The Perpetually Barking Man in the Best of All Possible Worldsby Albert Cossery, translated from the French by Alyson Waters
Abdel-Chakour waited a moment longer, then left the café and wandered down the streets at random. He felt humiliated in his entire outsized being. It was a great humiliation, equal to his standing. It filled him completely. He buttoned his baggy canvas jacket in an attempt to cover himself. The lyrics of the song he’d heard on Emad-el-Dine Street resounded once again in his ears. “I am a poor man…in a disastrous state.” What a song! You had to be the son of a deaf woman to sing like that. Abdel-Chakour quickened his pace, his mind filled with homicidal thoughts. After walking for half an hour, he recalled a small bar on a quiet street where you could get a glass of spirits for only one piaster.
Other than its shortage of customers, there was nothing remarkable about this bar where Abdel-Chakour had already come several times. At the moment, Abdel-Chakour could see a man whose age could not be determined, struggling to drown in alcohol a sorrow that quite obviously intended to survive. Sitting down across from him, Abdel-Chakour observed the man in silence. He was shabbily dressed and you could tell he hadn’t shaved for several days. One utterly strange detail: the man, without advance warning or apology, began to bark feebly, like a dying dog. This way of expressing oneself in public greatly troubled Abdel-Chakour. He couldn’t understand it at all. He became even more concerned when he saw the man leave his own table to come sit with him.
“That’s just the way I am,” said the man. And in pronouncing these words, he seemed to introduce himself.
“An honor to meet you,” Abdel-Chakour answered.
“May I bark?” the other man responded.
“If you want.”
“I’m not disturbing you?”
This time, Abdel-Chakour sighed by way of response. The man did not worry him now because he was speaking a human language. However, after a short time, the man began barking again.
“That’s just the way I am,” he repeated.
“I already know that.”
The stranger made a face that signified so many infinitely painful things.
“No, you don’t. Not at all.”
He didn’t seem completely drunk. He was even behaving vey earnestly.
“I’m going to tell you the whole story.”
“I’m listening,” said Abdel-Chakour.
This extraordinary man was making him forget the frustrations of his evening. And he didn’t feel up to antagonizing him in any way.
“Well, it’s like this,” the stranger began. “I am very poor. A while ago, things were even worse. You know what I mean? I want to talk to you about a particular day, that fateful day when I began to bark for the first time. First I need to tell you that I am an accountant by trade. Yes, I was the accountant for the most prosperous brothel in the city. It was a beautiful brothel, with almost a dozen of the most alluring females. The madam earned a lot of money and paid me generously. I was as happy as a pimp. But then, I don’t know what sort of incident occurred. One evening, I found the brothel closed, a police officer standing near the door. I left without asking any questions. But none of that is of any importance. Here’s what’s interesting. I want to tell you about the day I began to bark for the first time in my life. That’s some story! It was an awfully hot day. I didn’t have a penny to my name and I was wandering the streets under a pitiless sun. Countless hours had gone by since my last meal. I’d forgotten the taste of food. I was amazed to see people eating in restaurants. I was feverish. Everything around me was becoming blurry and disappearing into a terrifying distance. I felt myself melting in the heat. So, I wonder by what stroke of fate my gaze fell upon that disturbing signboard: “Animal Protection Society.” At first, the sign didn’t inspire me with confidence. But then, because of my fever, I began to believe that the animals it mentioned could perhaps be people like me: the hungry and the poor. I thought I was saved. But not at all.
Here the stranger interrupted his tale and let out a few low, plaintive barks.
“Not at all, I’m telling you. The head of this Animal Protection Society to whom I spoke explained to me very clearly that, sadly, the animal called man was of no interest whatsoever to them and would have to manage on his own. I told him I would gladly give up my humanity if it would allow him to help me in my misfortune. This offer made him furious. He called in a few subordinates and ordered them to throw me out. I persevered, adamantly refusing to consider myself a human creature, but in vain; those men beat me with their fists and dragged me out onto the street. It’s then that I heard the little dog barking. I don’t know what came over me all of a sudden. No doubt it was the fever. I too began to bark for quite a while, just like that, without realizing what I was doing. The men who were mistreating me were so surprised that they immediately released me. Then I fainted. I don’t know for how long I was unconscious, but when I came to, the sickness was in me for good. At first I couldn’t bark very well, but by learning from the dogs, I’ve just about managed to make myself understood. That’s the whole story.”
Abdel-Chakour stopped listening. He paid for his drink and ran away. The man barked after him for a long time.
ALBERT COSSERY was an Egyptian-born French writer. Although Cossery lived most of his life in Paris and only wrote in the French, all of his novels were either set in his home country of Egypt or in an imaginary Middle Eastern country. He was nicknamed "The Voltaire of the Nile". His writings pay tribute to the humble and to the misfits of his childhood in Cairo, as well as praise a form of laziness and simplicity very distant from our contemporary society.Alyson Waters
ALYSON WATERS’ translates modern and contemporary French literature. In 2012, she won the French-American Foundation Translation Prize for her translation of Eric Chevillard’s Prehistoric Times. Waters has received a National Endowment for the Arts Translation Fellowship, a PEN Translation Fund grant, and several residency grants. She teaches literary translation at Columbia University and Yale University and lives in Brooklyn. Several of her translations have previously appeared in the Rail.