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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


The Colors of Infamy

Albert Cossery

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To purchase The Colors of Infamy

Title: The Colors of Infamy
Author: Albert Cossery
Genre: Novel
Written: 2000 (Eng. 2011)
Length: 92 pages
Original in: French
Availability: The Colors of Infamy - US
The Colors of Infamy - UK
The Colors of Infamy - Canada
Les couleurs de l'infamie - Canada
The Colors of Infamy - India
Les couleurs de l'infamie - France
Los colores de la infamia - España
  • French title: Les couleurs de l'infamie
  • Translated by Alyson Waters

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Our Assessment:

B+ : slight, but Cossery still in fine form

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Al-Ahram Weekly . 17/11/1999 David Tresilian
Bookforum . 12-1/2012 Thomas Meaney
The Harvard Crimson . 22/11/2011 Antonia M.R. Peacocke
The Nation . 11/6/2012 Mark Polizzotti
Nouvelle Revue Française . 3/2000 Éric Faye
Wall Street Journal . 24/12/2011 Sam Sacks

  From the Reviews:
  • "However it would be idle to attempt to extract much of a philosophy from Les Couleurs de l'infamie. That it has one is assuredly the case; a slightly rancid existentialism wafts from these pages as surely as it does from the author's other works. But even if one suspects that Cossery's micro-communities of philosopher-thieves, or thieving philosophers, whose authenticity in the face of an infamous world is saved by their self-justifying pride (l'orgueil), are not models susceptible to general imitation, the book, nevertheless, is a delight. Not only is there the marvelously elegant prose, in which no word is wasted (and existentialism, in whichever of its European variants, was hardly a philosophy known for its prose style), but there is also the author's patient irony, which embraces all his characters (even the philosophers), and makes one think that such moral precepts as this book contains are not simply or lightly held." - David Tresilian, Al-Ahram Weekly

  • "Cossery’s narrative is interwoven with political commentary of a kind that might be distasteful were it not for his trenchant wit. His denouncements are sweetened by a cynical sense of humor. (...) Cossery is a kind of Jon Stewart of Francophone literature, an author who sees levity and irony as necessary prerequisites for sanity in a myopic political climate." - Antonia M.R. Peacocke, The Harvard Crimson

  • "The Colors of Infamy (1999), the last and slightest of Cossery’s books, is also the least satisfying of the four under review (...) The Colors of Infamy rehashes the same themes, but unlike Cossery’s other books it seems halfhearted, the work of a man clearly winding down." - Mark Polizzotti, The Nation

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Colors of Infamy is a slight but choice little morsel of Cossery. His central characters are yet again those at the periphery of a decadent, corrupt society who philosophically (and stylishly) navigate life at the rim (and precipice). There's the young thief Ossama, who understands that to succeed as a thief one has to dress the part -- the part of those whose thieving is considered acceptable in this society, that is, as:

he had quickly come to learn that by dressing with the same elegance as the licensed robbers of the people, he could elude the mistrustful gaze of a police force that found every impoverished-looking individual automatically suspect.
       While Ossama finds (modest) success in this society based so largely on (false) appearances, the intellectual Karamallah, "deprived of all remunerative literary activity", has found the solution to his problems by essentially removing himself from it, settling down in the only building he knows he can not be evicted from: his family mausoleum in the cemetery.
       What Cossery delights in, and what is delightful about his works, is the anarchic world where, despite the most corrupt regime and "a government impervious to humor and ferociously hostile to all information having any relationship whatsoever to the truth", one can still revel in the pleasures of life, and lust. His gentleman-criminals and philosopher-beggars all share a Cosseryan joie de vivre, bemused by the absurdity of this life, and the bustle around them, and the sincerity of the poor folk they deal with.
       Both Ossama and Karamallah have admirers here, grudgingly put up with since they don't want to hurt their feelings. In Ossama's case it is the prostitute Safira, who continues to adore him. In Karamallah's case it is a student, Nahed, who is writing her thesis: "on Karamallah's philosophy of derision" -- a "mad endeavor", Karamallah thinks, yet he continues to humor her, as does Ossma his adoring prostitute.
       The small plot of the novel revolves around a letter that winds up in Ossama's hands when he picks an important real estate magnate's pockets. It offers proof of corruption -- as if any proof were needed -- and Ossama wonders how best to take advantage of this information. Merely selling it to a newspaper certainly isn't his style, and he's introduced to the like-minded Karamallah, who helps him hatch a plan. If not exactly the comeuppance one might hope for, Cossery nevertheless allows his characters considerable fun at the rich man's expense.
       The story in The Colors of Infamy feels almost like an outline -- as do the underdeveloped relationships between Ossama and Karamallah and their respective female admirers -- but the writing is in full bloom, and few can conjure up this sort of Middle Eastern decadence as well as Cossery. There's not much meat here, but a fine fragrance; it's a nice evocative little entertainment of not taking life too seriously.

- M.A.Orthofer, 4 October 2011

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The Colors of Infamy: Reviews: Albert Cossery: Other books by Albert Cossery under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of French literature
  • See Index of books from and about Africa

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About the Author:

       French-Egyptian writer Albert Cossery lived 1913 to 2008.

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© 2011-2013 the complete review

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