a frenetic, visceral ride through the chaos of a conflict-ridden, mineral-rich African city
a review of Tram 83, by Fiston Mwanza Mujila (translated into English by Roland Glasser)
What’s the plot of Tram 83? Irrelevant!
Tram 83 transports you into an unnamed African city, governed (if you can call it that) by warlord. The money comes from mining, but everyone in town comes together at Tram 83, a bar based in “a station whose metal structure is unfinished.” Everyone includes the miners, the students, the nonprofit tourists (aid workers?), and the prostitutes. The two main characters are Requiem, a deal-maker and extortionist, and Lucien, a writer and historian. Over the course of 224 pages, they fight, rob a mine, dance, drink, argue, seek opportunity discuss, get arrested, get attacked, and much more.
“At Tram 83, it was impossible to converse without being interrupted.” The city’s prostitutes are constantly interrupting the dialogue between the characters, sometimes with innocent queries (“Do you have the time?” repeated 57 times throughout the book) and other times in a more forward way (a variation on how they feel about foreplay, repeated 17 days through the book). The book is peppered with music references, with references to biblical verses (many of which don’t exist, like Ephesians 18).
More than a story, Tram 83 is an experience, plunging the reader into the midst of the chaos and moral depravity (child prostitutes, torture) and pleasures. Tram 83 shows how chaos can become normal against the “everyday rhythm of blackouts and cave-ins of underground quarries.” The narrative doesn’t pause for more than a moment on events that in any other book would be central and traumatic, as when one character is forced to drink his own urine out of his shoes. (Spoiler alert?)
This book is kind of insane, it’s not for the faint of heart, and it merits every award and nomination it’s been getting.
Here are a few bits and pieces that caught my eye or my mind:
- On intellectual navel gazing: “What’s the point of playing the intellectual all the time if the equation must remain the same? The roads that lead to truth and honesty are cut by flooding, filth, dog turds, lies, and blackouts, but why did he obstinately maintain his belief that a better world was possible? Why did he strive to reduce humanity to the dreams and quotations he gleaned on the pages of his texts? It’s called cowardice, perhaps even amnesia, or indeed a combination of the two.”
- On intellectualism: “True debauchery [is] the debauchery of the mind.”
- On African literature: “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 f***, we’re happy. There needs to be f***ing in African literature too!”
- On the worst public relations for a book reading ever: “The guy entrusted with raising awareness of the benefits of literature entrusted it to another guy who entrusted it to another guy who entrusted it to another — suffice it to say, it was the shoddiest sort of awareness-raising.”
- On aid workers and their hopes for Africa: “Nearly all the nonprofit tourists…arrived with the hope of living in a world, a continent, as yet unpolluted by the excrement of globalization.”
- On cities and stories: “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.”
- On Africa: “Africa is of no interest to many intellectuals; let’s just say it’s not as exotic as it was four hundred years ago.”
- On dancing: “How’s it possible a guy that age could have difficulty jiving to beautiful music like this?”
- On detesting your own pleasure: “Your descents into vileness that drive me to ecstatic revolt”
- On torture: “Torture is one of the demarcation points between an organized banana republic and a chaotic, or in other words disorganized, banana republic.”
- On getting your partner ready: “Stroke my navel first and, while we’re at it, tell me about the Second World War. Teach me mathematics.”
- On uncooperative computers: “His computer boycotted the transposition of the document to PDF. … Bad luck, blackout!”
And here are a few snippets from other reviews:
- John Powers, NPR: “An exuberantly dark first novel by Fiston Mwanza Mujila…plunges us into a world so anarchic it would leave even Ted Cruz begging for more government. … Fiston evokes the textures of the city in all its deliriousness, blowing marvelous riffs on everything from the sleaziness of foreign visitors to the differing shapes of streetwalkers’ buttocks to the way the poor patrons of Tram 83 like jazz, because it’s so classy.
- Michelle Newby, The Rumpus: “With echoes of Flannery O’Connor, Ralph Ellison, and Joseph Conrad, Mujila’s language alchemizes epic poetry from violence, despair and distraction.”
- John Taylor, Arts Fuse: “Tram 83 mirrors the most sordid and chaotic features of contemporary African cities, in which non-Africans also remain intimately and often deviously involved. Nothing angelic crops up in this believable dystopia.”
- Publishers Weekly: “Mujila succeeds in exploring themes of globalization and exploitation in a kinetic, engaging work.”
- Geoff Wisner, The Quarterly Conversation: “Tram 83 is not exactly a deep novel, but it carries itself with exuberance and style.”
Books mentioned in this book
- The Bible