Gauz: Debout-Payé (Standing Heavy)
Before he became a novelist, Gauz worked as a security guard in Paris and this novel recounts his experience. If you think that that sounds somewhat boring, it is not. It is colourful, lively and full of interesting accounts of what goes on in the world of security guards.
We start off with a mass recruitment of security guards in Paris. Most of the applicants are black Africans. Black men are heavy-set; Black men are tall; Black men are strong; Black men are deferential; Black men are scary. Yes, racism comes into it. Being a security guard is not a fun job: you must know 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.
There are a lot of shops in Paris and we get a rundown of both the posh, expensive ones and the many ethnic ones.
We also learn that is hard for the security guards. They share lodgings and have to sleep in shifts .
However the fun really starts in the shops. We meet two guards – Kssoum and Ossiri who are buddies. Ossiri works at Camaïeu and he gives us a rundown of customers and staff. The customers include shoplifters, of which there are many. In a clothes shop, a customer without a bag is a customer who will not steal. We learn what sort of things the different ethnic groups buy. African women rarely buy anything other than tops because of their callipygian anatomy. Clothes are designed by white people and made by Chinese people who tend to be much smaller in that respect. He claims that the Chinese do not even have a word for buttocks. It is impossible to invent a word for a part of the body that does not exist.
We also earn both the psychology of the shoppers but also the shop and how it sells as well as the various slang terms the Africans have used in this field. Standing Heavy, designates all the various professions that require the employee to remain standing in order to earn a pittance.
However, we get a different perspective later. We meet Ferdinand who inherited a room in the student residence (even though he was not a student) from his cousin André who had been a student but has now returned home. Ferdinand set up a security company which provides security guards for larger companies who have contracts with larger companies. Ferdinand, at the bottom of the chain, is black while those at the top are, of course, white.We meet Ossiri again. He had been a successful schoolteacher in the Ivory Coast but he wanted to travel so he came to Paris where he is an undocumented immigrant. His mother had known Ferdinand so he goes to see him and gets a security job, not in a shop but guarding Less Grands Moulins de Paris, a former flour mill, since abandoned, for which there had been various plans. The security guard’s job is to keep out squatters. It is cold and boring but is a job. Everyone knows I employ undocumented workers, from the firms who sub-contract me to the prefecture de Police, but they all turn a blind eye, because it suits them.
Things change post 9/11 when there is a general tightening up, particularly with undocumented immigrants. Ferdinand is out of work. However it will change back again only using modern technology – metal detectors, double security doors and so on.
However, while these political issues and the complications the unfortunate security guards, particularly those who are undocumented, face, the most enjoyable part of the book is the security guards in the shops, how they deal with customers (and customers deal with them) the detailed cultural analysis of the various staff and customers as well as Gauz’s observant eye on what is happening.
For example, he gives a detailed analysis of how various nationalities react when the security buzzer goes off as they exit the shop. Most, of course, are innocent (most, not all). He analyses the differences between the Chinese and Japanese customers. He shows the various way customers can and do shoplift. He damns the music playing in the shops. He examines the clothing rules for the staff but also the various types of clothing of the customers.
He even compares White and Black people: White people are no different from us. They may have problems of scale, but they are just like us… But whereas we symbolically sacrifice a chicken and let a thin trickle of blood fall upon the soil, uttering a few well-chosen imprecations directed at our ancestors, they feel compelled to spill torrents of blood. and adds Africa that the Europeans had carefully carved up into more or less random territories and meticulously shared out between themselves as one might share out the meat of an elephant after a collective hunt. He even comments on Africans who are more inclined to teach their children the glories of Louis XIV and Napoleon than the great African kings and generals and that their children are more likely to be named Jean-Claude, Pierre-Emile or Pascal than given African names.
It is not fun being a security guard: boredom, feelings of futility and waste, lack of creative outlet, exaggerated aggression response, lack of imagination, infantilisation, etc., are the corollaries of a career as a security guard.. As he points out, in films, it is the nameless security guards who are quickly and casually killed off as part of the hero’s plan to get to the final confrontation with the bad guy in the last scene. While I do not expect to see a flurry of security guard novels, this one works very well as it is witty, informative, clever and tells how it is from the security guard’s point of view.
First published in 2014 by Le Nouvel
First English translation in 2022 by MacLehose Press
Translated by Frank Wynne