Francophone African literature is its own beast, with its own rules, inherited blood and quirks. It doesn’t often raise its head into the general African literature arena, happy instead to prowl around and enjoy success in the book clubs and consciousness of millions of French speakers and readers.
So it’s always a pleasure when this lesser-spotter character, makes it into translation, especially into English. As then it has an opportunity to reach a huge new audience.
Tram 83 was written in French by Fiston Mwanza Mujila and released by a small literary Texan non-profit, Deep Vellum Publishing in 2015. It has captured the imagination of those who ride it ever since.
I stepped on board and what a ride it was.
“In the beginning was the stone, and the stone prompted ownership, and the ownership a rush, and the rush brought an influx of men of diverse appearance who built railroads through rock, forged a life or palm wine , and devised a system, a mixture of mining and trading.” – Tram 83, Fiston Mwanza Mujila
Mujila’s detailed style is incredible. The way he weaves words gives the reader no opportunity to mistake what kind of place Tram 83 is. His prose rollicks like a train. There are lists upon lists of the magic rituals, crude deaths, broken hopes, miners’ diseases, hustles in progress, striking student’s demands, shifty sex tourists, cackling drunks and prostitute lingo that fill this gritty noisy universe. As you read the words in your head or aloud it sounds like mad, winding jazz.
Tram 83 is the name of both the area and the largest bar that is also: a hook up spot, mourning hall, shabby burlesque theatre, waiting room and celebration quarter. The whole place and the book itself is overshadowed by the grey, rusted, unfinished metal structure of an incomplete tram perhaps the most obvious and perennial proof of the City-State government’s failings.
“You share the same destiny as everyone else, the same history, the same hardship, the same rot, the same Tram beer, the same dog kebabs, the same narrative as soon as you come into the world. You start out baby-chick or slim-jim or child-soldier. You graduate to endlessly striking student or desperado. If you’ve got a family on the trains, then you work on the trains; otherwise like a ship you wash up on the edge of hope – a suicidal, a carjacker, a digger with dirty teeth, a mechanic, a street sleeper, a commission agent, an errand boy employed by for-profit tourists, a hawker of secondhand coffins. Your fate is already sealed like that of the locomotives carrying spoiled merchandise and the dying.” – Tram 83, Fiston Mwanza Mujila
Some may not find it an easy read with many sentences, a page long. Tram 83 firmly has its roots in French absurdist theatre. There are recurring interruptions by prostitutes asking other characters, and perhaps the reader – what service they require today. If Kurt Vonnegut had “And so it goes,” then Mujila has “Do you have the time?” But that adds to the hilarity of the whole piece. Mujila has a great sense of dark humour.
“Yet torture is above all an art, an artistic discipline just like literature , cinema, or contemporary dance. All detained in the City-State ghettos bitterly missed the torturers of yesteryears, those monsters who worked with the precision of a Swiss watch-maker.” – Tram 83, Fiston Mwanza Mujila
One can’t help but chuckle at the messes Tram 83‘s residents get themselves in. The main characters are both profoundly wise and incredibly foolish. The action centres on two inextricably linked frenemies, Lucien and Requiem in an unnamed African city-state that has seceded from the main country. Lucien is a failing writer from the back-country. In his friend’s opinion he is full of misplaced conviction. Requiem, in Lucien’s opinion has been sucked too far into the vortex of corruption, cheap sex and lawlessness of Tram 83. Undoubtably Requiem is a thug, with schemes and cons so far reaching and so efficient one can only describe them as elegant and cohesive in their depravity.
“Requiem possessed nude photographs of some two hundred and fifty tourists. They were completely at his feet.” – Tram 83, Fiston Mwanza Mujila
One of the major plotlines is the collaboration and rivalry between these two very differently rendered but equal protagonists.
Mujila’s novel is certainly a satire. It critiques poverty porn, contemporary African literature, the business of writing and modern politics. The leader of the City-State exhibits all the characteristics of the vain, impulsive, selfish African dictator that many of us have been subjected to in real life.
The General’s decisions are laughable: he opens the mines (which are the main source of income for the population of Tram 83) when he is in a good mood. Then closes them if his ego punctured or he feels offended. He awards mining contracts based on bribes and foreign “tourists” (in actual fact international mining companies) curry favour with him in order to secure them.
This mix of hyperrealism makes the book so memorable. It feels like an escape but not so far from reality as to be unbelievable. It’s already a post-modern classic; a unique and thrilling piece of work that captures the folly of humanity and your imagination. Mujila has certainly made his mark on the world with this crazy, entertaining book. Everyone who reads Tram 83 will be waiting to see what he comes up with next.