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 characteristically proud beggars is Gohar, a former professor turned beggar, 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 from her miserable life. The police investigator Nour El Din, harboring a dark secret of his own, suspects all three of the brothel murder, but finds himself captivated by their warm good humor. He is drawn to these men. How is it that they live surrounded by 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 earthly 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.
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