Shawn the Book Maniac invited me back on his YouTube channel for another episode of Bite-sized Book Chats. This time we had a few words about Standing Heavy by GauZ’ (tr, Frank Wynne), the Ivoirian novel about security guards in Paris that I originally reviewed here on the blog. Check out our conversation below:
Tag: MacLehose Press
MacLehose Press: Standing Heavy by GauZ’ (tr. Frank Wynne)
GauZ’ is a writer from Côte d’Ivoire who spent time working as a security guard in Paris. That’s what his first novel revolves around: ‘standing heavy’ is slang for ” all the various professions that require the employee to remain standing in order to earn a pittance.” The prologue describes how immigrant Black men tend to fall into security guarding: it doesn’t need much experience, employers aren’t too bothered about your official status, and it’s a way to avoid being unemployed or on zero-hours.
Three main chapters chronicle the changing experiences of three Ivoirian security guards. In the 1960s and 70s, Ferdinand is optimistic even as French immigration policy changes. He feels he has a good job, and contrasts himself with the students in his residence, who (it seems to him) argue a lot but never actually do much.
By the 1990s, Ossiri and Kassoum are security guards in a Paris that takes their work for granted. “Send money back to the old country,” says a billboard, symbolising how much of an industry has built up around immigration. Ferdinand himself is now part of that industry, running his own business subletting security jobs. But everything will change in the aftermath of 9/11, when even the most menial security work becomes seen as too important to be left to Black men.
In between the main chapters are collections of snippets which represent the observations and thoughts of a security guard. For example, closing time at a store:
At the door, there is always someone swearing on her mother’s life that she will only need two minutes. The security guard is eyed with contempt when he refuses to grant these two-minute stays of execution. It is difficult to accept being snubbed by those one never notices. Here, everything is on sale, even self-esteem.
There’s a dry wit throughout Standing Heavy, which is really well conveyed in Frank Wynne’s translation. But there’s also a poignant side to the novel. To me, the chapters of fragments suggest a certain openness to the work of security guarding, which is not there in the closing image we have of Kassoum at work. By then, there are openings for Black security guards again, but it’s a much more regimented atmosphere. Standing Heavy presents a panoramic view of its characters’ world – it says so much in a relatively small space.
- Publisher page on Standing Heavy
- More blog reviews by Tony and Stu
Click here to read my other posts on the 2023 International Booker Prize.
MacLehose Press: The Sky Above the Roof by Nathacha Appanah (tr. Geoffrey Strachan)
I’m intrigued by the way that the brevity of a short novel can bring a distinctive feel to familiar subject matter. One of the Boys by Daniel Magariel springs to mind here, the way it puts a toxic family relationship into extreme close-up by removing all but the most essential detail.
Another example is The Sky Above the Roof, the latest novel to appear in English by Mauritian-French author Nathacha Appanah. It revolves around three characters who are all, in some way, ill at ease in the world. We begin with young Wolf in the back of a police van. He drove on the wrong side of the road, there was a crash, and now here we are. To an outside observer, Wolf may just seem a boy who doesn’t pay attention. In fact, though his mind mixes up times and memories of events, his mechanical instinct is something else. His mother thinks of him like this:
…a boy who does not have a licence and cannot catch a bus on his own, suffers from anxiety attacks and can go for days without speaking. One who has magic fingers and can repair little things when they break down (hairdryer, telephone, power drill), his gaze acting like a scanner and detecting where the fault lies. He who can run round and round the house for two hours without stopping, is afraid of the hollow in the garden and, now, does not want to see her.
At the time of the crash, Wolf was driving to visit his sister Paloma, who walked out years ago. Paloma is someone who hides on the sidelines of life. Then there’s the siblings’ mother, who was named Eliette as a girl, and hated the way her parents made her dress up and sing – which is to say nothing of where that led. She made a life for herself as an adult, changing her appearance and calling herself Phoenix. She also made sure that she wouldn’t constrict her children in the way her parents did with her – but, as we see, not everything turns out as intended.
The Sky Above the Roof has 130 pages and encompasses this family’s immediate history, as well as Wolf’s brief (though still harrowing) stay in the remand centre. It seems to me that the novel loses some nuance of cause and effect through its brevity: sometimes it feels as though upbringing is the be-all and end-all. But its shortness also brings Appanah’s book intensity, making it a string of set-pieces with that swirling prose in Geoffrey Strachan’s fine translation.
Published by MacLehose Press.
MacLehose Press: Hell and High Water by Christian Unge
Christian Unge is a hospital doctor in Stockholm, a background that informs his debut thriller. Unge’s protagonist is Tekla Berg, an emergency medic who feels burdened with her photographic memory. She’s introduced to us in a gripping scene where she is juggling patients. Then she is tasked with treating a young man who has 85% burns. The police think he’s a terrorist… but Tekla thinks she recognises her brother.
The story that unfolds in Hell and High Water (translated from Swedish by George Goulding and Sarah de Senarclens) encompasses the Uzbek mafia and hospital bureaucracy amongst other things, a balancing act that Unge handles well. What I particularly like is that, for everywhere the plot goes, it ultimately comes back to a fundamental theme, that of family. All of that makes Hell and High Water an enjoyable debut.
Published by MacLehose Press.
Violeta among the Stars by Dulce Maria Cardoso: Women in Translation Month
At the start of this novel, Violeta has accidentally driven off the road during a storm. Her car rolled down an embankment, and now she’s hanging upside down:
[…] the rain beats down on the car roof with a noise that should scare me, it thickens the car windows, doubles them, thousands of burst drops against the glass, watery webs torn apart by the wind, gusts of wind reaching speeds of up to, I defy the stormy night,
I drive through the darkness
my hand blindly seeking a voice that will calm the storm, lightning, a trace of light from the beginning, in the beginning there was only light, in the beginning there was only light and we were already blinded forever,Translation from Portuguese by Ángel Gurría-Quintana
This is what Violeta’s narration is like: fragmented, no full stops, frequent interjections, and often repeated phrases. It’s a superb translation by Gurría-Quintara, that throws you into the chaos of Violeta’s mind as she thinks over her life, looping back again and again.
Violeta sells hair-removal products: she describes body hair as her enemy (partly because she’s ill at ease with her own body). On the particular day of her accident, Violeta had sold her deceased parents’ home, which didn’t go down well with her daughter Dora. As Violeta’s recollections go further back, we gain more context for her relationship with Dora, and see how her parents ended up on the wrong side of Portugal’s Carnation Revolution.
By novel’s end, Violeta is facing up to the inevitable, and we’ve borne witness to a multifaceted view of her character and life. Cardoso’s telling makes Violeta seem a whole person to us, good points and bad.
Published by MacLehose Press.
The Untameable by Guillermo Arriaga
In the mood for a long book? Here’s a 700-page Mexican tale of revenge (translated from Spanish by Frank Wynne and Jessie Mendez Sayer) that never flags. Our narrator is Juan Guillermo, who grew up in Mexico in the 1960s. His brother Carlos had his own drug business, and was killed by the Good Boys, a Catholic youth gang protected by the local police chief. Juan Guillermo’s parents died in a car accident a few years later, but he sees their grief over Carlos as the root cause. He would like vengeance, but that won’t come easily.
The structure is what really makes The Untameable stand out to me. For a long way into the novel, the narrative moves back and forth between different periods of Juan Guillermo’s life, as though highlighting that none of this is really over for him. A parallel strand sees a young man hunting an infamous wolf in the Yukon, which mirrors Juan Guillermo’s search for revenge – and intersects directly with his story in the end. In between chapters, there are shorter passages on different beliefs and practices around death, which show how much this weighs on Juan Guillermo’s mind.
I found The Untameable to be fascinating, poignant, and a good old page-turner.
Published by MacLehose Press.
Kokoschka’s Doll by Afonso Cruz
Afonso Cruz, Kokoschka’s Doll (2010)
Translated from the Portuguese by Rahul Bery (2021)
I like it when a novel challenges me to work out why it takes the form that it does. Kokoschka’s Doll challenged me in that me. I kept mulling over such questions as: why is a third of it given over to a novel-within-a-novel of the same title, with pages tinted grey? Why does it go off on so many tangents, with characters who might (at first) seem disconnected? What’s the importance of the title, when the doll in question appears relatively briefly and late on?
Well, it took me until I had finished the book before I felt I had a handle on why Kokoschka’s Doll is the way it is. But it was never less than compelling for all that.
We begin in wartime Dresden. In a brief, harrowing passage, young Isaac Dresner runs away from a German soldier, and takes refuge in the cellar of a bird shop owned by one Bonifaz Vogel. When Vogel hears a voice coming from the floorboards, he assumes he’s hearing mice. But there’s a quiet authority in that voice, and in time Isaac comes to act as Vogel’s conscience. When he emerges from the cellar at war’s end, Isaac is both a son- and father-figure to Vogel, in different ways.
As an adult, Isaac has become a publisher. He meets an author named Mathias Popa, who writes a book called Kokoschka’s Doll which has several fluid layers of reality, including a version of Isaac Dresner as a character.
The novel’s title refers to the Austrian painter Oskar Kokoschka, who had a three-year romance with Alma Mahler (the composer’s widow). When the affair ended, Kokoschka remained so infatuated with Alma that he commissioned a life-size replica of her. The key point for this novel, I think, is that Kokoschka had his servant spread rumours about the doll as though it had its own social life – because the doll could only ever be considered ‘real’ if it had its own social reality, and other people to witness that.
This is what I take away as the main theme of Kokoschka’s Doll: that everyone’s connected, no one complete without other people. So, for example, Isaac’s voice helps complete Vogel as a person, and Vogel does the same for Isaacs. That’s why there’s no single, stable account of life for most of Cruz’s characters – because there isn’t a single, stable life to begin with.
The theme of interconnectedness comes together poignantly at the end. After this, I look forward to reading more by Afonso Cruz in the future.
Published by MacLehose Press.
An Inventory of Losses – Judith Schalansky: a Splice review
Judith Schalansky’s An Inventory of Losses (translated from the German by Jackie Smith, and published by MacLehose Press) is a collection of stories, each inspired by something that has been lost to the world: buildings, species, artworks and more besides. Each piece is written in a different style, adding up to a multifaceted exploration of loss. It’s a beautiful looking volume, too.
I’ve reviewed An Inventory of Losses for Splice, where I go into more detail on a selection of the stories.
Three reviews: Joncour, Pimwana, Iczkovits
Another trio of short reviews from my Instagram.
Serge Joncour, Wild Dog (2018)
Translated from the French by Jane Aitken and Polly Mackintosh (2020)
In 1914, a German lion-tamer takes refuge in a house above the French mountain village of Orcières as World War I begins. The villagers are fearful of his lions and tigers, whose roars fill the night – and then sheep start to go missing.
A century later, Lise and Franck rent that same house. She wants to cut herself off from the modern world. He’s a film producer who can’t bear to be disconnected. Franck is far out of his comfort zone here, but he strikes up something of a friendship with a wild dog – and then he starts to act differently.
The relationship between humans and the natural world runs through this novel. In both plot strands, characters are challenged and changed by their encounters with wild animals. There’s the implication that a darker, more savage side of human lies just out of sight, capable of resurfacing in the right circumstances. The tension rises constantly in this quietly menacing book.
Published by Gallic Books.
Duanwad Pimwana, Arid Dreams
Translated from the Thai by Mui Poopoksakul (2019)
For me, Arid Dreams is a set of sharp character studies. One of my favourite stories is ‘The Attendant’, in which an elevator attendant compares his old life in the country with his current, largely static, existence. He feels that his current job has reduced him to little more than a head and an arm. The physicality really comes across in this story, the attendant’s frustration at having to stay still for so long.
In ‘Sandals’, a couple of children are being taken away from home by their parents to help with a job harvesting sugarcane. They don’t want to go, and what they’re willing to do makes this one of the most poignant stories in the collection.
The narrator of ‘Kanda’s Eyebrows’ doesn’t like his wife’s looks, but there’s a sense that he is projecting his own insecurities about himself on to her. ‘Within These Walls’ seems a woman look around her bedroom while her husband is in hospital and wonder why the walls couldn’t be her preferred colour. This leads her to start thinking about other ways in which life might be different.
Some of Pimwana’s characters reflect on their situations, while others have very little self-awareness. Time and again, I found them fascinating to read about.
Published by Tilted Axis Press.
Yaniv Iczkovits, The Slaughterman’s Daughter (2015)
Translated from the Hebrew by Orr Scharf (2020)
In the Russian Empire towards the end of the 19th century, Fanny Keismann heads for Minsk in search of her brother-in-law, who left his family some months earlier. She is joined by Zizek Breshov, once a Jewish boy who was conscripted into the imperial army, now a silent boatman who lives apart from his old community.
Fanny is the daughter of a ritual slaughterman, who knows how to handle a knife. When she and Zizek are attacked on the road, Fanny defends herself – and the resulting deaths draw the attention of Colonel Piotr Novak of the secret police.
So begins a grand historical adventure, which winds together a number of stories (not just Fanny’s journey, but the histories of her and other characters as well) into a highly enjoyable tapestry. More than one character will find their preconceptions challenged along the way.
Published by MacLehose Press.
“She told me the meal was there, spare, magnificent and perfect”
Marie NDiaye, The Cheffe (2016)
Translated from the French by Jordan Stump (2019)
Although I’m not much of a foodie, I have a soft spot for programmes like Masterchef and Great British Menu. I think it has something to do with seeing already talented people excelling themselves, especially when it’s in an area I can relate to but couldn’t venture into myself. There’s also a certain mystery in watching these shows, trying to imagine what the food actually tastes like from the judges’ descriptions. I guess it’s a bit like trying to capture what it was like to read a book that you may well not have read yet yourself.
On that note: here is The Cheffe, the latest novel to appear in English translation from the French author Marie NDiaye (whose Ladivine was longlisted for the Man Booker International Prize back in 2016). It is the story of an enigmatic culinary genius, known to us mostly by title rather than name.
From humble beginnings in south-western France, the Cheffe discovers her talent as a teenager, working in a wealthy couple’s kitchen. In time, she becomes a celebrated restauranteur, but she’s not interested in showing off – “cooking was sacred” to her. She also remains intensely private. It’s in the kitchen where the Cheffe is in her element:
…it’s a fact that I never saw the Cheffe make a motion or gesture that wasn’t marked by a magical precision, even in the most cramped or cluttered quarters, every tiny part of her diligently obeyed order to make every move precise, and did so gracefully, what’s more, with a radiant eagerness that suggested everything she did in the ritual space of the kitchen was done in accordance with the precepts of beauty and necessity.
NDiaye’s unnamed narrator is a former employee of the Cheffe; the text of the novel is an interview he’s giving after she has died. This man thinks he knows who the Cheffe was and how she thought, but he’s not the most reliable of narrators. He’s rather obsessed with the Cheffe (as you can perhaps tell from the tone of the quotation above), and that colours his account of her. There’s a sense that some of the narrator’s interpretations, such as his view of the Cheffe’s relationship with her daughter (which he sees as a difficult one), might be projections of his own situation.
The end result is a kind of double distancing: an already elusive character made even more so by the overlaying of another character’s preoccupations. We’re apprehending the Cheffe through two thicknesses of glass, as it were – but the impressions left of both her and the narrator are vivid nonetheless. The Cheffe is a tale of imagination filling in the gaps when first-hand knowledge falls short, as tantalising and perilous as that may be.
The Cheffe is published by MacLehose Press in the UK and Knopf in the US.