Thursday, June 27, 2013

The Jokers

I am not sure I think Albert Cossery’s The Jokers (trans. Anna Moschovakis 2010) to be the flash of brilliance suggested by its reception, although it is certainly worth reading. The novel briefly portrays a small group of political activists (they would call themselves precisely not political or activists, but it is politics and activism of another order) who oppose their Middle Eastern government but also eschew revolutionary tactics. They view the world only through an ironic lens where any group that takes power from the current one is likely to be just as bad, and so they seek to undermine those in power by exploding their credibility without really seeking to replace them. So, for example, they begin a letter-writing campaign to newspapers where they praise the governor with more and more outrageous language that gradually turns the politician into an object of humor.

The novel at times embraces this sensibility, but at the same time it reveals moments of weakness in its approach. Karim, Omar, and the rest of the crew hold basically anyone else outside their worldview with contempt, and the price of that contempt comes through as a loss of something basically human. The group is also strikingly misogynistic, seeing women as basically stupid and incompetent, and I am less convinced by the end of the novel that this position is critiqued. Certainly Karim, at least, seems to move away from how he has viewed a particular woman at the beginning, but it is not very clear that his newly found love translates into an actual respect for women.

The end of the novel, an ironic punch line of sorts, strikes me as a bit heavy handed. Still, moments like Karim’s kite flying and Urfy’s encounter with his mother are bright spots that make this worth reading.

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