Book Review - Standing Heavy

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’ is the pen name of Ivorian-born Patrick Armand-Gbaka Brede. After studying biochemistry, he moved to Paris in 1999 to continue his studies, became an undocumented student and worked as a security guard before returning to Côte d’Ivoire, where he is now a successful screenwriter and editor-in-chief of a satirical economic newspaper. 

 “Standing Heavy” refers to “the various professions that require the employee to remain standing in order to earn a pittance”. From the early 1970s to the 2010s, the novel follows the fortunes of three Ivorians — undocumented workers employed as security guards in Paris. They are particularly suited to the job, GauZ’ suggests, because of their morphological profile: “Black men are heavy-set; Black men are tall; Black men are strong; Black men are deferential; Black men are scary.” 

Ferdinand has it relatively easy; arriving in 1973, he finds work guarding the old flour mills, Les Grands Moulins, and manages to save enough money to lease a small apartment before “The Crisis” (the economic turndown caused by the Arab oil embargo) hits. Suddenly there’s a hardening towards foreigners who, it is declared, are “stealing jobs from true-born Frenchmen” and a new set of laws requiring residence permits are swiftly passed. 

Ossiri and Kassoum follow in the 1990s and work as undocumented immigrants for Ferdinand, who now has his own security company. Ossiri and Kassoum split shifts guarding the abandoned mills where Ferdinand was once employed, but when 9/11 occurs, they realise their profession will never be the same again. Ossiri concludes: “Any employer will want to go through our paperwork with a fine-tooth comb before they allow us to stand in front of a fucking billboard.” 

Several chapters feature the observations of a security guard, self-described as a MiB (Man in Black), despatched to the Camaïeu clothes shop before being promoted to the upmarket retailer Sephora on the Champs-Élysées. In a lightly ironic tone, he meditates on customers and the consumerism on display. 

There’s a visual quality to these comic vignettes — especially the chase scene towards the end where the guard pursues the man who shoplifts perfume: “the thief zigs, the security guard zags . . . The thief’s necktie flutters behind him, hovering parallel to the ground in the headwind. The security guard’s tie does likewise.” The security guard gives up, recognising the absurdity of chasing a man “who has stolen from Bernard, the richest person in France, a frivolous frippery made by Liliane, the seventh richest”. He wonders if he is any better than the “flokos” (an insulting Bambara nickname for the black guards of French Colonial Africa) “carrying out the orders of their White masters”. 

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. 

Originally published by the Financial Times - Life and Arts