The Short Version: In an unnamed Middle Eastern country, a group of radical revolutionaries have decided to take down the government by planning practical jokes and humiliating their leaders instead of through traditional means like bombs and rallies. The jokes build and build until they are all but assured of success – and then, in the last possible moment, a traditional radical changes everything and ruins all their plans.
The Review: As interesting as the book happened to be, I found myself wondering throughout almost the whole of the book what the point would be. Obviously there would be a point – perhaps a Point – and it would be profound but what, exactly, would it be? And then I thought: perhaps there isn’t one. This is just a little story, ha ha, fin. And then in the very last paragraph, Cossery makes his point and seals the book shut with a neat little click.
The idea of revolutionary humor is not unheard of to those of us living in the post-Colbert/Stewart world. Here, it’s naturally taken to a different level: the revolutionaries humiliate the government but in a more public setting – and their stated intention is overthrow; they’re not just playing jester. The issue with all of this is that the idea is always funnier than the execution. The opening sequence, where a policeman thinks he’s killed a beggar that turns out to be a fake, is funny and well-played – but it promises much more than the rest of the book delivers, in terms of “revolutionaries being funny!” The idea of over-playing the praise to the point of it being obviously fake is…. well, it’s a terrible practical joke.
But, as it turns out, an effective political tool. It’s so easy to forget (in light of things like spending eight years constantly humiliating the President and him not going anywhere) that the Soviet reality was far different from this one. When the governor is seen to be TOO good at making himself well-liked, he’s removed from power – and it’s a stunning and perfect success. The SPOILERS ‘twist’ ending, where a real revolutionary jumps back into the fray and actually kills the governor just hours from his official resignation, strikes so strongly because it not only makes a case against non-violence but proves the case in one: the non-violent action removed the man and effectively ended his career – he’s a laughingstock and would never be trusted again – whereas the violent action made him a martyr, making him MORE popular and totally setting back the entire revolutionary concept.
It’s a fascinating point. I just wish it’d either come sooner or been populated by more than stick figures. There’s the possibility for development and depth in these characters but they’re all just a little flat to me. Even Urfy, with his crazy mother, was nothing more than a figure playing a very specific role in this parable. They all hit their marks and that was that. Not that that’s a bad thing, I suppose, especially in a parable or satire. You don’t WANT too much depth because then you’ll lose sight of the goal, the message, the moral. And the ending of this book certainly hits that goal/message/moral so simply and easily, so I suppose it did what it needed to do.
Rating: 3 out of 5. Solidly in the middle. The moral is enough to recommend it and it reads incredibly quickly – but it also isn’t something I’m going to rush out and tell you to read. It was, simply, just interesting enough.