Translator Frank Wynne is going to have an interesting few days. Not only is he getting ready to announce the winner of the International Booker Prize later this week, but on the same day, his latest translation will be out on sale. The book is a far cry from the swank and glamour of the awards ceremony, however, as it’s a work taking a look at a rather different view of Paris, with a cast of immigrants introducing us to another side of the French capital. Bring a suit and make sure you’ve got comfortable shoes – there won’t be much time for sitting down, if you know what I mean…
Standing Heavy (review copy courtesy of MacLehose Press) is a book by Ivoirian writer GauZ’, exploring the experiences of African men in Paris. As a resident of France himself in the past, he uses his experiences to examine the lives of undocumented migrants from Africa making a living on their feet as security guards in shops and companies across the capital. As he does so, he also casts a critical eye on the people these guards see over the course of their long days, creating a kind of anthropological study of shoppers.
The first pages set the scene as a group of African men make their way up a staircase. They’re on their way to an induction, a group of new security guards who’ll soon be ‘standing heavy’ all across town, earning money in the profession the white population believes them best suited to:
Morphological profile… Black men are heavy-set, Black men are tall, Black men are strong, Black men are deferential, Black men are scary. It is impossible not to think of this jumble of noble savage clichés lurking atavistically in the minds of every White man responsible for recruitment and every Black man who has come to use these clichés to his advantage.
p.3 (MacLehose Press, 2022)
While the English title emphasises the men’s size, the French takes another approach. The original title is Debout-payé , “paid for standing”, which provides a nice description of what the job entails.
Standing Heavy is a short work with a slightly unusual structure. One strand has us following a small group of illegal immigrants over the years: Ferdinand arrives in the early seventies, crashing with his cousin and landing on his feet;
Ossiri and Kassoum follow in the nineties, taking different paths that intersect at an abandoned flour mill. The writer follows them around the city and explores how the Ivoirians manage to make a living after rough starts in the big city.
With these scenes taking place over the course of several decades, there’s an opportunity for the writer to discuss the historical background. Ferdinand arrives at a time when Paris has many African students, but the oil crisis and a subsequent lurch to the right sees life becoming more difficult. The younger pair are in Paris during a golden age for undocumented arrivals, one cut short by the attacks on the World Trade Center. As Kassoum watches the towers fall on his small, portable TV, little does he know that the days of easy work will soon (temporarily) be over.
Surprisingly, though, these stories are actually quite fleeting, and much of the book is taken up by sections in which we are treated to the wisdom of a man standing heavy in various shops. These parts consist of a multitude of short thoughts, the wisdom of the security guard as he watches people go about their shopping, and his vignettes can be haiku-like in their brevity and incisiveness:
Sephora is Mecca and, within it, the Christian Dior concession is the Ka’bah toward which all women turn, Arabic or otherwise, veiled or otherwise, in the name of the most holy perfume. (p.65)
There’s a lot of fun to be had in hearing the proclamations of the man watching over the shoppers, a dry wit examining the traits of a consumerist society.
In fact, Standing Heavy is often great fun and enjoyable to read, pervaded by a lively tone both entertaining and educating the reader. The writer/protagonists cast an eye over black and white alike, categorising the shoppers and distinguishing between the many Africans in the city, both in terms of language and dress. With his keen eye, GauZ’ shows that ‘African’ is not as clear a description as some might believe, and Wynne’s work is as impeccable as ever. There are several parts you sense would have been fun to translate, such as a short verse on the topic of an animal – and women’s fashion:
O, Leopard, peerless hunter, noble feline,
robed in thy subtle camouflage and stealing
through deepest forest, hidden from your prey
know that there are women of today
who wear your pelt and think themselves your peer
but hunt for men amid the urban drear. (pp.122/3)
Yes, look again – those men standing in the corner with sunglasses and ear-pieces might just be poets in disguise.
It’s all good fun, but if I have a criticism of Standing Heavy, it’s that it can come across as rather fragmented. At times, I wasn’t really sure if it was a novel or a collection of aphorisms – it seems to want to be both, but it doesn’t fully hit the mark with either. I’m sure that’s deliberate, but there’s an interesting story in there with the experiences of Ferdinand, Ossiri and Kassoum, and if you want to know more about them, you’re probably going to feel a little short-changed. Certainly, by the end of the book, I didn’t feel that their lives had been explored enough.
Still, Standing Heavy is a fun way to while away a couple of hours, making for an interesting look at life as an undocumented resident, and at what’s really going on in the heads of security guards. There’s enough here to make me want another look at the writer’s work, and GauZ’ has written a couple more novels, including one in which he explores the experiences of a white man in 19th-century Côte d’Ivoire. That sounds interesting – I wonder if Wynne’s already got his eye on that one…