Fiston Mwanza Mujila: Tram 83 (Tram 83)
There are novels, like music, that start in a low, gentle key and keep it that way throughout. There are others that also start in a low, gentle key but gradually build up to a crescendo before ending in a somewhat lower and gentler key. Then there are the novels and the pieces of music that start with a bang and keep it up all the way through. I am listening to one of these pieces of music as I type – the Sex Pistols’ Anarchy in the UK – and this book is certainly one of these. We start in the noisy, dirty, chaotic Northern Station and that is where we end the novel. Right away, we see Mwanza Mujila’s great skill at conveying this sense of noise, chaos and perpetual motion, so much so that you almost want to put in ear plugs while reading it. The nearest equivalent – and it is a very different novel – may well be Sátántangó (Satantango).
This novel is set in the City-State, a breakaway mining state. It may be based on Katanga but Katanga broke away from the Republic of Congo while Mwanza Mujila is from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, to which there are the occasional oblique references. Whatever the case, City-State is fictitious. The country is ruled by a dissident general who controls the main mining, which, for the most part, takes place in what is called the Back Country. He gives mining concessions to his friends, family and associates or sells them to various speculators. He can and does randomly close down the mines, particularly when he cannot get an erection. Many of the men in the country work in the mine, including the many students who need to do so to pay for their courses. However, when in town, there is only one place where everyone goes and that is Tram 83, one of the most popular restaurants and hooker bars, its renown stretching beyond the City-State’s borders (it is named after a late night tram line in Brussels (link in French)). If you found the Northern Station noisy, you will find Tram 83 even more so.
There are two main characters. At the beginning, Requiem is meeting his friend, Lucien, at the station. They have had a fractured relationship. When younger, Requiem had suddenly joined the army, telling no-one, neither Lucien nor Jacqueline his wife, leaving her to bring up their son without any funds. In the end, Lucien had looked after her. When Requiem had reappeared as an army commander, Lucien had been to see him about Jacqueline. Instead of offering to help, Requiem’s response was to order his soldiers to beat Lucien up. Even while waiting for Lucien – the train is inevitably late – Requiem picks up a prostitute and very nearly goes off with her, leaving Lucien to fend for himself. However, he waits and, when Lucien does finally arrive, off they go straight to Tram 83.
The two are very different. Lucien is the diffident intellectual and writer, while Requiem is the action man. Indeed, while Lucien is staying in Requiem’s flat, Requiem often disappears and generally returns somewhat the worse for wear but with fistfuls of cash. Lucien has no idea what he has been doing or how he has obtained the money. When they first meet, after ten years, they have little to say to one another and Jacqueline is not discussed. Lucien is happy with this as he is meant to be writing a play for a French theatre, which is long overdue. Indeed, he had virtually finished it when his house was visited by rebels (he had been living in the Back Country) and burned his play. He will later lose his notebook in similar circumstances. The play, called The Africa of Possibility, is apparently about this country and features Che Guevara, Sékou Touré, Gandhi, Abraham Lincoln, Lumumba, Martin Luther King, Ceaușescu and the dissident General.
Much of the action is set in Tram 83, where the noise level remains high. Mwanza Mujila superbly portrays a busy, noisy, bar/restaurant, with all of its comings and goings, with raucous music, fights, shouting and lots of drinking. The waitresses are aggressive, demanding tips. The prostitutes are continually propositioning the available men, getting them to buy them expensive drinks and offering their various services. Lucien meets Ferdinand Malingeau, a publisher, allegedly born in Switzerland, who seems eager to publish Lucien and eager to promote a more literary culture in the city (definitely a lost cause – There are cities which don’t need literature: they are literature.). Malingeau and Requiem, however, do not get on. Requiem blackmails Malingeau and Malingeau gets his revenge. Lucien also meets a prostitute who seems to take a shine to him.
On the whole, it is Requiem that is the survivor in this bloody, brutal, corrupt world. He organises a mining expedition in the town. This is something that happens frequently, with people mining under houses, which then collapse. Lucien, who accompanies him, ends up in prison, not a place you want to be in this town. Indeed, this is a town for survivors and fighters and not for intellectuals. Corruption, brutality, trickery and violence are what drives it.
In his introduction to the novel, Alain Mabanckou points out that this is definitely not your standard somewhat romanticised novel of Africa. Indeed, it is not. Mwanza Mujila holds nothing back. There is no romanticism. There is brutality, drinking, fighting, corruption, prostitution, including child prostitution, cheating, violence, dog-eating and lots of casual sex. I am not competent to judge whether this is a more accurate picture of the country but I can say that it is a superb novel, without doubt the noisiest novel I have ever read, and one that will clearly set the African novel on a new path.
First published in French 2014 by Métailié
First published in English by Deep Vellum in 2015
Translated by Roland Glasser