Work produced in the final stretch of an artist's career often reveals the creator's sense of freedom at the close. Simplicity, brevity, lightness, and an avoidance of the over-determined often characterize these autumnal works. In the field of painting, think of the airy ribbons of primary colors in Willem de Kooning's late works, or the floating paper cut-outs of Matisse's final years. Among writers, consider the fun Thomas Mann clearly had in sketching the progress of the youthful and morally flexible hero of Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man: The Early Years, a novel left unfinished at the time of his death at age 80.
Put Albert Cossery's THE COLORS OF IMFAMY (Les Couleurs de l'Infamie) in that category. Written at age 85 after a decade and a half of silence since his previous publication, this final work, the shortest of his novels, fills a mere 92 pages. It offers a sketch of his constant themes and a handy summation of his lessons. Except for the very serious questions it touches upon, I would call it a light entertainment. All in all it provides a good entry point for new readers interested in sampling "the Voltaire of the Nile."
On the streets of Cairo we follow three characters, each in his own way an outcast from society: Ossama, an educated but unemployed 23-year-old who has chosen to become a high-class pickpocket (he had "instinctively grasped the flaw of a society based on appearance," and so he dresses richly to more easily prey on wealthy marks); Nimr, his street-smart teacher in the trade, who is somewhat affronted that Ossama has gone upscale; and Karamallah, a middle-age writer and intellectual whose rebellion against the corrupt system has led to imprisonment followed by exile to his family's mausoleum. These three come together to decide how best to confront an injustice involving a shoddily constructed apartment building that collapsed, leaving 50 dead. What should be done with an incriminating letter Ossama acquired that firmly assigns culpability to a powerful real estate developer?
The open-ended discussions these three engage in include age-old questions. Is it possible to be virtuous and become rich? Is the world complicated and absurd -- an idea "dreamed up by illustrious thinkers from cold climes" -- or does the world still possess an "Edenic simplicity" of a kind that all men can enjoy, as Cossery's stand-in, Karamallah, believes? Is happiness within our reach? And to speak of an issue of critical importance to societies aspiring to fairness and equal opportunity: Is the world of business "unimaginable without corrupt networks"?
This is a novel of ideas that will impress you with its contemporary resonance. I was immediately startled by the opening pages of this 1999 novel, when Ossama surveys a bustling Tahrir Square and wonders about the future of the Egyptian people. Could the author have imagined the 2011 Arab Spring when the site became a center of popular revolution? Does Cossery have something to say to an America that today is exhibiting Egypt-like traits: a growing cohort of educated but unemployed youth; a growing inequality of wealth; a growing sense that 1% have inordinate power over the fate of the other 99%? Here is a book to talk about.
The translation from the French, by Alyson Waters, is excellent, smoothly capturing Cossery's rich and elegant prose. For those interested in reading an insightful online interview with the translator, Google the phrase, Alyson Waters on the Colors of Infamy. Some may find Cossery's writing old-fashioned or overwrought (too adverb- and adjective-heavy), but I suspect for most it will be a respite from the inelegant language we encounter regularly in our daily reading, especially online. Critics have noted Cossery's prose has a Balzacian touch. This stylistic similarity is matched by the two authors' common view of society. Cossery adopts as a truism Balzac's notion that behind every great fortune is a crime.
To understand how this novel fits within Cossery's body of works, I recommend checking out James Buchan's excellent Introduction to The Jokers (New York Review Books Classics). You can read the Introduction in full by accessing the "Look Inside!" option on that book's Amazon product page.
As for the meaning of the book's title, fear not: this is revealed two pages from the end.