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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


The Jokers

Albert Cossery

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To purchase The Jokers

Title: The Jokers
Author: Albert Cossery
Genre: Novel
Written: 1964 (Eng. 2010)
Length: 147 pages
Original in: French
Availability: The Jokers - US
The Jokers - UK
The Jokers - Canada
La violence et la dérision - Canada
The Jokers - India
La violence et la dérision - France
Gewalt und Gelächter - Deutschland
La violenza e il riso - Italia
  • French title: La violence et la dérision
  • Translated by Anna Moschovakis
  • With an Introduction by James Buchan

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Our Assessment:

A- : a beautiful idea, quite nicely executed

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Harper's . 8/2010 Benjamin Moser
Harper's . 2/2011 Robyn Creswell
The LA Times A 15/8/2010 David L. Ulin
The Nation . 11/6/2012 Mark Polizzotti
The National . 24/6/2010 Jacob Silverman
NZZ . 27/2/2001 Stefan Weidner

  From the Reviews:
  • "Albert Cossery shows a wittier way to bring down a loathsome regime." - Benjamin Moser, Harper's

  • "Cossery's fables offer a lesson that is both liberating and constraining. In his account, the artist's freedom, his complete disengagement from the structures of power, is purchased at the price of his relevance, or capacity to represent and address a wider collective." - Robyn Creswell, Harper's

  • "The Jokers is a small masterpiece (.....) Were this all there is to The Jokers, it would be a vivid effort, a philosophical novel in the most essential sense. Yet the true measure of Cossery's genius is how he finds room for real emotion, even among those who might purport to disdain the feelings he describes." - David L. Ulin, The Los Angeles Times

  • "The Jokers purports to be a comedy (...) but much of it brings to mind Graham Greene’s political thrillers, or the darkly ironic, politically and morally ambiguous films made by Luis Buñuel or Alain Resnais around the same time." - Mark Polizzotti, The Nation

  • "There’s a dark but terribly funny form of cynicism at work here. (...) The Jokers bears similarities to GK Chesteron’s The Man Who Was Thursday, the British author’s gleeful send-up of anarchist conspiracies. Unlike Thursday, Cossery’s work is defiantly secular, but it shares a sense of play and a prankish attitude toward authority." - Jacob Silverman, The National

  • "Gewalt und Gelächter ist ein politologischer Thesenroman, aber das merkt man nicht, weil die zynische Revolution aus lebendigen, nirgends papieren wirkenden Charakteren geschöpft ist, die überdies kraft ihrer Humanität und des Gelächters, das sie beim Leser auslösen, selbst kritische Geister zur Identifikation einladen dürften. Zugleich ist die Geschichte ein Traum, die Utopie einer unerhörten, gewaltlosen Ästhetik des Widerstands, die erst heute als solche offenbar wird." - Stefan Weidner, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

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 Jokers is set in an unnamed Middle Eastern/North African country -- a stand-in for Egypt, but just as well for any of a number of other regional states --, Cossery's favored corrupt, slow-moving, slightly backward locale. [In his odd Introduction, however, James Buchan claims the novel is set in Alexandria; the jacket copy has it "set in the capital of an imaginary (but all too imaginable) Middle Eastern country"; the city may suggest Alexandria, but is never identified as such.]

The city stretched out to the left and right, with its gleaming modern buildings projecting a false image of a flourishing city. Almost no one would suspect the immensity of the slums, filled with disgusting hovels and ancient filth, that lay hidden behind the façade.
       The government has outlawed begging, and there is now some surface appearance of busy modernity -- but Cossery and his flâneur-characters disapprove:
The police were cracking down on the lazy and carefree, judging such attitudes to be crimes against the nation. An entire civilization, an entire way of life, easygoing and debonair, was about to disappear.
       Karim, who lives happily seducing young girls and earns what little money he does building kites, won't stand for what the local governor -- this man who is "a face -- possibly the most ridiculous face -- of the universal reign of fraud" -- is doing to the city. Yes:
Magnificently and single-handedly he represented the inanity that ruled the world.
       Kalim wants to cut the governor down to size, and he knows how to do it. He is no typical militant revolutionary -- not any longer, anyway. He's seen how ineffective that game is. Instead, he's come up with an ingenious alternative approach: carefully disguised ridicule, in the form of exaggerated (anonymous) praise of the politician:
Has anyone ever known revolutionaries to attack a government with praise ? Another thing: the governor himself will assume it’s the work of some well-meaning supporters. He’ll be flattered -- that’s for sure. He’s too stupid to get it right away. But even if he did understand, it would be hard for him to take action against us. We’ll go on soft-soaping him indefinitely -- and what’s the risk ? They won’t dare charge us with praising the governor too much
       Successful (and illiterate) businessman Heykal -- who learnt the secrets to business-success while in prison -- is one of those involved in the project, thrilled to be able to back it with his wealth, allowing him: "to make a contribution to the madness of the world".
       Another participant is Urfy, who runs a small school, suffers with a mother declining into dementia, and is the one to provide the text in praise of the governor. And there's young Soad -- whose: "father epitomized the greedy, power-hungry bourgeoisie who reigned over the city like a pack of jackals ripping into a carcass" --, passionately in love with Heykal, and a useful source of inside information about the powers that be. And while Heykal certainly has his fun and way with the teen girl, it's really "the old madwoman", Urfy's mother that he is drawn to:
Her insanity was what he admired more than anything; she existed on a plane free of corruption, an extraterrestrial universe of inviolable purity, immune to the usual abominations. Heykal, who cared about nothing, was jealous of Urfy's crazy mother, this sublime being buried in a basement in an unsavory part of town; the schoolmaster possessed the one thing that could actually move Heykal. He had to hide it from Urfy, painfully aware as he was that his friend would never understand such special veneration.
       Their plans succeed much as expected -- though part of the fun is also in the unexpected results. If there's any disappointment, it's in how quickly they succeed in completely undermining the governor's authority -- only for the rug to be at least partially pulled out from under them at the end. The governor doesn't exactly get the last laugh, but does find at least some form of vindication.
       Cossery's novel is not without its flaws -- the book peters out a bit, as if Cossery, certain of his conclusion, had only been willing to imagine so much; there's something distinctly unsettling about Cossery's attitude towards (and reverie about) the nubile young things he matches his characters with -- but there's more than enough charm to it all to largely make up for these.
       The Jokers is also splendid piece of politically subversive literature, for even while Cossery's characters seem indolent and concerned only with pleasure for its own sake -- with little (though, it must be noted, some) regard for others, much less the country as a whole, they are actually quite sensible realists. Absurdity, they recognize, is the only response to an absurd world -- and in the effort to topple corrupt regimes and classes, derision may well be the better approach than violence (hence also the original French title, which puts the choice down to that between La violence et la dérision).
       It's also hard not to be enthralled by Cossery's writing, which even in translation (quite well done by Anna Moschovakis) impresses. It's a laid-back style and story-telling manner, but a vivid, seductive, and most agreeable one.
       This isn't you're typical fiction about revolt and rebellion, but in its subtle, playful way is as politically subversive as many much louder and more violent works. And it's very good fun.

- M.A.Orthofer, 29 June 2010

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The Jokers: Reviews: Albert Cossery: Other books by Albert Cossery under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       French-Egyptian writer Albert Cossery lived 1913 to 2008.

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© 2010-2013 the complete review

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