Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Proud Beggars by Albert Cossery (NYRB Classics 1955)

All this wasn't serious. El Kordi would have liked a people who measured up to him: sad and animated by vengeful passions. But where to find them? 

His young blood boiling with impatience, he dreamed of being a man of action. This ridiculous job, which he did for starvation wages, wasn't designed to quench his thirst for social justice. He was so disgusted by it that most of the time he farmed it out to his more unfortunate colleagues - married men and fathers of numerous children - for a moderate payment. Thus, at the end of each month a paradoxical spectacle took place: the colleagues who had done some work for El Kordi came to collect their meager fees in a line before his desk. At such moments, El Kordi assumed the irritated air of a boss paying his workers. All the same, with the little money left over, he managed to survive. He led a life of extreme poverty, but decent and, he thought, very dignified. Keeping up appearances was his constant worry. For example, when he was obliged to live on boiled beans, he would tell his grocer that he was sick of eating chicken and that a common dish would surely excite his jaded appetite. The grocer wasn't fooled, but honor was saved.