The House of Certain Death by Albert Cossery; New Dirrections 1949; Translated by Stuart B. Kaiser.
My review may, perhaps, be a little biased, since I adore Cossery's writing. I have yet to meet an author whose descriptive language is as poetic, his prose so direct yet flowery. Comparing this book to his other works, however, I must admit that Mr. Kaiser's translation was perhaps not the best for Cossery's style, especially compared to Thomas W. Cushing's translation of Proud Beggars. I'm basing this statement not on the knowledge of the original text, but on comparing it to Cossery's other works translated by other translators. Somehow this one seems more 'choppy'.
Nonetheless, if you like Cossery, this book should not be overlooked.
As with his other works, The House of Certain Death is set in Egypt and deals with lower class elements of society. The settings are familiar, and the message is consistent with his other works. Cossery is the lone voice of the masses, the unfortunate, the derelicts, the beggars, cripples, miserable beings who dwell in the native quarters, far away from the shiny lights of the European city.
The book opens with: "It was winter, the cruel winter of poverty-stricken Egypt. The day had dawned in the misery of glacial cold. First, the wind tore through the streets of the modern city with its concrete structures, strong as invincible fortresses. Then it savagely attacked the native quarter. There, it found no serious obstacle to oppose its violent intensity. It engulfed the countless tumbledown dwellings and filled the alleys with devastating gusts. It was an icy wind, full of poisonous damp. It blew through the reeling walls of the wretched hovels; it tumbled them into ruins; it twisted around the squalid rubble, stirring up a pestilential odor of misery."
We are thus introduced to the house which is at the center of this novel, the house owned by the detested landlord Si Khalil. A house that threatens to collapse at any moment, so the entrance to the alley is forbidden to vegetable pushcarts and even vendors with loud voices. As for the inhabitants of the house, Cossery introduces us as: "Only poor wretched creatures, blinded by their abject misery, could find shelter for their precarious existence inside those dilapidated walls."
The story revolves around the house and its inhabitants. There are several colorful characters that only reality or Cossery could throw together in one place: Abdel Al, a carter and his wife Mabrouka; Chehata, a carpenter and his wife Khecha; Old Kawa who is going blind; Bayoumi, a monkey trainer and his wife Zakiya; Soliman El Abit, a melon peddler, and his wife Nefissa; Rachwan Kassem an oil-stove repairman, and his wife Om Saad; Abd Rabo, a street cleaner, and Souka a singer in a cafe. Along with these principle characters, there are numerous children in various stages of hunger, and the infamous landlord Si Khalil.
Chehata spends his days at the courtyard messing with the few pieces of wood he possesses. He actually never makes anything, or sells anything. No one ever hires him to do any carpentry.
Souka, who works as a singer in the red-light district, struggles with platonic love for the young wife of Abd Rabo, who, out of jealousy, keeps her locked up. Actually, Abd Rabo, being the only person with a steady job and income, holds a special social value among the tenants. Soliman El Abit spends most of his time sleeping, since it is winter, and winter is not a good time for melons. Bayoumi prances around with his monkey and a goat, making living in any way possible, that is, until his goat mysteriously disappears and is never found - the carpenter's family ate her. Rachwan Kassem holds a very high opinion of himself as an educated man because he can fix oil stoves. Abdel Al, the most important character in this book has revolutionary ideas, such as not paying rent until the landlord fixes the house. Due to this, he is accused of reading books, something frowned upon and almost forbidden.
While the focus point in the story is the house - which by way is falling apart threatening to cave in any day - what is uniquely Cossery is the stuff between the lines. As in his other books, the idea of a revolt (not a full blown revolution) against the status quo, against the higher class is deeply present. Showing a deep division between the tenants, the poorest of the poor, by their perceptions of themselves, he takes on the whole caste system as a joke. Si Khalil, the landlord, became wealthy only because of his shady dealings in the past, and is the worst slumlord one can imagine. Yet, he has the respect of the police and the people.
His tenants, unable to read or write, hire a drug addict to write a letter to the government to complain about their landlord. From that day on, however, they fear the government will come and hurt them. The women in this story do not receive much respect (same in his other writings), which is likely due to the general culture and era (not that this justifies it). They are controlling, loud, and the men fear them when the women are together yet disrespect them when the women are separate.
But back to the idea of revolt. Every single book by Cossery I've read deals with similar issues. Revolt against injustice, revolt against social status, revolt against progress which seems unfair to the natives. While the modern city (European center of Cairo) benefits from all that is new and spectacular, the natives are left in mud.
Cossery, to me, is a master when it comes to depicting slums. His characters are real people with real problems. He is the champion of the oppressed masses, and the house in this story is the entire system designed to keep the people at bay. And, as a good revolutionary, he ends with: "The future is full of outcries; the future is full of revolt. How to confine this swelling river that will submerge entire cities? Si Khalil can visualize the house collapsing into dusty ruin. He sees the living arising from among the dead. For they will not all die. They will have to be reckoned with when they rise up, their faces bloody, and their eyes filled with vengeance."
So, The House of Certain Death is not about a house after all.