Early in Proud Beggars, a brutal and motiveless murder is committed in a Cairo brothel. But the real mystery at the heart of Albert Cossery’s wry black comedy is not the cause of this death but the paradoxical richness to be found in even the most materially impoverished life.
Chief among Cossery’s proud beggars is Gohar, a former professor turned whorehouse accountant, hashish aficionado, and street philosopher. Such is his native charm that he has accumulated a small coterie that includes Yeghen, a rhapsodic poet and drug dealer, and El Kordi, an ineffectual clerk and would-be revolutionary who dreams of rescuing a consumptive prostitute. The police investigator Nour El Dine, harboring a dark secret of his own, suspects all three of the murder but finds himself captivated by their warm good humor. How is it that they live amid degrading poverty, yet possess a joie de vivre that even the most assiduous forces of state cannot suppress? Do they, despite their rejection of social norms and all ambition, hold the secret of contentment? And so this short novel, considered one of Cossery’s masterpieces, is at once biting social commentary, police procedural, and a mischievous delight in its own right.
Albert Cossery…ought to be a household name. He’s that good: an elegant stylist, an unrelenting ironist, his great subject the futility of ambition ‘in a world where everything is false.’
—David Ulin, Los Angeles Times
The book that perhaps best expresses Cossery’s characteristic outlook on life and is still his best-known work. Marked by Cossery’s trademark elegance, the novel is humorous and reflective by turns. This is a world of simple pleasures, charming humour and the mockery of anything that might smack of authority.
—David Tresilian, Al Ahram Weekly