A few months ago, I had the privilege of sharing a stage with award-winning translator and International Booker Prize judges chair, Frank Wynne. Before the event started, he mentioned that he had checked out this blog some years ago, aware that a number of the country choices were likely to be translated by him, given that there was very little available in English from much of francophone Africa.
Certainly this chimed with my experience during my 2012 quest, when some 11 UN-recognised nations – many of them French- and Portuguese-speaking African countries – had no literature in commercially available English translation that I could find. I can’t claim to have performed an exhaustive survey of Ivorian literature in English in the years since, but it is true that both my original Ivorian read and this latest Book of the month were translated by Wynne. I have read all the literature I have so far encountered from this West African country through the same person’s eyes.
On the face of it, however, the two books couldn’t be more different; whereas Ahmadou Kourouma’s Allah is not Obliged follows the fortunes of a foul-mouthed child soldier, Standing Heavy by GauZ’ presents Paris (and by extension, the world) from the perspective of the often undocumented African security personnel, or heavies, hired to guard its shops. Yet below the surface lie many of the same tensions that drive Kourouma’s novel. The legacy of colonialism and slavery inform the power dynamics playing out in the high-class emporia of the Champs-Élysées every bit as much as on the killing fields of West Africa; under the watchful eyes of Ferdinand, Ossiri and their peers, the wealthy and the desperate come to worship the gods of global commerce, moving in the grip of forces perhaps most clearly discernible to those paid to observe.
The way Gauz’ plays with structure is one of the novel’s greatest triumphs. Reflecting the fact that this is a book about people who stay still for hours on end, he dispenses with the sort of chronology often seen in Anglo-European novels and instead presents a narrative stitched together largely from pensées and observations. These are as wide-ranging as they are witty and rich, taking in everything from the correlation between someone’s salary and the distance their coccyx typically spends from a seat, to the sales-shopping habits of babies and the historical inequities encoded into white-linen trousers. They also offer opportunities for virtuosic flourishes from the translator, my favourite being ‘the bland leading the bland’.
Another striking example proposes a genetic theory of the Antilles:
‘When slavery existed, it was vanishingly rare, and almost impossible, for a Black male slave to procreate with a White mistress. It was therefore White masters who, with Black women, created the ethnic diversity of the Antillais. And, since it is the male who assigns the sex of the male child with his Y chromosome, we can therefore affirm that all mixed-race men in the Antilles definitely carry a Caucasian Y chromosome. Abstract for the theory: in the Antilles, man is White, woman is Black.’
The cumulative effect of these reflections is powerful. Essentially, the narrative schools the reader in the coping mechanisms of those paid to stand and watch. ‘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 latter is what the narrative models. Reading it, we learn in real time the rhythms of a life on the margins.
The tightrope that Gauz’ walks is presenting collective experience without allowing his characters to collapse into facelessness. The individual impressions from the shop floor help with this, but would probably be too flimsy on their own. As a result, he weights them with accounts of historical and political shifts in the latter half of the twentieth century that had a bearing on the experiences of West African immigrants to France.
At times, the result is a little diffuse and perhaps hard for those more used to plot-driven novels to follow, yet an inner logic is at work. For those who stick with it, interconnectedness is the prevailing impression – a web of ties, obligations and loyalties that extends across the globe. One that encompasses not only the standing heavies and those they watch, but also the reader.
Standing Heavy (Debout-payé) by GauZ’, translated from the French by Frank Wynne (MacLehose Press, 2022)
Picture: ‘Avenue des Champs-Élysées from the Arc de Triomphe, Place Charles de Gaulle, Paris’ by David McKelvey on flickr.com