Six Questions for Anna Moschovakis on The Jokers by Albert Cossery

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As happens from time to time in translation, a dead author has become a mini-sensation. Though he did most of his writing decades ago, the French author Albert Cossery has been made fashionable in English with two translation in 2010–A Splendid Conspiracy (New Directions) and The Jokers (NYRB Classics). More are planned for 2011.

In a recent review of Conspiracy and Jokers in the LA Times, David Ulin claimed that Cossery “ought to be a household name.” He calls The Jokers “a small masterpiece,” about “a group of pranksters who conspire to bring down the governor of the unnamed city in which they live,” a city that frequently resembles the Cairo in which Cossery spent mush of his life.

I interviewed translator and editor Anna Moschovakis on her work with The Jokers, which has just been named a finalist for the French-American Foundation and The Florence Gould Foundation Announce 24th Annual Translation Prize, which is worth $10,000. The Jokers is also on the longlist for the Best Translated Book Award, which will announce its shortlist this Thursday. In addition to translating novels for NYRB Classics, Moschovakis is an editor and book designer with Ugly Duckling Presse and a poet whose second collection, You and Three Others Are Approaching a Lake was published by Coffee House Press earlier this year.

SE: This book is about revolutionaries in Egypt, yet I sensed very little that pertained to what has recently happened in that country’s politics. Cossery seems more interested in politics as an abstraction. Really, with all the talk of politicians as buffoons and laughter as a revolutionary technique, I was reminded of nothing so much as Sarah Palin and Steve Colbert. So, do you think this book (or Cossery at large) adds anything to the conversation about Egypt, and, more generally, communicates any fundamental truths about politics and governance?

AM: Egypt was in a state of political upheaval in the 1960s, when The Jokers was published, but beyond that I wouldn’t venture to suggest a link between the novel and recent events. The book’s plot pits two forms of revolution―violently idealistic and delightedly nihilistic―against each other, so in that sense it can be interesting to read alongside news of the varied resistance movements in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya. But Cossery was writing from his adopted home in Paris about an unnamed coastal city that would have been a flawed, anachronistic portrait of Alexandria at that time, let alone today. I wouldn’t read it as a blueprint for action, though I’d be curious to see someone try.

SE: The titular jokers in this book are repulsive individuals, certainly as bad as the politicians they hate. Just one quote to demonstrate what I mean; one of the revolutionaries, Karim, sums up their nihilistic, hedonistic philosophy with the sentiment, “The thought of a whole society given over to sheer bloody-minded rapacity gave him limitless pleasure.” Did you find anyone in this book sympathetic?

AM: I have to admit that I found many, if not all, of the characters at least somewhat sympathetic. Perhaps the least repulsive on the surface is Urfy, the fragile, subversive schoolteacher who, while a doting son, is blind to the true character of his senile mother. But it is Heykal, the cool-headed mastermind of the plot to overthrow the government with irony, who is able finally to give the old woman some joy by entering her fantasy world with her―exposing her humanity to her son in the process. Heykal is also essentially a pacifist, though not of the flower-power kind. The young “traitor” Karim’s transformation, in prison, from a self-important revolutionary fighting for an abstracted notion of “the people” to a light-hearted prankster and disciple of Heykal’s is motivated by a revelation that “the people” are not constantly suffering inferiors who need to be defended, but human beings endowed with the ability to laugh even as they endure life’s cruelty. Tahir, Karim’s former cohort, whose uncompromising revolutionary fervor won’t rest until blood is shed, is more pathetic than detestable―almost a tragic figure. Khaled Omar, the jolly former criminal-turned-businessman, is an eccentric anti-snob whom I found frankly likable. Even the bumbling Governor and the spoiled, manipulative Soad are pawns in a larger game of someone else’s design, inviting more pity than scorn. I found that the most repulsive character wasn’t any particular human being but humanity, or more precisely, society: what people do to and with each other. It’s a particular kind of Cynicism that I think bypasses total misanthropy. I should also say that a powerful sense of empathy is intrinsic to my experience of translation, whether or not there are any nice guys in a book. You have an affair with a book, so maybe you lose your ability to see straight.

SE: Cossery was admired by Henry Miller, and there is much in his biography to suggest that the two men would have seen eye to eye. What do you think of Cossery as an individual, and do you think comparisons of him to Miller are valid?

AM: The only book by Henry Miller that I know well (or once knew well―it’s been years since I’ve read it) is The Collossus of Maroussi, which is often cited as an anomaly of his oeuvre. In it, Miller visits a Greek island and describes the people he spends time with there. There is very little sex or debauchery in the book, but there is something that I think resonates with Cossery’s work―a delight in non-conformity, in pleasure, and in loyalty to a self-made life. I can’t speak to Cossery as an individual, and I certainly can’t speak to Miller as one; I think translation can be a way of getting as close as possible to a person’s work, but that’s not the same thing as understanding (or being able to judge) a person.

SE: In his introduction to the book, James Buchan notes that Cossery’s somewhat unorthodox use of adjectives might post a challenge for a translator. Did you find this to be the case?

AM: More than with any other novel I’ve translated, the translation challenges ofThe Jokers caught me by surprise. The descriptive language was so vivid, I didn’t realize at first just how hard it would be to inhabit Cossery’s tone in English, and a lot of the tone does reside in his use of adjectives. My first draft must have been at least 10% longer than the final draft―that’s how much repetition I cut, with the indispensable guidance of Edwin Frank, my editor on this book, in order to wrangle the English version into a tonal territory similar to the one Cossery’s original occupies in French. (This, at least, was our attempt.) The opening scene in chapter 2 was a case in point. The scene describes Karim in a post-coital moment: “Lying on his bed, shirtless, his fingers busily twisting a lock of hair on his forehead, he looked as lazy as a bored moarch, glutted with wealth and pleasure. Karim gave himself up to a feelng of delicious languor, while enjoying the voluptuous vision of his mistress from the night before getting dressed in the middle of the room.” The paragraph, of which this is only a part, piled up adjectives of the “languorous” and “voluptuous” variety so excessively that, in English, it seemed to cross a line that it didn’t in French. The trick was to leave in just the right amount of decadence, of excess, to work―to bring it just up to that imaginary line, putting pressure on it but not breaking it. It makes me a little anxious to revisit these decisions―translations have a way of never feeling done!

SE: I was struck by Cossery’s particular version of irony . . . everything in The Jokers feels as though it occurs in a world permeated to the tiniest crack by irony. It’s kind of like an aether, this substance that mediates every single form of human contact, and it seems as stifling as the unbearably hot Egyptian sun that is mentioned again and again in this book. What is it about Cossery, or his milieu, or his literature that gives rise to this kind of a world?

AM: I don’t have a theory about the origins of Cossery’s irony, but I do suspect that, in addition to whatever personal predilections he had for it, there is an inherent irony to being bi-cultural and bi-lingual. The fact that Cossery described himself as thoroughly Egyptian even though he wrote in French and spent the bulk of his life in France suggests that he inhabited a dual space, or a non-space, much of the time. Add to that the fact that his stories tended to be set not in contemporary Egypt but in the Egypt of his memory, and the multiplicity extends into the temporal dimension. I sometimes think some languages are naturally be more inclined toward irony; the fact that English has such a vast and growing vocabulary may work against us in that regard―with our tradition of adding words as we need them, we’re weighted toward singularity of meaning. Or rather, we are not accustomed to the fact that (even our) words often do double-duty, so we may not experience that instability as play. There is a word in the book that serves an important purpose in the plot: the French futilité, which means, roughly, both pointlessness and frivolity. In English, we aren’t reminded so succinctly about the relationship between these two things, one of which can seem quite depressing and the other light-hearted. That’s when irony, and translation, get interesting. But quite honestly, I don’t find Cossery’s world any more stifling than our world―though the heat is turned up, as it were, just as it is in Camus’ The Stranger and Gide’s The Immoralist, two books that hovered in my mind while I was working with this one. There are moments in The Jokers when the pleasures of sensation trump the pleasures of irony: characters respond viscerally, uncritically, to smells on the street, figures appearing in shadows, bright homemade kites flying in the breeze.

SE: The portrait of women in The Jokers is not a positive one. They hardly appear as characters, and perhaps the book’s most vivid depiction of them is as distractions for the men in the cafes to ogle. Did you find Cossery, or his work, to be chauvinist?

AM: As any Googler will readily find out, Cossery was a self-proclaimed anarchist who lived in a Parisian hotel and claimed to have slept with more than 2,000 women before dying at the jolly old age of 94. True, three main female characters in The Jokers are archetypes of literary chauvinism: Urfy’s mother, the madwoman in the attic; Amar, the hooker with a heart of gold; and Soad, the would-be Lolita. One could reproach Cossery for a lack of imagination in that regard, a lack that apparently pervades his work, though (not having read all of it yet) I can’t state that with authority. Most articles about Cossery echo his entry in the Encyclopedia of African Literature, which ends with this sentence: “His fiction revolves around men; when women are present they are mostly prostitutes.”

But to see his female characters only in this reductive way is, in a sense, to fall into a chauvinist trap as readers. I found the role of the female characters in The Jokers to be less dismissible than this. Certainly, these women are portrayed with little to no agency over their material existence; their sole power boils down to their ability to occasionally affect the otherwise numb emotional lives of the men in their orbits, eliciting unexpected and usually unwelcome glimmers of tenderness, vulnerability, or shame. But I wouldn’t say that the portrait of the women is any less positive than that of the men. The women recognize the extent to which they are limited by their cultural position (elderly, destitute, privileged), and all the choices they make are legible, reasoned responses to their conditions. Soad is perhaps the most poignant case: wild, infatuated, and unpredictable at the beginning of the story, she is trying to rebel against her Governor’s-lackey father―the picture of a social climbing sycophant―by participating in her idol Heykal’s subversive plot. At the end of the book, she appears for a farewell coffee with Heykal wearing makeup and jewels, gifts from her new, patriarch-approved, class-appropriate love interest. She has been tamed, or has given up, or both, and her defensive misery is equalled by Heykal’s depressed disappointment. There is at that same cafe a little girl who catches Heykal’s eye: in her, he sees a budding rebel in the process of being socially trained by her mother, and he fantasizes about enticing her out of her conventional life, out onto the street. She flirts with him, but then rejects him, turning back to her mother’s lessons.

One of the first biographical pieces I read about Cossery mentioned that his father read newspapers compulsively and his mother was illiterate. In The Jokers, newspapers are purveyors of propaganda―good only for entertainment, the less truthful the better―and the illiterate businessman, Khaled Omar, is both the most materially successful character and the most psychologically at peace. But Omar, after making his fortune with street smarts alone, finally signs up for a literacy course, from which he frequently plays hooky. That’s a complicated luxury the women in this novel don’t have.

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Thanks for this. I love these interviews with translators. Keep them coming!

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