Tram 83 by Fiston Mwanza Mujilla

Translated by Roland Glasser

Reviewed by Terence Jagger

tram 83

TRAM 83: BY DAY AS BY NIGHT, ETERNAL IN ITS SPLENDOUR OF A PARADISE GOING TO HELL IN A HANDCART, WITH THE CRUMMIEST CUSTOMERS AND THOSE WHO CHUCK THE THEIR FORTUNE OUT OF THE WINDOW, SYMBOL OF A SOCIETY IN PERFECT HARMONY, INTERMIXED, INTERMINGLED, CARTE BLANCHE TO MENDELIAN CROSS-BREEDING, FORCED INFATUATIONS, PREMATURE EJACULATIONS.

I am not sure this is really a novel: it seemed to me much more like a video short, or a trailer for an self-indulgent, action packed, tough talking film – one of those which is preceded by warnings about flashing lights and material some will find offensive.  For this book is raw, and in some senses, fast moving.  Actually, very little happens in the main narrative, but there is continuous action all around that narrative – and it is not for the faint-hearted. I won’t even say I enjoyed it – but I found it stimulating, compelling and a bit shocking: although one knows there are cities and night clubs like the one being described, you don’t often face it steadily, and you tend to assume that they are exceptions to the general rule.  Fiston Mwanza Mujilla – born in Congo but now living in Austria – rubs your nose in the corruption, greed, prostitution and violence, and tells you that this is the way of life in some places.

Tram 83 is a nightclub – not the only one in the anonymous African City State, which is run by a corrupt and capricious General rebelling against a vague ‘legitimate’ government – but it is the iconic, definitive one.  It is always open, full of tourists – profit and non-profit, musicians, chancers, drug dealers, prostitutes of all ages, and thugs.  In Tram 83, man’s (the clients are all men, the women fill other roles) raison d’etre is to get drunk, to eat dog curries, to fuck, and to cheat and steal.  It is in no way an attractive picture; it goes well beyond bohemianism or the louche; many reviewers found it funny, but frankly, that escaped me.

In this picture, the two main protagonists sit very differently: there is Requiem, utterly amoral, the fixer, the illegal miner, abandoned with drink, drugs, women and girls, not shirking – indeed, avidly embracing – violence, tawdry sexuality and blackmail and financial deceit of every kind; and there is Lucien, who in the book’s opening scene is arriving on the ramshackle neglected train into the desolation and horror of the City State – he is a writer, who wants only to write, who is scribbling in his notebook at every moment, and who turns down the prostitutes and tries to turn down Requiem’s violent and corrupt dealings at the mines.  Although they are meeting again after a long interval, they are closest friends – and they hate and detest each other.

The writing in Tram 83 is hard to assess; for a start, the novel is written in French and translated.  Second, clearly, the author is often writing in quasi-parody.  A striking feature are the chapter headings, pretentious, bombastic, compelling, like a bad reality TV show – one of them is at the head of this review, capital letters and all.  But he clearly captures a completely different style when he is sharing Lucien’s writing with us, and that is skilful and impressive, capturing the observation, the questioning, the distaste and the grand, empty statements and posing.  In the main narrative, Mujilla seems to want to write like Hemingway some of the time – though as many have found, that is nothing like as easy as it looks – and sometimes he indulges in great lists of words, of names, of parallel descriptions, which remind me of nothing so much as the Catalogue of the Ships in the Iliad, though there is nothing Homeric about this book, except perhaps the drinking bouts. For example, the list of those types who overrun Tram 83, ‘in search of good times on the cheap’, runs to over a page, and this (less than a quarter of the list) is how it starts:

Inadvertent musicians and elderly prostitutes and prestidigitators and Pentecostal preachers and students resembling mechanics and doctors already retired and transvestites and second-foot shoe peddlers and porn film fans and highwaymen and pimps and disbarred lawyers and casual labourers and former transsexuals and polka dancers and pirates of the high seas and seekers of political asylum and organised fraudsters and archaeologists and would-be bounty hunters and …

At first, there seems to be no plot, but just a series of brief episodes, sometimes only a page or so, sometimes ten, which capture the abandoned antics of the club and its habitués, raping the country and each other.  But gradually, a theme emerges, the publication of Lucien’s novel – it seems important, somehow, although we never know much about it, what’s in it, whether its any good, whether it upsets anyone or impresses them.  Then at the end, the whole febrile stage set is picked up and thrown in the air, leaving you with the feeling that this world will go on for ever, and that it will end at any moment.

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Terence Jagger knows and loves many African countries, but has never been anywhere like Tram 83.

Fiston Mwanza Mujilla, Tram 83 (Jacaranda, 2015). Translated by Roland Glasser. 978-1909762220,  220pp., paperback.

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