By Fiston Mwanza Mujila
Translated by Roland Glasser
Deep Vellum Press – September 2015
ISBN 9781941920046 – 224 Pages – Paperback
“I trained as a historian. I think, unless I am mistaken, that literature deserves pride of place in the shaping of history. It is by way of literature that I can reestablish the truth. I intend to piece together the memory of a country that exists only on paper. To fantasize about the City-State and the Back-Country with a view to exploring collective memory. Historical characters are my waymarks. But baby-chicks, diggers, famished students, tourists, and…”“I’m familiar with that view of things. We’ve already had enough of squalor, poverty, syphilis, and violence in African literature. Look around us. There are beautiful girls, good-looking men, Brazza Beer, good music. Doesn’t all that inspire you? I’m concerned for the future of African Literature in general. The main character in the African novel is always single, neurotic, perverse, depressive, childless, homeless, and overburdened with debt. Here, we live, we fuck, we’re happy. There needs to be more fucking in African literature too!”– pp. 45-46.
Congolese, first-time novelist Fiston Mwanza Mujila may well be brilliant; his Man Booker Prize-nominated Tram 83 certainly is brilliance, African literature of honest and refreshing exuberance. Published two years ago in French, Tram 83 has garnered worldwide attention, and was published this last year in translation by Roland Glasser through the nonprofit literary arts press Deep Vellum. I’ve previously reviewed a collection of Shishkin stories from these fantastic publishers of contemporary translations into English, and I have a trove of other releases to soon read and review. They are a press that I have quickly became excited about, and Tram 83 only solidifies my appreciation of the benefit they provide readers in the United States.
This novel takes its name from the fictional, infamous nightclub of an unnamed African city-state where underworld elements of squalor, corruption, and opportunity gather in a haze of drugs, sexuality, philosophy, and politics. Trapped in a sociopolitical culture of perpetual succession, residents of the city and visitors alike compete in wild schemes of profiteering from the exploitation of the land’s natural mineral resources by the de facto ‘dissident General’ who sits in power.
Growing up – and remaining – in the city, Requiem is a realist, seeing a world past redemption: “The roads that lead to truth and honesty are cut by flooding, filth, dog turds, lies, and black-outs…” A scam artist dreaming of attaining more power in the broken existence personified by the drunken dances and excess of Tram 83, Requiem’s outlook is challenged by the arrival of his childhood friend Lucien, an aspiring writer and intellectual, looking to change the world through a literature of honest Truth.
The plot to Tram 83 is loose, ill-defined and nearly lost in the jazz-like improvisational, poetic style to the text:
In the distance: first light, music, fatwas, angelus bells, the laughter of the post-adolescent baby-chicks, the single-mamas with spoiled breasts, the Tram busgirls and waitresses, the strike and its students, the desperados and their dogs, the dissident rebels and their desire for rape, the local mayor bringing out his fifteen sacks of heterogenite, the publisher with a single-mama-post-baby-chick, the screeching of the rails, the tragic lamentations of the Railroad Diva, the haze, the melancholy of a life premeditated.
The majority of the text is beautiful dialogue, and like the text that I’ve opened this review with, character individualities become blurred in their similarities of speaking, despite very different social status, beliefs, or behaviors. What Mujila does here is show just how fully the ‘vibe’ of this city – of Tram 83 – takes over the characters regardless of their background. They become defined by the overriding nature of their environment. This highlights that while frenetic and colorful style/language are major components to Tram 83, these are stressed to fully realize the novel’s themes and symbolism.
Full of contradiction like African literature and many aspects of the continent and its very diverse cultures, Mujila’s novel is darkly comic, seemingly written to both ‘reestablish a truth’ that transcends African literature, while also playing with its tropes in a surreal mix of philosophy, friendship, and criminal exploitation. Battling contradictions become allegorized in the characters of Lucien & Requiem. For instance, the novel has an edge of masculine rawness: women are mostly prostitutes, another resource – in the form of baby-chicks or single-mamas – for profiteering and power. On the one hand this conveys a brutal reality of a cultural condition. At the same time this fails to suggest a way forward past a history of collective misogynistic memory. Echoing the resigned despair of Requiem in opposition to the optimistic ambitions of Lucien, this is just one example of Tram 83‘s complexity.
I would have really liked the opportunity to read this in French in addition to Glasser’s translation. The peculiar magic and rhythm of the original language is surely lost through the simple act of translation. Indeed to my ears the simple title Tram 83 sounds far more evocative in French. Though I can’t directly compare the texts, I can say that Glasser at least achieves a poetry and pace in the English that is sublime in its own right, one that meshes perfectly with the other feverishly chaotic elements to the novel.
Fiston Mwanza Mujila’s debut novel has garnered far more than my admiration and enjoyment. In the time between my reading it and this review there have been numerous reviews/interpretations published in both well-respected professional venues and from everyday readers alike. Lovers of literature, new to African lit or not, should check this out.
Disclaimer: I received a free advanced reading copy of this from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.