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A Splendid Conspiracy Paperback – May 25, 2010
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From Publishers Weekly
The idleness of young men finds devilish outlets in this queasy novel by late Egyptian author Cossery (1913–2008). A young rake, having left home six years before, ostensibly to study abroad, reluctantly returns to his un-named provincial Egypt hometown at the behest of his father. However, young Teymour, who never enrolled in a university and bought a fake diploma, finds plotting seductions of young girls with his old friends much more fun than working in the family business, and soon Teymour and his friends, Medhat and Imtaz, are acting as procurers of schoolgirls for a rich dupe named Chawki. Throw in a flimsy element of mystery involving the inexplicable disap-pearance of certain prominent male citizens, a police chief who suspects the young idlers of plotting rebellion, and a thriving brothel with a bawdy advertising campaign, and you've got a prurient, over-the-top throwback that's some-times hard to take seriously. Fluidly translated, this novel reads much like a horny old goat's fantasy, and its appeal will likely be limited to the Henry Miller set. (May)
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“A legend…His caustic satire burned like the desert sun, undermining all forms of authority. Cossery despised materialism and eschewed the rat race... The overt message [is] that paradise is not lost, but most of us are too busy to bask in the Edenic simplicity of the world.”
- The Guardian
“I never see anything anywhere like it. All of Cossery’s books have a rare, exotic, haunting, unique flavor.”
- Henry Miller
“Above all Cossery, one of the last and quirkiest links to the postwar glory days of St. Germain-de-Pres, elevated idleness to an art form.”
- The Times [London]
Top customer reviews
A SPLENDID CONSPIRACY begins with Teymour returning, in obedience to his father, to the provincial Egyptian city of his youth after six years abroad, ostensibly studying to be a chemical engineer but in fact living like a dandy. At first, he detests the return to his native city for fear that he will perish from boredom. But he is quickly converted to the philosophy of his old friends Medhat and Imtaz. Among their principal tenets: (1) Life, even in the big cosmopolitan cities, is the same everywhere - the same absurdities, the same idiocies, the same social disparities. So why go elsewhere? Observe and be amused by the absurdities, idiocies, and disparities close at hand while extracting as much pleasure from life as possible. (2) Don't be seduced by ambition. "You have to have a very vile spirit to hope for fame in such a moronic world." Instead, simply enjoy yourself.
What greases the skids for Teymour's renunciation of materialism and social respectability is his infatuation with a "saltimbanque", a fourteen-year-old girl who dashes around town on a bicycle dressed in circus-like outfits and her face made up with bright colors. His affection for her is reciprocated and eventually he moves into a simple apartment in the poor quarter where she can visit him freely. Medhat and Imtaz also count among life's chief pleasures the flirting with - and, if it's in the cards, bedding - adolescent girls. So, too, does the fifty-year-old Chawki, though by virtue of his age and his desperation he comes across as a vulgar lecher. It's all part of their shared philosophy of "dodging all the constraints and taboos of a repugnant society that they seemed to find totally absurd."
Meanwhile, the city has experienced a rash of disappearances of wealthy, respectable citizens. The police chief Hillali convinces himself that the lazy, good-for-nothing, libertines - the circle of saltimbanques, as it were - must be responsible for those disappearances. But Hillali, as representative of authority and mainstream society, is revealed to be a fool and his theory just another absurdity.
Much of the novel has a carefree and bittersweet feel. Somehow it reminded me of Fellini's "Amarcord". Ultimately, however, the novel is characterized by the dichotomy it poses between the indolent but hip hedonists, and the rest of humankind, unhappily struggling through life. The novel presents the reader with a choice: you can either be self-indulgent and enjoy life as much as possible given your socio-economic circumstances, or you can let your life be dictated by materialistic concerns and absurd social conventions.
From what I have read about Albert Cossery (b. 1913, d. 2008), he indeed saw life as an either/or choice between hip self-indulgence and lemming-like participation in the rat-race. (When Cossery was nearly eighty, he claimed to have slept with 3,000 women.) Thus, A SPLENDID CONSPIRACY might be regarded to be a personal manifesto of sorts. An obvious weakness as a philosophy of life is that most people do not have sufficient economic resources to live like Teymour, Medhat, and Imtaz - or like Albert Cossery, for that matter. Furthermore, at least as portrayed in A SPLENDID CONSPIRACY, the conspiracy of the saltimbanques is sexist in the extreme. The women of the novel are either handmaidens to the whims and desires of the hip young men (and all females in that category are barely more than girls) or they are hags or harpies.
There are many reasons for dissatisfaction with the world most of us inhabit but there is even less to like about the world of Albert Cossery.
"A Splendid Conspiracy," originally written in 1975 as "Un Complot de Saltimbanques," opens with Teymour, a young man whose wealthy father has recently called him back from Europe to their small, unnamed Egyptian city. Although Teymour had been sent abroad to obtain a degree in chemical engineering, he never actually enrolled in any classes and spent the entire six years learning about the various forms of debauchery found in the great Western capitals. His "diploma" was purchased for a large sum of cash several days before his departure. Luckily, Teymour's self-pitying funk doesn't last for long. His childhood buddy Medhat reminds him that every country has its share of "imbecils, bastards, and whores" ready to make life fun and amusing. Their mutual friend Imtaz, a disgraced actor, heartily agrees with this, and "A Splendid Conspiracy" is for the most part concerned with the trio's neverending drinking, dancing, and womanizing. And just when things couldn't be more exciting, the town's prominent men have been disappearing and police chief Hillali thinks Teymour, Medhat, and Imtaz are the revolutionaries responsible.
It appears to be a simple enough story on the surface. Cossery's prose, though hardly minimalist, is straightforward and unadorned and rarely goes beyond candid narration. But, as Medhat explains, there are always "great gifts of madness and murderous rage" seething beneath every humdrum surface. "A Splendid Conspiracy" may seem like a carefree romp. But Cossery's irony is rich, beginning with the recurring image of a patriotic statue with her hand outstretched before the impassive city. It is a futile gesture. In a tale of idleness, "The Awakening of the Nation" is two-faced and ridiculous, the perfect symbol of what our trio perceives to be history's greatest con. According to Medhat (the brains of the bunch), "From the beginning man's hardworking fate has made him unable to conceive of an ideal that is not material and does not correspond to his needs and his safety. . .Therefore, I venture to affirm that only people of leisure can attain a way of thinking that is truly civilized."
Such an attitude is profoundly selfish, of course, as Medhat & Co. make it clear that they care nothing for those lacking class privilege except to sleep with their women. Their "enlightened" position is made possible by a good dose of male privilege as well, and both advantages are innately bound to the oppression of others. Hence, the gang's laziness and debauchery is dependent on other people being denied the opportunity for laziness and debauchery. Given the obvious similarities between author and characters, it is easy to dismiss "A Splendid Conspiracy" as a sexist, elitist ode to the libertine. A valid criticism - in some respects, it is: female acquaintance Salma is a shrill harpy and adolescent girls are naught but sex objects.
For all its blithe carousing, however, the "civilized life" is founded on a kind of nihilism that finds its starkest expression in the mystery of the missing men. Police chief Hillali's suspicion of violent, treacherous action comes from precisely our trio's seeming inaction. It is impossible to remain idle for this long, he argues, especially when you are educated, because with all that time to reflect you can't possibly have not noticed that "this world is abject and revolting." A sentiment Medhat, Imtaz, and Teymour actually agree with, but that doesn't mean they wish to change anything about such a world. They are apathetic in every sense of the word. If most actions that fall outside the realm of pleasure are stupid and ignoble, then it goes to follow that performing said actions only contributes to an overall slave mentality. Therefore, most such ambitious bastards are too stupid too live and our heroes will most certainly not lift a finger once they learn (accidentally) the true cause of the disappearances. Even if one of their friends becomes a victim. The more that go, the merrier.
I agree with another book blogger who felt that all the characters are basically repulsive. But take comfort: the character of Chawki, the bloated, vulgar doofus at the butt of the gang's jokes and despised by respectable society, is, in Albert Cossery's ultimate blast of irony, the very vision of Teymour, Medhat, and Imtaz's sordid future. They've already got all the ingredients. Joke's on them and their "enlightenment." Again, if someone were to condemn "A Splendid Conspiracy" as mere exploitation and misogyny, I would totally understand and actually agree to an extent. Still, I also found it surprisingly self-aware and self-critical and thoroughly enjoyed reading it. Am very interested in hearing what other people think.
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