FISTON MWANZA MUJILA (tr. Roland Glasser)
$10.00 ebook editions, available now
Rating: 3.75* of five
The Publisher Says: Two friends, one a budding writer home from Europe, the other an ambitious racketeer, meet in the only nightclub, the Tram 83, in a war-torn city-state in secession, surrounded by profit-seekers of all languages and nationalities. Tram 83 plunges the reader into the modern African gold rush as cynical as it is comic and colorfully exotic, using jazz rhythms to weave a tale of human relationships in a world that has become a global village.
Fiston Mwanza Mujila (b. 1981, Lubumbashi, Democratic Republic of Congo) is a poet, dramatist, and scholar. Tram 83 is his award-winning and raved-about debut novel that caused a literary sensation when published in France in August 2014.
I RECEIVED A DRC OF THIS BOOK FROM THE PUBLISHER VIA EDELWEISS+. THANK YOU.
My Review: Many people have spoken to the poetic nature of this book's text. I agree, in both the good sense...the author's (and crucially the translator's) ear for the heightened meanings of words used in poetry is always adding a bass line to this melody...and the bad, that being the obfuscatory and often obscurantist requirement for the reader to unpack subtexts and discover new senses for familiar words while mid-read.
The City-State is one of those territories that have already broken through the barrier of internal suffering. You share the same destiny as everyone else, the same history, the same hardship, the same trains, 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 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, the route marked out in advance. Fate sealed like that of the locomotives carrying spoiler merchandise and the dying.
It's not an impossible task. It's often uncomfortable, and it's always a way of slowing the reader down. That isn't always a bad thing. It can feel sort of like the author is being pedantic, the repetition of variants on "You have the time?" is my favorite example. The time to disport yourself with a prostitute. The time to listen to a song. The time as spending, a transaction, an exchange of money for value or attention for money; the issue at hand isn't that it's hard to do this work but that it's required. Read cold, flat, without investment other than decoding, there is no through-line of story to receive. It is a list of lists, a repetition of phrases and names and all strung on a thin cord of criticism for capitalist society's multi-level destruction of the characters. That isn't a terribly satisfying read; and the fact that it is in itself a sharp critique of the mental laziness of many readers is a bit off-putting.
The Northern Station was going to the dogs. It was essentially an unfinished metal structure, gutted by artillery, train tracks, and locomotives that called to mind the railroad built by Stanley, cassava fields, cut-rate hotels, greasy spoons, bordellos, Pentecostal churches, bakeries, and noise engineered by men of all generations and nationalities combined. It was the only place on earth you could hang yourself, defecate, blaspheme, fall into infatuation, and thieve without regard to prying eyes.
So much is inside the world of Tram 83 that it can feel as overwhelming as a physical trip to Africa does to many Westerners. For the whitest among us, the experience of being a vanishingly small minority is so unsettling as to be agony. For that reason I want many many US whites to read it; I recognize the futility of that wish but am stubbornly advocating it. It's the end of 2020. The world has changed because of COVID-19. It is long past time people with our First-World privilege, regular garbage pick-up and grocery stores and paved roads, heard about the reality of the rest of the world in their own words.
Eyes shrivelled by cigarettes and alcohol. Potbellies full to bursting with roundworms, amoebas, earthworms, and assorted mollusks. Heads shaved with knives. Arms and legs stiff with digging graves from morning till morning. They were close to ten, maybe twelve years old. They toted the same justifications: “We’re doing this to pay for our studies. Dad’s already gone with the locomotives. He doesn’t write no more. Mom’s sick. The uncles and aunts and grandmothers say we’re sorcerers and it’s because of that dad got married a third time and that our sorcery comes from our mom and that we should go to see the preachers who will cut the links by getting us to swallow palm oil to make us vomit up our sorcery and prevent us flying round at night.” They lived off a multitude of rackets, like all the kids in town.
They worked as porters at the Northern Station, and on the Congo River and at the Central Market, as slim-jims in the mines, errand boys at Tram 83, undertakers, and gravediggers. The more sensitive ones stood guard at the greasy spoons abutting the station, whose metal structure recalled the 1885s, in exchange for a bowl of badly boiled beans.
What I want from white people like me reading this thunderflash of words, this uncappable well of natural story-gas, is that we stop and do the work of being in fellowship with the world that isn't like us. Because that surface difference, as this intense and unmissable read says and shows, means nothing against the deepest human need of all: To connect and commune with Humanity. As cheesy as that sounds, this really is the take-away I hope you'll have when you spend a day immersed in Tram 83.