Great political movements start from the ground up. A group of citizens, faced with a government they find corrupt or unethical, take to the streets and march through their cities, sowing grassroots dissent through speech, writing, discussion and art. Great rabblerousers have shifted the direction of nations because of a firmly held conviction that the prescribed route is simply wrong.
But what do you do when one corrupt government is followed by another far worse, when there is no hope of ever seeing a sane, reasonable person in a position of power? If you're a character in The Jokers, Albert Cossery's satiric sixth book to be translated from French to English, you match the absurdity of the political situation with absurdity of your own.
Practical joker Heykal outlines the two tenets of his philosophy early in the novel, which is set in a fictional Middle Eastern nation: "Number one is that the world we live in is governed by the most revolting bunch of crooks ever to defile the soil of this planet ... Number two is that you must never take them seriously, which is exactly what they want."
Simply keeping their heads down and living their lives is not an option for the men in The Jokers — they must do something to rebel and voice their frustrations. Because dissent is outlawed, Heykal and his friends devise a campaign not of disapproval but of approval: they design posters praising the governor in the most highfalutin' prose they can muster, and paper the city with them. While Heykal's adherents hope that the citizenry will believe this appalling rhetoric to be the governor's own self-serving hype and react in revolt, they are simultaneously suspicious of Heykal's true intentions. In Cossery's world, jokers abound on both sides of the political divide.
Cossery was born and raised in Egypt, until, at 17, he left for Paris, where he wrote until his death in 2008, at age 94. The Jokers, first published in 1964 as La violence et la derision, is light in tone, but underlying its ridiculous set-up and playful nature is a seething anger, a railing against the idea of an intractable political fate. Heykal may vow not to take his government seriously, but Cossery's own act of dissent has ferocious bite.