TRAM 83 by Fiston Mwanza Mujila

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Tram 83
By Fiston Mwanza Mujila
Translated by Roland Glasser
Deep Vellum Press – September 2015
ISBN 9781941920046 – 224 Pages – Paperback
Source: Publisher


“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.

The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair, by Joël Dicker

The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair, by Joël Dicker
Translated by Sam Taylor
Publisher: Penguin Books
ISBN: 0143126687
656 pages, paperback
Published 27th May 2014
Source: Goodreads

The truth about The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair is that its hype remains inexplicable to me. This is novel that has gotten a lot of press and fanfare, with huge sales throughout Europe. However, any potential readers out there that are looking into it, I think it’s important for you to consider what the novel really is compared to what the hype and awards may imply. Dicker’s debut novel is an entertaining, easy read. It is a clever mystery, and genre fans could easily enjoy it as I largely did. I’m not convinced it is anything more though.
Marcus Goldman, a successful, young, first-time novelist turns to his friend and former mentor Harry Quebert when Marcus finds himself trapped in the midst of sophomore writer’s block, an impatient publisher, and a public that is starting to forget his celebrity.
Quebert, who went through similar difficulties continuing to write following the literary accolades of his debut novel, reassures Goldman with advice and vague recollections of Quebert’s inspiration to write. Goldman discovers this past inspiration involves a love affair his mentor had with a young girl decades ago, a girl who mysteriously went missing.
Trying to turn his own life around, Goldman is forced instead to question his entire relationship with Quebert when the body of the young girl, Nola, is found buried beside Quebert’s house with a draft copy of Quebert’s famous novel and Quebert is subsequently arrested for murder.
Goldman leaves New York to return to the town of his old college where Quebert teaches, abandoning his responsibilities and again fleeing his writer’s block out of loyalty to his friend. Goldman’s investigations into Nola’s disappearance and Quebert’s secret relationship with the girl opens a web of small town intrigue and secrets and give Goldman’s publisher’s a desperate idea of what his next book can be: a report on his investigation into the truth of the Harry Quebert affair and Nola’s death.
As a mystery novel, The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair is strong and entertaining. If a bit long, the read is at least straight-forward, engaging, and rapid. The story is kept complex and unpredictable through the inclusion of a small-town’s-worth of characters, all of whom it turns out are keeping some kind of secrets pertinent to the mystery and are keeping important details from Goldman during his investigations.
Dicker nicely makes his protagonist Goldman a brutally honest narrator, whose point of view is conveyed with a fair amount of self-depreciation. The directness of Goldman contrasts nicely with the ambiguous information parceled out by Quebert and the unreliability of all others Goldman interacts with. The murdered Nola is also a deeply compelling character, and despite the danger and taboo of their relationship, both Quebert and Nola are sympathetic and relatable.
Despite these excellent attributes, Dicker’s novel also comes across as disappointing. It’s feel can be best described as slick and hip, written by a young author who the reader can easily (though not necessarily accurately) associate with the novel’s POV protagonist, Goldman. The success of the novel throughout Europe and the awards it has attracted offer parallels to where Goldman sits at the novel’s start, and the reader can’t help but compare Quebert’s advice to Goldman regarding writing and grabbing ahold of readers to the methods employed by Dicker here. Clearly the parallel is something that Dicker intends.
The great mystery that remains for me – and seemingly others – is just WHY this novel has attracted such rave accolades other than it is was a hip item of the moment in Europe. It’s a decent mystery novel with a good voice. Is it particularly ‘literary’ or merit the ‘literary’ awards it has gotten? I often question whether any work was really the ‘best’ choice for awards, but with this the question rears particularly strong.
I make it a point to never read English translations of French books, being perfectly capable of reading them in French. Somehow I either missed that this was a translation when requesting, or made a rare exception because the synopsis sounded so intriguing. (And it is often more difficult, certainly more expensive, to find copies of anything in the original French here in the US).
After starting this I decided to get the original version, because I thought the language was far too simple, direct, and ‘non-literary’ based on how the book was being marketed for this to be a decent translation. Upon finishing it, composing my thoughts, and seeing other reactions, I see that this isn’t a fault of translation, it is how the language in French is as well.
Again, this would be fine if this were sold as a better-than-average mystery alone. But as anything more, I unfortunately just don’t see it. Ultimately the parallels between Quebert’s advice to Goldman that extend through this long novel finish with the point that books should close while leaving the reader wish the story would not end yet. Honestly, after reading the final chapters of the book as all the many secrets held by all the characters were revealed (indeed it seems like every person in town had some hand direct or indirect in Nola’s condition, murder, or its coverup), I was just wanting it to wrap up and end already.
Depending on your expectations when entering this novel,  you could easily either love it or be really disappointed. Regardless, the hype over this is frankly the real mystery of the Harry Quebert affair. However, the one and two-star pans of the novel don’t really do it justice either. If you just like a good entertaining mystery, this is worth a read, and I really do recommend it.
Three Stars out of Five

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this from Penguin Books through the Goodreads’ First-reads giveaway program in exchange for an honest review.

On Being Rich and Poor: Christianity in a Time of Economic Globalization, by Jacques Ellul

On Being Rich and Poor: Christianity in a Time of Economic Globalization,
by Jaques Ellul
Translated by Willem H. Vanderburg
Publisher: U. of Toronto Press
ISBN: 1442626267
273 pages, paperback
Published April 2014
Source: NetGalley

This fascinating volume was not what I initially expected based on the provided summary and the title. It is not a well-developed treatise on the theme of Christianity in an age of economic globalization. At all. Rather than a cohesive whole, it is rather a transcription of separate studies on the books of Amos and James, commentaries with follow-up remarks to questions from Ellul’s audience. Though the theme of rich/poor comes up as one aspect in each study, that particular issue is not necessarily predominant. Additionally, in those sections that do address this theme, Ellul repeatedly points out that richness/poorness should not be understood merely in economic terms. Hence my disappointment with this volume solely consists of how it is being sold. If you are looking for a structured and complete exploration on the subtitle topic, I wouldn’t recommend this.

However, ignoring this subtitle and the emphasis of the blurb, this book is well worth reading, for Ellul’s writing is clear and well-reasoned, and his insights into both Amos and James are substantial, thought-provoking, and inspiring. Rather than an overall focus on economic disparities, what rather unites these texts more strongly and thoroughly is the simple message that God loves, and then consideration of what follows from this in God’s means of connecting with humanity and the rest of Creation.

In this way I found “On Being Rich and Poor” to be in some fashion an Apologetic, something that like Lewis’ “Mere Christianity” sets out to answer some of the common critiques of Christianity by defining what exactly the faith is. Here, Ellul delves into the texts of Amos and of James to clarify his interpretation of the texts and the unity of their messages across the span of the Old to New Testaments and its relation to both Christians and Jews. In contrast to defining Christianity, Ellul instead spends a lot of the text detailing what he thinks these books tell us about what/who God is, and how this is sometimes quite different from popular understandings. In another sense these two commentaries strive to point out the various ways Scripture has been abused through literal readings and ignorance of both historical context and nuances of the original languages.

Although not as ‘sold’, this is a tremendously good and approachable read, and would be ideal as the basis for group or individual Bible studies on Amos and/or on James. In addition, anyone with an interest in theology and interpretations of the Bible could gain valuable insight from Ellul’s thoughts, and it serves as a potentially useful tool for clarifying common misperceptions on the nature and ‘personality’ of God as portrayed by the Biblical authors.

Four Stars out of Five