There’s a deft little narrative cul-de-sac the reader stumbles towards at the beginning of the French novel Standing Heavy, by Ivorian journalist and writer GauZ’ (real name: Patrick Armand-Gbaka Brede) and translated into English by Patrick Wynne. A conventionally structured, descriptive passage about “one of the great night spots of Paris” ends abruptly by noting that the area also “boasted the highest number of Chinese clothes factories”. Just like that, a switch is flicked.
“In poorly ventilated, windowless rooms, in dark yards, converted patios, modified atriums and refurbished halls, armies of Chinese workers, most of them illegals, worked night and day to pay off their debts to people smugglers. Aside from the noisy Chinese New Year, they had no rest, no holidays. (…) To have an army of skilled, underpaid, non-unionised, easily exploited workers in the heart of Paris was called onshore offshoring. A considerable capitalist coup for the Chinese.”
Like this passage, Standing Heavyrepeatedly lands heavy rhetorical punches. Particularly impressive is the speed and dexterity of the narrative shift.
GauZ’s novel operates across three timelines, with three generations of Ivorian immigrants in Paris, in addition to plenty of characters from elsewhere in Africa. In the 1960s, we witness Ferdinand and André, cousins swimming against the tide in a foreign land that would soon turn against them (France’s hard lurch to the right happened in the early 1970s). In the 1990s, Ossiri and Kassoum arrive in France during the so-called “golden age of immigration”. And finally, in the 2010s, GauZ’ gives us the most irresistible narrator of the story, a security guard at a Sephora on the Champs-Élysées.
This preternaturally wise narrator, at once scathing and generous, hopeful and cynical, uses capitalist spectacle to probe the fault lines of French society. Unsurprisingly, race remains one of the big ones down the years. Sample this passage, where the “noble savage” stereotypes come to the fore and the author shows us just why African immigrants were preferential hires for security positions.
“The morphological profile is supposedly appropriate.. . . 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.”
As the novel progresses, the observations, witticisms and snippets provided by the security guard become the main event, with the generational narratives functioning more like epilogues to this free-form commentary. Which is just as well because these segments—sometimes as short as a couple of paragraphs, seldom longer than a page or two—are supremely entertaining. The satirical mode is one of GauZ’s greatest strengths and his metaphors are always superbly chosen. Like the passage where he describes the Rue Jean-Pierre Timbaud using Mecca and Ka’bah.
“With its mosque, its Islamic bookshops, its halal butchers, its shops selling clothes, hijabs and Islamic veils, the rue Jean-Pierre Timbaud in Belleville is known locally as Jalalabad. Sephora is Mecca and, within it, the Christian Dior concession is the Ka’bah towards which all women turn, Arabic or otherwise, veiled or otherwise, in the name of the most holy perfume.”
Both of the passages cited above—the “noble savage” stereotypes and the “Jalalabad of Paris”—assume even greater significance when you consider France’s uneasy equations with race as well as religious symbols. The killing of 12 people at the office of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdoin 2015, after it published caricatures of the Prophet, is still fresh in minds. Just a few months ago, in November 2022, the French parliament reeled under a racism scandal involving far-right MP Grégoire de Fournas. De Fournas interrupted his black colleague, Carlos Martens Bilongo (born in Paris to Congolese and Angolan immigrant parents), while the latter was delivering an impassioned speech about immigrants.
“They should go back to Africa!” De Fournas shouted. In French, the words for “he” (“il”) and “they” (“ils”) are pronounced the same way; De Fournas used this to claim he was talking about immigrants and not Bilongo. But the damage was done. De Fournas was suspended from parliament for two weeks. The incident sparked comparisons with the 2018 mini-feud between comedian Trevor Noah and Gérard Araud, the French ambassador to the US. After France won the 2018 football World Cup, Noah sang “Africa has won the World Cup!”, referring to the fact that the French team included over a dozen players of African origin. Araud complained that by doing so, Noah was “denying the Frenchness” of these players.
Standing Heavydoes 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.
Over the last few decades, several French books translated into English have approached this topic—some of them have done so with a high degree of scholarship and critical thinking. The anthropologist Didier Fassin’s work, for example, show us, among other things, how law enforcement treats non-white people on the streets of Paris. In the preface to his 2013 book Enforcing Order: An Ethnography Of Urban Policing, Fassin notes, “It was fascinating to watch officers stopping teenagers from ethnic minorities in disadvantaged neighborhoods to frisk them in search of hashish, while ignoring upper-class white students obviously under the influence of the drug in the surroundings of their college, just as it was perplexing to see them select individuals in the crowd getting off the metro according to their skin color and physical appearance to subject them to an identity check and a body search.”
At the other end of the political spectrum, the novelist Michel Houellebecq, one of the best-known French writers in the world, has produced increasingly bigoted works over the last decade or so (like the 2015 novel Submission, which imagined a France ruled by orthodox Islamists). In recent interviews, he has expressed white supremacist beliefs and conspiracy theories like “The Great Replacement”, the notion that elite politicians are colluding to “replace” ethnic French and white European populations with non-white people, especially those from Muslim and/or African countries.
In this context, Standing Heavy’s politics feels almost miraculously mature and progressive. The novel also has a great deal of gloriously silly humour and a number of recurring gags involving American pop culture. In one passage, the author laments the army of “watered-down versions” of the singer Amy Winehouse that have sprung up since the singer’s death. At another place, the security guard is confronted with what appears to be a Winehouse doppelganger.
“One woman is the spitting image of Amy Winehouse. So much so that the security guard worries that, rather than spraying the perfumes on her skin, she will open them and swig from the bottles.”
GauZ’ is one of the founders of a satirical newspaper in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire, and in Standing Heavy, that specific mode of journalistic humour shines through. In one of my favourite passages, the security guard wonders who names new dresses, perfumes and so on, eventually deciding that capitalism must have anointed official “namers” for this very purpose. He then imagines the decadence of a workplace tasked with this rarefied mission.
“The three women are seated at a table, each holding a flute of champagne; a silver bucket of caviar is within spoon-reach. Garments on hangers swish past on a motorised steel rail. A floral print dress appears. Between two sips of Veuve Clicquot, a ‘namer’ solemnly intones: ‘Your name shall be Hibiscus; I have willed it so. Next!’ The other two nod gravely, mouths filled with sturgeon roe. Another dress glides into view.”
Whether Standing Heavy goes on to win the 2023 International Booker remains to be seen. But there’s no doubt that this novel has made the world take notice of a major new voice.
Aditya Mani Jha is a Delhi-based writer.