Tram 83 by Fiston Mwanza Mujila
Translated by Roland Glasser
Publisher: Deep Vellum
Reviewed by Bronwyn Mauldin
If your only knowledge of Africa comes from the recent film Beasts of No Nation or a viral video called Koney 2012, if the only “African” literature you’ve ever read is by Alexander McCall Smith, then let Fiston Mwanza Mujila take to you Tram 83 for a whole new view:
“There are cities which don’t need literature: they are literature. They file past, chest thrust out, head on their shoulders. They are proud and full of confidence despite the garbage bags they cart around. The City-State, an example among so many others – she pulsated with literature.”
Mujila’s novel is set in an unnamed breakaway City-State in an unnamed African country, governed by a powerful dissident General. Everyone in the city is dependent on the region’s underground wealth. “For-profit tourists” arrive from around the world to exploit both minerals and cheap labor. Diggers and students alike work the mines. The earth is so rich residents are rumored to dig up their gardens and living rooms searching for veins of cobalt, diamonds, copper or bronze, silver, barium, tin or coal. They dig so wide and deep the foundations are undermined and buildings sink. Brave and foolish souls sneak into the mines at night to scrape out a few pounds of valuable stone, risking death at the hands of the General’s guards.
Tram 83 is the bar that brings them all together, “Inadvertent musicians and elderly prostitutes and prestidigitators and Pentacostal preachers… disbarred lawyers and casual laborers and former transsexuals and polka dancers and pirates of the high seas…” the list goes on for another page, ending with “…baby-chicks and drug dealers and busgirls and pizza delivery guys and growth hormone merchants, all sorts of tribes overran Tram 83, in search of good times on the cheap.” All these people, and Lucien and Requiem.
Lucien has just returned from the Back-Country where he has been writing a “stage-tale” about he history of his country. A friend in Paris is trying to arrange to have it performed. Requiem is Lucien’s childhood friend, an ambitious player in the City-State’s great game of trying to get rich quick.
It’s at Tram 83 where Lucien meets Ferdinand Malingeau, director of Joy Train Publications. Swiss by birth and a resident of the City-State by choice, he decides to publish Lucien’s stage-tale. But first Lucien must make a few changes that include reducing the number of characters by half. But how can he reduce the number of historical figures that have made his country what it is today?
Tram 83 is the first novel by Mujila, a poet and playwright born in Lubumbashi, Congo (formerly Zaire), a country in collapse. The language and rhythms of the book are inspired by the jazz and Congolese rumba he loves. In a recent interview Mujila said, “The City-State is like a paradise that’s run out of gas. And in this paradise, time is an illusion.”
Perhaps the most haunting feature of the City-State is the never-ending parade of prostitutes soliciting business. “Do you have the time?” and “Would sir like some company?” and “Take me to your country” and countless variants repeat over and over in an arrhythmic chorus that breaks into every conversation, every argument and quiet reverie:
“Foreplay is like democracy, as far as I’m concerned. If you don’t caress me, I’ll call the Americans.”
The prostitutes of the City-State are just as dependent on the minerals beneath the ground as everyone else, eking their living off what people earn from the mines. When Lucien first arrives, he responds to their solicitations, if only to dismiss them. After a while they fade into the background for him and for us as readers. They become part of the music of the City-State, contrapuntal punctuation marks in Mujila’s jazz-inflected prose.
In the City-State, no one is immune from the stones in the mines. Even Lucien finds himself underground one night, pickaxe in one hand, notebook in the other, hacking away with Requiem and a few of his friends. As always, it is Lucien’s notebook that gets him into trouble.
Mujila’s novel is as hilarious as it is heartbreaking, the language as beautiful as the mine-scarred, train-wrecked landscape is ugly. It is a story of how people survive the impossible, usually over beers at Tram 83.
Bronwyn Mauldin is the author of the novel Love Songs of the Revolution. She won The Coffin Factory magazine’s 2012 very short story award, and her Mauldin’s work has appeared in the Akashic Books web series, Mondays Are Murder, and at Necessary Fiction, CellStories, The Battered Suitcase, Blithe House Quarterly, Clamor magazine and From ACT-UP to the WTO. She is a researcher with the Los Angeles County Arts Commission, and she is creator of GuerrillaReads, the online video literary magazine.