I often wonder about sentences – about their impact, their purity, their necessity of being. I wonder about wasted words, wasted pages, and wasted stories. I wonder every time I read.
Yet, whenever I reach for The Proud Beggars, I find myself in awe, mesmerized, a captive to Cossery’s mastery of language, his scenes, his characters, and his ideology. If there ever was the perfect literary book, for me, it is this one.
No matter how many times I read this book, it never fails to grab me anew and bring me to my knees.
Through his easy flowing, imagery-rich writing, Cossery breathes life into his main characters: Gohar, a wealthy, respected philosophy professor, who leaves everything to become a beggar; Yeghen, a hideous derelict poet, who values friendship above his own life; El Kordi, a government clerk, who is too occupied with noble ideals to actually perform any work; and Nour el Dine, a pederast police inspector, who wonders whether all he serves and believes in is only a sham.
Cossery’s mastery of language (and Cushing’s excellent translation) delivers an astounding experience, both visual and emotional. His writing is renown for giving voice to the least fortunate of men, and he continues this tradition in The Proud Beggars. Using the Cairo slums as a background, Cossery is not satisfied with merely painting the surroundings…he delves deep and bores through the fabric of societal hierarchy all the way to the deepest bottom, to circles where one does not need to pretend anymore. A world of men only a modern society is capable of producing, a world where misery seeps from every pore ad infinitum. An obscure world of cigarette-butt scavengers, prostitutes, secret gay lovers, street vendors, drug dealers, and the worst of the scum, while across the river the lights shine brightly on the most exquisite merchandise.
Although the story takes place in pre-WWII era, Cossery’s philosophy proves itself timeless and remains relevant today: A man is only free when he has nothing to lose. Society, and the middle class in particular, is merely tied down, chained by its priced possessions, and forced to forfeit liberties in exchange for meaningless artifacts. Can we argue with such a view? Certainly, and we should. But how different are we really? How different is life in these ‘glory days’? We might not have the need to scavenge for food, but we continue to chase after the coolest gadgets, the latest fashion, the shiniest jewelry, and the best living spaces. We continue to sell part of ourselves for these comforts.
This book, however, is not about the absurdity of modern-day society. (Nor am I standing atop a soapbox.) It is, first and foremost, a human story — a story of dignity, of man’s weaknesses and strengths, of enlightenment and perversity. It is a story of the blind tearing off their veils and seeing, for the first time, what really matters. And from there, we are on our own, as Cossery, after a spectacular ending, leaves to us the choice to see or not to see.
I would recommend this book to any one who enjoys deep psychological dramas.