Gauz’ ‘Standing Heavy’

“Booker International Prize 2023: Books that made my shortlist for this prize.
“Standing Heavy”: In order of reading book number 3.

Employers are all too willing to overlook official status. The morphological profile is supposedly appropriate. Morphological profile . . . 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.

Gauz, a writer from the Ivory Coast, is both politically engaged and a satirist, and this book, released in France in 2014 tells the story of young and not so young black men arriving in France from west Africa. He takes us from the sixties to the present day. The opening quote is both is an example of his writing style, concise, pared back to the message. This work is full of pertinent observations and the definitions, for instance that money is more easily available in the wealthy shopping areas such as the Champs Élysée than in poor areas, the message given as here in a definition:

Fast STM. 7 seconds, typing the code included, is the time needed for an HSBC ATM on the Champs Élysée to cough up 20 euros. At the Crédit Lyonnais on the rue Louis Bonnet in Belleville, the same operation takes 43 seconds! On the Champs Élysée money spent as fast as it is given…In the poor quarters, even the ATMs think twice before giving you money.

The story loosely follows characters from the Ivory Coast in Paris as the times change, from the students of the sixties invited over to study and to work in their run down accommodation to the next generation after the oil crisis, of often undocumented migrants living in these same student flats, sub-let to many more of them by the previous generation, but where work was still plentiful, through the aftermath of the twin towers to the current day.

A clever book, fun but gets its message over.

First Published in french as “Debout-payé” in 2014, by Le nouvel Attila. Translated into English by Frank Wynne and published in 2022 as “Standing Heavy ” by Maclehose Press.

The quotes as read in French before translation

les regards sont volontairement bienveillants sur les situations administratives, le profil morphologique est prétendument adéquat. Profil morphologique…Les noirs sont costauds, les noirs sont grands, les noirs sont forts, les noirs sont obéissants, les noirs font peur. Impossible de ne pas penser à ce ramassis de clichés du bon sauvage qui sommeillent de façon atavique à la fois dans chacun des blancs chargés de recruitment, et dans chacun des noirs venus exploiter ces clichés en sa faveur.

Fast GAB. 7 secondes, composition du code comprise, c’est le temps qu’il faut à un guichet automatique de la HSBC des Champs-Élysées pour cracher 20 euros. Au Crédit Lyonnais de la rue Louis Bonnet à Belleville, la même opération prend 43 secondes! Aux Champs-Élysées, l’argent est vite donné, mais aussi vite dépensé… Dans les quartiers pauvres, même les distributeurs automatiques hésitent à vous refiler de l’argent.

Laurent Mauvignier ‘The Birthday Party’

As though by watching him she can guess what he’s thinking, when maybe he’s just waiting for her to come out of this police station where he’s brought her for the how many times now, two or three in two weeks, she can’t remember – what she sees, in any case, elevated slightly over the car park which seems to incline somewhat past the grove of trees, standing near the chairs in the waiting room between a scrawny plant and a concrete pillar painted yellow on which she could read appeals for witnesses if she bothered to take an interest, is, because she’s slightly above it, overlooking and thus observing a misshapen version of it, a bit more packed down than it really is, the silhouette, compact but large, solid, of this man whom, she now thinks, she’s no doubt been too long in the habit of seeing as though he’s still a child

Laurent Mauvignier’s writing, here as in previous books, examines the protagonists feelings precisely and in detail, allowing us the time to piece together our own view of the story from the sum of the feelings described. Here in this book shortlisted for the Booker International Prize, there are four main characters leading up to the birthday party living in a little hamlet of three houses. We are introduced initially to Christine, an aged artist living in one of the houses and a family of three, Bergogne, his daughter, Ida and his wife Marion who will be celebrating her fortieth birthday the next day. The description illustrated here in the opening quote of Christine looking out of the police station window at the beginning of the book is an example of the precision of Mauvignier’s descriptive writing, we hear what Christine is thinking, the relative position of watcher and watched and how she sees him.

But who is Marion? This question is not immediately apparent but it is made clear to us that Christine, who looks after Ida after school each day, and has known Bergogne all of his life, has no affinity for Marion and thinks that this glamorous looking woman who comes from nowhere to live in this out of the way hamlet with Bergogne, a small time farmer, is not what she seems. We learn from Bergogne’s guilty visit to town to see a young prostitute that all is not straightforward in their marriage.
Marion is a breath of fresh air for her female colleagues at work, she will not be submissive with her management to keep her job, we learn of her view of the “project leader”.

As the birthday party nears, this slow moving preparation turns into a thriller as Marion’s party is hijacked by the arrival on the scene of three dangerous and diversely armed brothers from Marion’s past. This was an enormously enjoyable story, some 600 pages long and keeps you interested right up to the last gunshot!

First Published in french as “Histoires de La nuit” in 2020, by Les Éditions de Minuit. Translated into English by Daniel Levin Becker and published in 2023 as “The Birthday Party ” by Fitzcarraldo Editions.

Georgi Gospodinov ‘Time Shelter’

“Booker International Prize 2023: Books that made my shortlist for this prize.
“Time Shelter”: In order of reading book number 1.

Becoming attached to people here is painful because you realise you are getting attached to someone who will soon leave you. I feel especially close to mr M, his is likely a case of retrograde amnesia , he has only just come to the clinic and the agent follows him like a shadow visiting him twice a week, clearly he too enjoys it or feels some need to do it because he comes all the way from the city every time and spends the whole afternoon here. In the beginning we sent a car for him but he turned it down and started coming with his own, people need to tell stories I think even people like him, before he couldn’t and now he can nobody cares. Suddenly he has found somebody who hangs on his every word one man who has turned into an ear for all those stories from back then, one man who was ready to hear everything, the man he followed who was losing his memory and has ended up being erased twice over.

This quite extraordinary book about memory, treats, in the first half of the book, amongst other subjects amnesia. In a first instance individual amnesia due to age and illness is addressed where the narrator and his friend Gaustin, create the first time shelters for troubled people. Gaustin is the ideas and concepts part of the pair and the narrator is the person that manages these ideas. The time shelters are rooms in a clinic where everything is from an era, for instance the fifties, so that people whose memories are being stripped away can find solace in a period they can still remember. There are two other ideas introduced here, firstly the fact that in Eastern Europe memories may be very different than in Western Europe, both Gaustin and the narrator are from Bulgaria and their clinics are initially set up in Switzerland and that not only loss of memory but also more complex ideas of, for instance guilt may be treated, take for example the opening quote with the patient Mr M and the state informant from communist times who is now the only person who knows about him.

Gaustin then predicts the needs of these shelters for the more generalised case of people wanting to return to the soft cocoon of a past period of their own will as he imagines the next step for his clinics:

One day when this business really takes off Gaustin continued we’ll create these clinics and sanatoriums in various countries, the past is also a local thing, there’ll be houses from various years everywhere, little neighbourhoods one day we’ll even have small cities, maybe even have a whole country for patients with failing memories, Alzheimer’s, dementia whatever you want to call it, for all of those who already are living solely in the present of their past, and for us he said finally After a short pause letting out a long stream of smoke this sudden groundswell of people who have lost their memories today is no coincidence they are here to tell us something and believe me one day very soon the majority of people will start returning to the past of their own accord, they’ll start losing their memories willingly the time is coming when more and more people will want to hide in the cave of the past, to turn back and not for happy reasons by the way, we need to be ready with the bomb shelter of the past.

Things then slowly step out control as the idea is taken forward by the European Union, after an important member of the Commission has used à center for a loved one losing their memory, each country in the Union should hold a referendum on which time in the past they wish to live in. The narrator, tells us of each country making different choices with the favourites, such as the Sixties, not necessarily being as loved as that.

The narrator becomes aware that Gaustin is his creation, but not that he is the writer’s creation. This book was a real pleasure, the first of my planned reads for this prize, how can the others compete?

Translated into English by Angela Rodel and published by Weidenfeld and Nicholson in 2023

Outguess the Booker International jury 2023

The Booker International Prize longlist was announced today the 14th of March, the shortlist will be announced on 18th of April and the winner the 23rd of May , that’s 13 books in 70 days or a book every 5 days! Enough to say I’m going to have to make some choices.

Can I out guess the official jury and maybe only read 6 books beginning with the longlist.

Of course I can.

So here I go:

Time Shelter by Georgi Gospodinov: well it’s available on audible, can listen in the car.

Jimmy Hendrix live in Lviv

Standing Heavy (I’ll cheat and read it in French)

Ninth Building

A System so Magnificent

If I manage these 5 I’ll make a clever choice after the shortlist is announced for the sixth.

Will I be able to influence the jury with my persuasive posts?

I’ll leave you to guess.

The Booker International Prize, I can leave my house now edition.

And the Winner is:

Blocked in the COVID tunnel, I know when we entered and I’m told there is light at the end, or have I lost my sight (it’s there but I can’t see it)?: So let’s use the time when I used to just see people. I’ve read the six shortlisted novels, written articles and debated extensively with myself and here are the conclusions.

Let’s begin with the duo “unfindable/unreadable” The Employees/In Memory of Memory” no further comments needed.

Next we should move on to the undeveloped: the whole subject of adolescents, evil and magic really doesn’t ring my bell. Yes, “The Dangers of Smoking in Bed“..

And then there were three! and one frustrated reviewer.

I know, as a professional jury member, books are free, but I object to just 46 pages. “The war of the Poor” was a great idea, well written…. but just as you’re beginning….well you get to the 46th page.

Just what have the Jury done in selecting these books? Was my review of last year’s competition so good that they wanted to eliminate competition? Or are they just not interested in readers?

Which leaves us with two, I guess that’s not so bad, What do you think?

Benjamin Labatut ‘When We Cease to Understand the World‘. An extremely interesting book, just too much information. It could make the excellent basis of a ludic documentary series but I wouldn’t propose it for this prize.

Let me confidently announce that the winner of the Prix Goncourt des Lycéens has got to be the winner of this prize, All Night all Blood is Black, a fresh view on the madness of war. Winner by default but winner also by merit.

Éric Vuillard ‘The War of the Poor’

Booker International Prize 2020: 6 Books shortlisted for this prize.
“The War of the Poor”: In order of reading book number 6.

Because the powerful never give up anything, neither bread nor freedom. It is then at that moment that he utters before them his most terrible words. Before the Crown Prince, Duke John, the Bailiff Zeus, the Mayor and Council of Allstedt, after the sword, the poor, Nebuchadnezzar, and the wrath of God, now Müntzer says: death to impious Monarchs.***

This is the story of the poor and their little known rebellions, first of all in England in the 14th century, of John Wyclif who proned translating the bible into the language of the people, who would then have a direct relationship with God and would not need the corrupt clergy, this of course was not a popular idea amongst the rich. After his death one of his disciples, John Ball fomented a peasants revolt due in part to over taxation which was then carried forward by Watt Tyler who marched on London with upwards of 60000 peasants who looted and beheaded judges. The peasants wern’t really prepared, and when the tide turned tens of thousands were put to the sword.

In the next century came the printing press and the bible was then printed in the language of the people. The revolt then flairs up in Germany lead by Thomas Müntzer who goes further than Luther:

His mass in German raised an outcry. People came from all around Allstedt to listen to the word of God, crowds gathered to hear a priest speak to them, for the first time, in their own language. In the church in Allsttedt, God spoke German.***

Müntzer was full of a vindictive rage against the corrupt Clergy and the ruling classes stirring up the people as part if the great peasant uprising of the early 16th century. Where once again up to 100000 of the the poorly prepared people were slaughtered by the arisocrats armies.

This all too short a book, only 46 pages, only scratched the surface of a passionate subject, of these two interesting excerpts of history.

First Published in French as “La guerre des pauvres” in 2019 by Actes Sud.
Translated into English by Mark Polizzotti and published as The War of the Poor by Other Press in 2020
*** My translation

The quotes as read in French before translation

Car les puissants ne cèdent jamais rien, ni le pain ni la liberté. Et c’est à ce moment qu’il prononce devant eux sa plus terrible parole. Devant le duc Jean, le prince héritier, le bailli Zeiss, le bourgmestre et le conseil d’Allstedt, après le glaive, les pauvres, Nabuchodonosor et la colère de Dieu, voici que Müntzer dit: il faut tuer les souverains impies.

Il va plus loin que Luther. Sa messe en allemand soulève un tollé. Les gens viennent des alentours d’Allstedt écouter la parole de Dieu, des foules se déplacent pour entendre un prêtre s’adresser à eux pour la première fois dans leur langue. Dans l’église d’Allstedt, Dieu parle allemand.

Mariana Enriquez ‘The Dangers of Smoking in Bed’

Booker International Prize 2021: 6 Books shortlisted for this prize.
“The Dangers of Soking in Bed”: In order of reading book number 3.

Their frantic families came to get them without thinking too much about how odd the case was, how unsettling it was that the children should come back all at the same time.

Mariana Enriquez’s Danger is a book of disturbing short stories , mostly about youths and evil or death, such as Rambla Triste and Barcelona’s ghost children or The Well where a the women in a family transfer evil from themselves to their youngest daughter through a witch and via a photo. The story which stood out for me was the most developed and longest in the book “The kids who came back”

In this story, Mechi, a council worker was emloyed to archive the files on the many missing children in the city and despite working with two other women who don’t talk to her in a very noisy office under a motorway flyover, and despite the lack of importance of her work she genuinly feels good about this job:

Since she’d taken over—almost two years before—the archive had received lavish praise. And that was in spite of the fact that it had a merely documentary value: the important files, the ones that mobilized police and investigators to follow up clues about the kids, were in police departments and prosecutors’ offices. Her archive was more useless, a sort of constantly expanding report without the capacity to inspire action.

Suddenly then over a short period of time these children begin to re-appear in the city parks, but exactly as they were when they dissapeared, sometimes many years previously but are by and large accepted into their grieving families as illustrated in the opening quote before being rejected as not being the person that had dissapeared.

This book, as often for me with short stories, left me with a feeling of “undeveloped”. The whole subject of adolescents, evil and magic really doesn’t ring my bell.

First Published in Spanish as “Los peligros de fumar en la cama” by Anagrama in 2017.
Translated into English by Megan McDowell and published as “The Dangers of Smoking in Bed” in 2021 by Granta Books.

Olga Ravn ‘The Employees’

Booker International Prize 2021: 6 Books shortlisted for this prize.
“The Employees”: In order of reading book number 5.

What are the Booker International Prize Jury doing? From In Memory of Memory my last read, I would have needed auto blood transfusions to keep the yellow jersey and finish the book to this seemingly promising but unfindable book (even Amazon, like em or hate em, if you can’t find it they’ve got it, “normally”). Couldn’t read it, therefore no article!!

Maria Stepanova ‘In Memory of Memory’

Booker International Prize 2021: 6 Books shortlisted for this prize.
“In Memory of Memory”: In order of reading book number 4.

I must have been about twelve. I was hunting around for something interesting to look at. There was plenty of interesting stuff: with every death a pile of new objects appeared in our apartment, deposited just as they were, trapped in a sudden end state, because their previous owner, the only person who could have freed them, was no longer amongst the living.

I don’t know who chose the shortlist for this prize this year but he certainly wanted to make it difficult to follow. I guess there must have been some powerful lobying. I’ve read doctoral theses with far less references. I had assumed this to be a fiction prize but it would appear in this case not and I should confess up front that my Kindle tells I only managed 42% of this particularly long book (I never normally give up during a book).

The opening quote tells us something of the subject, do memories die with the person and what do we do to prolong them, firstly our own before we die and secondly those of others after their dissapearance. How have momories changed and our understanding of them from the time of the handwritten letter to the time of the selfie. Stepanova then takes us through the twentieth century, its pogroms and revolutions, state terror and the Shoah and of the terribly small chance of a Jewish family to have lived through these times intact no matter which choices they had made at the turn of the century.

The children of the turn of the century had three choices before them, and they all looked much the same. Revolution, assimilation and Zionism

How in this situation of mass interruption of the memory line can or should the memories of these whole families, whole communities, whole people be assured. This is as far as I got, the premise seems interesting and should be. As I’ve mentioned, I’m a stubborn reader, good luck with the others.

In contemporary Europe, with its barely healed wounds, black holes, and traces of displacement, a well-preserved family archive is a rarity.

First Published in Russian as “ПАМЯТИ ПАМЯТИ” by Novoe Izdatel’stvo in 2017.
Translated into English by Sasha Dugdale, and published as “In Memory of Memory” in 2021 by Fitzcarraldo Editions.

Benjamin Labatut ‘When We Cease to Understand the World’

Booker International Prize 2021: 6 Books shortlisted for this prize.
“When We Cease to Understand the World”: In order of reading book number 2.

Decades before, Zyklon A—a precursor to the poison employed by the Nazis in their concentration camps—had been sprayed on California oranges, as a pesticide, and used to delouse the trains in which tens of thousands of Mexican immigrants hid when entering the United States. The wood of the train cars was stained a beautiful blue, the same colour that can be seen even today on certain bricks at Auschwitz; both hearken to cyanide’s authentic origins as a by-product isolated in 1782 from the first modern synthetic pigment, Prussian Blue.

In this rambling book, Benjamin Labatut brings us in just over 150 years on a rollercoaster ride in sciences from the more or less alchemist days of the mid to late eighteenth century where little more than four elements were known, and with accidental experiments leading to discoveries that soon escaped the hands and minds of the person that discovered them, through to God playing dice, and Heisenberg’s uncertainty principal.

Labatut chooses to take us from the accidental discovery of Prussian Blue by Jacob Diesbach, useful in dyeing and painting, through the accidental discovery of cyanide by Carl Wilhelm Scheele stirring a pot of Prussian Blue with a spoon coated in traces of sulphuric acid and of Scheele’s death from a painting pigment poisoning, a wonderful green colour used extensively but based on arsenic. And yes as in the opening quote, he links this through to Zyclon A and then Zyclon B.

But how does he get us to Heisenberg and Nils Bohr? Well the first man to derive the exact solution to Einstein’s theory of relativity and thus ultimately predict the existence of Black holes died as a result of being gassed in the first world war trenches.

I’ll stop here, an extremely interesting book, just too much information. Yes I’ve left out huge chunks of subject matter. It could make the excellent basis of a ludic documentary series but I wouldn’t propose it for this prize.

First Published in Spanish as “Un Verdor Terrible” by Anagrama in 2020.
Translated into English by Adrian Nathan West and published as “When We Cease to Understand the World” in 2021 by Pushkin Press.