But I am assured by those who know that there is nothing in the least incredible, the least fantastic, about Cossery’s creatures or their situation. He has given us a reality all too real, incredible only that in such an “enlightened” era such things can be.

The House of Certain Death, his second book, could well be taken as symbolic. We are all living in that house, whether we realise it or not. The huge crack in the wall is patent to every eye, except that of the landlord. The question is, whither shall we go and how? For the vast multitude seeking a bare means of subsistence every house is doomed. The solution, as one of the characters in the book sees it, is not to pay rent any longer. They have tried every means in their power to bring attention to their ominous plight, but unsuccessfully. They have written a letter to the government, about which there is a grave question – does the government know how to read? This letter, incidentally, is a masterpiece. It was written for the tenants by Ahmed Safa, formerly a tramway motorman, now a vendor of stolen cats and a confirmed hashish smoker. In it Ahmed Safa expresses the pious hope that the government will come to look at the house, in order to see for itself. If not, he adds, we will bring it to you, which amounts to the same.

There is one tenant, however, who seems not to care whether the house crumbles or not. That is Bayoumi, the man who keeps trained monkeys. “Why live in the streets?”, he tells one of the other tenants. “The streets are made for everybody. No one will ask you for rent then.”

Abdel Al is of another mind. He is the one who has been urging the others to cease paying rent. It is he who finally inspires fear and dread in the heartless owner Si Khalil. Toward the end of the book they meet one day in a park. Si Khalil pretends that they ought to understand one another, get together in some way.

“You and I will never reach and understanding”, replies Abdel Al. “We have nothing in common.”

Nevertheless Si Khalil persists. He is terrified of what may happen should all the witless tenants of all his crumbling houses think like Abdel Al. Says Abdel Al: “What gives you fear is not me but the whole multitude of men hidden behind me, don’t you see them?”

Si Khalil tries to tell him that sorrow has touched him. “On life’s highways sorrows are without number.”

“On life’s highway,” retorts Abdel Al, “one sometimes encounters vengeance”.

Si Khalil registers scepticism and disdain. “There’s no sense to your words”, he keeps saying.

“You’ll know differently one day”, says Abdel Al.

“You’ll be dead well before that”, Si Khalil replies.

“The house will cave in on us all”, says Abdel Al. “But we are numberless. It will not kill us all. The people will live and they will know how to avenge themselves.”

With this they take leave of one another. We wait now for the house to collapse.

Paris, 1945

This text was given to Banipal by Albert Cossery in 1997 and published in the first issue of Banipal. The original publisher is not known