Reading guide: Standing Heavy by GauZ’, translated by Frank Wynne
Discover our reading guide for Standing Heavy, shortlisted for the International Booker Prize 2023, which tells the story of colonialism and consumerism in France
A unique insight into everything that passes under a security guard's gaze, which also serves as a searingly witty deconstruction of colonial legacies and capitalist consumption.
Amidst the political bickering of the inhabitants of the Residence for Students from Côte d’Ivoire and the ever-changing landscape of French immigration policy, two generations of Ivoirians attempt to make their way as undocumented workers, taking shifts as security guards at a flour mill. This sharply satirical yet poignant tale draws on the author’s own experiences as an undocumented student in Paris.
Standing Heavy was shortlisted for the International Booker Prize 2023, announced on April 18, 2023.
About the AuthorGauZ' is an Ivorian author and journalist, the editor-in-chief of a satirical economic newspaper, and has also written screenplays and documentary films.
‘In this era of extreme capitalism which ever increasingly mocks humanity and nature just for the benefit of the ruling classes, just via the power of money, we need to put our eyes back in their sockets and understand the absolute absurdity of a consumerist society being the only model for life on earth. When I found myself working as a security guard during the sales in a department store in Paris, I immediately understood that this device was ideal for observing without being seen. I was at the very heart of the absurdity of the consumerist society. And as an African, I could finally be a ‘reverse ethnologist’, coolly describing the behaviour of those who had described us as entomologists describe ants. I gave it the distance of laughter, which Africans never abandon, no matter how serious the situation.
‘In order to write this book, I began by taking notes while I was on duty. It’s a job where there’s nothing to do but watch. So it was ideal. After a few weeks, when I had enough money to buy a plane ticket, I returned to Abidjan where a post-election war was ending. There, I wanted to show that you could write l’histoire (with a capital H) and create les histoires (with a small H) without resorting to Kalashnikovs. This is how the idea of alternating a big story with small stories came to me. I had my notes from the Parisian shops and, even if they were funny, I had to find an original structure so as not to dilute them in a simple queue of anecdotes. I thought about this succession of generations of immigrants in Europe who had practised the profession of security guard in different political and geopolitical contexts. I had my structure (I’m obsessed with structure and language), I could begin.’
Read the full interview here.
‘A sharp and satirical take on the legacies of French colonial history and life in Paris today. Told in a fast-paced, and fluently translated, style of shifting perspectives, Standing Heavy carries us through the decades.’
John Self, The Guardian
‘This inventive and very funny debut novel offers a whistle-stop, whizz-bang tour of Franco-African history through the perspective of undocumented workers from Ivory Coast, employed as security guards at a Parisian shopping centre. The title refers to “those professions that require the employee to remain standing to earn a pittance”. Via stories of a president suffering from “coup-d’étalgia” and the oil shock of the 70s, we meet generations of Black immigrants – André, Ferdinand, Ossiri, Kassoum – and hear their perspectives on capitalism and slavery, and the repeated urge to “send money back to the old country”. Between chapters runs a lively, cynical guide to consumer culture, including how the English and French pronounce Sephora differently, and the horrors of having to listen again and again to the same terrible songs on the shopping centre radio. “A curse on David Guetta and the Black Eyed Peas.”’
Berny Sèbe, The Conversation
‘GauZ’ has penned a razor-like examination of consumerism from the standpoint of a security guard in the Champs-Elysées branch of a famous chain of perfume retailers. Standing Heavy offers a refreshing and often caustic take on the cultural and economic consequences of an encounter between western consumerism and capitalism and the acute African sense of observation and derision. Using the story and observations of an undocumented Ivorian migrant in Paris, it digs into the rich, complex and often fraught relationship between France and its former African colonies.’
Lucy Popescu, Financial Times
‘Gauz’ has a keen eye for detail and there are other, similarly sombre moments recalling a brutal past, but this compact, humane satire, deftly translated by Frank Wynne, entertains as much as it informs.’
Aditya Mani Jha, Mint Lounge
‘Standing Heavy does an excellent job of explaining France’s long-standing cultural discomfort with “hyphenate identities”, especially when blackness is involved. The book treats this extremely sensitive subject with admirable restraint and a lightness of touch.’
Patrick Lyons, Times Literary Supplement
‘Standing Heavy, the International Booker-shortlisted debut by the Ivorian author GauZ’, may well be the inaugural example of an unlikely genre: the security guard novel. Drawing on personal experience as an undocumented student in Paris, GauZ’ – real name Armand Patrick Gbaka-Brédé – invites his readers to see the city through the eyes and experiences of its “men in black”, who silently stand vigil in its department stores, banks and factories.’