Six things you need to know about the International Booker Prize 2023 shortlist
As the International Booker Prize 2023 shortlist is announced, discover the most interesting facts and trends that have emerged in this year’s selection
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Shortlisted for the International Booker Prize 2023, Standing Heavy is the story of colonialism and consumerism in modern France, told from the point of view of invisible members of society who see everything
Whether you’re new to the book or have read it and would like to explore it more deeply, here is our comprehensive guide, featuring insights from critics, our judges and the book’s author and translator, as well as discussion points and suggestions for further reading.
A unique insight into everything that passes under a security guard’s gaze, as well as a searingly witty deconstruction of colonial legacies and capitalist consumption.
Amidst the political bickering of the inhabitants of Paris’s 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 and department store. This sharply satirical yet poignant tale draws on the author’s own experiences as an undocumented student in France.
Andre came to France to study medicine. But upon finding that the bursary he received was not enough to live on and allow him send money back home to his large family, he takes a part-time job working as a security guard at Les Grands Moulins de Paris, an old flour mill by the river. One morning, he saves an elderly worker who has had a heart attack just outside his shelter. From then on, the workers at the flour mill approach Andre with reports of their various aches and pains, referring to him as ‘doc’.
After failing, for the third time, his exams to graduate from school, Ferdinand is sent by his father to France to ‘find himself’. He hopes to make it big in France, to do something that will make his family proud. When he arrives, his cousin Andre gets him a job at Les Grand Moulins.
Ossiri works as a security guard at the Bastille branch of Camaïeu. He spends his free time walking along the rue du Faubourg-Saint-Antoine which feels to him like time travel. He is close to Kassoum, they move through the city ‘systematically like surveyors’.
Newly arrived in France, Kassoum walks the streets of Paris with his friend Ossiri. He struggles to adjust to his new life, saying: ‘Ossiri, I spent years and years sleeping in the ghetto. Now, it’s like the ghetto is sleeping in me.’
‘A poignant and funny take on Franco-African history and its complexities and problems, interlaced with wry and surprising takes on current consumer culture, largely told through the lives of migrant workers employed to “stand heavy” as retail security guards, who are often overlooked and yet themselves see everything.
‘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 - from the youthful optimism of the decolonisation of the 1960s to the banal realities of daily shift work on the margins of contemporary consumer society - to deliver a fresh perspective on France that is critical, funny and human.
‘Standing Heavy is highly relevant for our times as societies in many parts of the world grapple with the problems of capitalism, inequality, racism and the legacies and open wounds of history. Yet the book has its feet firmly on the ground as we see how power manifests itself in many small, often very ordinary ways. The style of storytelling forces us to see our own everyday realities through different eyes.
‘The main characters - Andre, Ferdinand, Ossiri and Kassoum - belong to different generations of undocumented workers. As we follow them we see how the migrant experience has evolved, from the initially more optimistic and easy-going 1960s to more harder-edged, xenophobic and suspicious times today. While their experiences, and fates, differ they collectively bring a lively, often razor-sharp, perspective on France and its recent history as well as more broadly the state of capitalism that will leave many readers nodding and laughing along, perhaps even feeling they’ve taken the words right out of their mouths.’
‘GauZ’s award-winning debut novel (published in France in 2014 as Debout-Payé) focuses on the humble occupation of the security guard and explores France’s colonial legacies, its racial prejudice, and modern-day capitalism through black immigrant eyes… 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.’
‘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.’
‘Political satire with the air of a poetry slam’
‘A formidable keenness of observation and a sarcastic wit’
GauZ’s award-winning debut focuses on the humble occupation of the security guard and explores France’s colonial legacies, its racial prejudice, and modern-day capitalism through black immigrant eyes
In his interview with the Booker Prizes site, author GauZ’ expresses his delight at the judges’ decision to include Standing Heavy in the longlist, stating ‘such a prestigious victory would be a tribute to all the invisible people in society, those who pedal down in the hold so that the upper decks may peacefully enjoy their champagne and their caviar.’ The novel is an honest document of the lives of those whose labours are exploited and unacknowledged. How does the novel represent those who are marginalised by society and what is the importance of doing so? Does it compare with other cultural works that give a voice to ‘invisible’ members of society?
GauZ’ drew from his lived experience of working as a security guard in a department store in Paris. The job cast him as a silent observer of the ‘absurdity of consumerist society.’ He describes Standing Heavy as a work of ‘reverse’ ethnology. His writing feigns a cool detachment from its subject matter, in an attempt to study European culture. In what ways does the book read as an ethnological study and what does this interpretation add to the story and the reading experience?
The novel is divided into three sections that cover different periods of immigration, described as the Bronze Age, the Golden Age and the Age of Lead. How does this conceit contribute to our understanding of the experiences of African migrants in France? Does it suggest their place in a wider history?
Standing Heavy is marked by its unusual structure, with each section followed by brief snapshots of life as a security guard. Why do you think the author favours this fragmented approach over more straight-forward long-form writing? Does it portray the ennui of Standing Heavy more effectively? Or could those snapshots be seen as representing the action unfolding in front of a series of security cameras? The Booker judges said that the book’s fragmentary style reminded them of ‘different camera angles’.
Standing Heavy makes references to French, French colonial and African Diasporic history such as the 1974 French Presidential election and the 1996 Sans Papier movement. How does the author’s incorporation of these pivotal moments in history cultivate a sense of place and time?
Standing Heavy does not focus on one individual, rather it offers a panoramic view of its chosen world. Does the novel’s wide-ranging and open perspective enable greater empathy for the characters it describes?
The final section of Standing Heavy takes aim at the church of consumerism and the workers that are employed to safeguard the worshippers at shopping malls like Sephora. What do you make of the book’s criticism of capitalism and inequality?
The novel expresses a contradiction embodied in the African security guard. They are courted for their build, which typifies them as strong, aggressive, not to be tampered with, and makes them hypervisible. At the same time they exist on the margins of society as undocumented workers and are made invisible. What questions does the author wish to raise through his representation of this contradiction?
The novel is concerned with power and who wields it. On the one hand the security guard casts a formidable figure to the everyday shopper, but GauZ’ also highlights their powerlessness and precarity amid wider social forces. What do you think of the novel’s depiction of power and powerlessness in contemporary society?
FT: Standing Heavy by GauZ’: Observations of a black security guard
A Year of Reading Round the World: Book of the Month, Standing Heavy by GauZ’
Lizzy’s Literary Life: Meet The Translator: Frank Wynne
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