Standing Heavy, originally written in French, is shortlisted for the International Booker Prize 2023. Read an extract from the opening chapter here
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.
The Black men mounting the narrow staircase look like climbers roped together for an assault on K2, the most fearsome peak in the Himalayas. Their ascent is punctuated only by the sound of feet on stairs, footsteps muffled by a thick red carpet laid precisely in the middle of a stairwell so narrow that two men cannot pass. The steps are steep, and knees are raised high. Nine treads, a landing, then nine more, make a floor. With each floor, the weary mountaineers become more spaced out. From time to time, there comes the sound of someone catching his breath. Reaching the sixth floor, the first in line presses the button of the cyclopean intercom, its lone eye the black lens of a security camera. The vast office in which they find themselves, bathed in sweat, is open-plan. No walls interrupt the space between the men, and the glass cage is emblazoned with the three letters that mark the territory of the dominant male of this place: CEO. A huge picture window generously affords a view over the rooftops of Paris. Forms are handed out. Left, right and centre. Here, they are recruiting. They are recruiting security guards. Project-75 has just been granted several major security contracts for a variety of commercial properties in the Paris area. They are in urgent need of massive manpower. Word quickly spread through the African “community”. Congolese, Ivoirians, Malians, Guineans, Beninese, Senegalese, etc., the keen eye can easily identify each country by its style of clothing. The polo shirt and Levi 501 combo of the Ivoirians; the baggy leather jackets of the Malians; the striped shirts tucked below the paunches of the Beninese and the Togolese; the beautiful, perfectly polished moccasins of the Cameroonians; the preposterous colours of the Congolese from Brazzaville and the outrageous style of the Congolese from Kinshasa … If there is any doubt, the ear takes over because, in the mouths of Africans, the intonations of the French language are markers that designate origin as reliably as a third copy of chromosome 21 indicates Down’s syndrome or a malignant tumour denotes cancer. The Congolese modulate, the Cameroonians sing-song, the Senegalese chant, the Ivoirians falter, the Beninese and the Togolese waver, the Malians speak pidgin …
For the Black procession in the stairwell, it is an escape from unemployment or a zero-hours contract. By any means necessary. Security guarding is one of those means. It’s relatively accessible. The training is absolutely minimal. No experience is required.
Everyone takes out the various papers required for the interview: identity cards, the traditional CVs and CQPs, a kind of official permit to work in security. Here, it is portentously dubbed a diploma. There is the famous motivational letter: “To whom it may concern”; “part of a dynamic team”; “a profession with ambitious career prospects”; “in keeping with my skills and training”; “please be assured”; “in anticipation of a favourable response”; “Yours faithfully”, etc. In such a place, the medieval circumlocutions and arse-licking phrases of covering letters seem risible. Everyone here has a powerful motivation, although it may be very different depending on which side of the glass one finds oneself. For the dominant male in the glass cage at the far end of the open-plan office, it is maximum turnover. By any means necessary. Hiring as many people as possible is part of the means. For the Black procession in the stairwell, it is an escape from unemployment or a zero-hours contract. By any means necessary. Security guarding is one of those means. It’s relatively accessible. The training is absolutely minimal. No experience is required. Employers are all too willing to overlook official status. The morphological profile is supposedly appropriate. 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. But that is not the issue this morning. No-one cares. And besides, there are Black men on the recruiting team. The atmosphere is relaxed. Someone even ventures a couple of lewd remarks about the prominent breasts of one of the two secretaries charged with handing out the recruitment forms. Everyone fills out his form with a modicum of diligence. Surname, first name, sex, date and place of birth, marital status, social security number, etc. This will be the most demanding intellectual challenge of the morning. Even so, a few of the men glance at their neighbour’s form. A legacy of the classroom, or a lack of self-assurance. Someone coming out of a long period of unemployment lacks self-assurance. Papers in every possible combination are passed between the group of Negroes and the secretary with the big tits. After signing and initialling a few white pages blackened with esoteric phrases intended to regulate the working relationship with the soon-to-be-ex-unemployed and the soon-to-be-big-boss, every member of the group is given a bag containing a pair of black trousers, a black jacket, a black tie, a shirt that may be white or black and a monthly work rota indicating the time and place of shifts. The contracts are open-ended. Every man who came into these offices unemployed leaves as a security guard. Those who already have experience in the profession know what lies in store in the coming days: spending all day standing in a shop, repeating this monotonous exercise in tedium every day, until the end of the month comes, and they are paid. Paid standing. And it is not as easy as it might seem. In order to survive in this job, to keep things in perspective, to avoid lapsing into cosy idleness or, on the contrary, fatuous zeal and bitter aggressiveness, requires either knowing how to empty your mind of every thought higher than instinct and spinal reflex or having a very engrossing inner life. The incorrigible idiot option is also highly prized. Each to his own method. Each to his own goals. Each will walk back down the six floors in his own way.