Albert Cossery, “The Jokers” (1964) (translated from the French by Anna Moschovakis) – If you were ever tempted to believe that a “both sides are bad, real wisdom is a matter of mocking ironic distance” was a new and bold stance… well, chances are some Greek or Roman somewhere would prove you wrong, but definitely French humorist Albert Cossery shows that it’s at least as old as the mid-1960s in this short novel. Egypt-born, Cossery wrote a few novels set in the Middle East, most of them satirical farces from the looks of them, like “The Jokers.”
Everything in the unnamed Middle Eastern city the book takes place in is a joke: the government’s a joke, the rebels against the government is a joke, love is definitely a joke (though in classic French fashion, misogynistic lust is taken pretty seriously). The main characters are part of a coterie dedicated to mocking all and sundry through underground subversions.
The issue here is that this is more of a sketch of a novel than a novel… one is tempted to say like how “both sides-ism” is generally a sketch of an idea more than an actual idea. The government is proven to be bad because it persecutes beggars and other street people- a good start. The actual antics of the joker gang, described as hilarious, are never actually laid out. They make a poster about the virtues of the governor, a grotesque figure they praise in equally grotesque terms- Cossery tells, but doesn’t show us. He doesn’t show them doing anything else funny either. If anything, he comes closer to the hectoring that he claims to despise in revolutionaries, as the jokers try to convince a revolutionary of how revolution is stupid and laughing at everything is cool. The revolutionary does a lot less preaching than the supposedly care-free jokers.
I get that different cultures have different senses of humor. And for all the physical proximity of France to England and England’s sort-of descendant America, the senses of humor are miles apart. Maybe if I were more French I’d find the jokers lusting after women they despise funnier, or find something inherently funny in the situations Cossery doesn’t bother to elaborate upon. Maybe I’m just a thick Anglo who prefers, say, John Kennedy Toole’s baroque literary comedical set-pieces over whatever is on offer here. But if I am, I am, and Cossery doesn’t seem liable to change that. **