Wednesday, December 30, 2020

TRAM 83, a Congolese poet's grenade of a debut novel & THE RIVER IN THE BELLY, collection of his translated poetry

(tr. Roland Glasser)
Deep Vellum
$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.


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.


(tr. J. Bret Maney)
Deep Vellum Books
$15.95 trade paper, available now

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: A moving lyric meditation on the Congo River that explores the identity, chaos, and wonder of the Democratic Republic of Congo as well as race and the detritus of colonialism.

With The River in the Belly, award-winning Congolese author Fiston Mwanza Mujila seeks no less than to reinitiate the Congo River in the imaginary of European languages. Through his invention of the “solitude”—a short poetic form lending itself to searing observation and troubled humor, prone to unexpected tonal shifts and lyrical u-turns—the collection celebrates, caresses, and chastises Central Africa’s great river, the world’s second largest by discharge volume.

Drawing inspiration from sources as diverse as Soviet history, Congolese popular music, international jazz, and everyday life in European exile, Mwanza Mujila has fashioned a work that can speak to the extraordinary hopes and tragedies of post-independence Democratic Republic of the Congo while also mining the generative yet embattled subject position of the African diasporic writer in Europe longing for home.

Fans of Tram 83 will rediscover in River the incandescent, improvisatory verbal energy that so dazzled them in Mwanza Mujila’s English-language debut.


My Review
: I enjoyed Tram 83 a good deal more than most of my friends (see my almost-4-star review above); it's a successful read for me because it has an energy that makes me want to keep reading the words. That was also what I got out of this collection of poems. I think the overall likelihood of my agreeing with most anyone on matters poetical isn't high. What I will say is that I read the collection here without dramatic snorts or theatrical eyerolls. The one time I found myself thinking "oh, really?" was in the description above...the author's "invented solitudes"...when I thought, "someone hasn't met Henry Dumas's "Kef 24" and its fellow kefs. This is one frequent problem I experience with poetry. People either think I'm a know-it-all or an ignoramus because I make connections like this and, being poetry types, are not in the least reluctant to say something insulting or scathing either way. Tiresome sorts.

Anyway, this collection. I don't think it will hit right with formalists, who overlap pretty far with monoglot English speakers among my own acquaintances. There are, in Author Mujila's work, words and ideas that can't be translated into an English word; there are times when those words and phrases aren't obvious to the not-Congolese reader. Some patient Googling, a bit of contemplative cogitation, or simply moving on will solve most of these problems. I encourage the reader whose eyes just rolled to give the read a's a shame not to become a more informed, better equipped reader for lack of mere exposure.

Author Mujila also isn't reluctant to use sexual imagery or crudely physical imagery. If you flinch at describing male fowl as "cocks," you really need not pick this book up. The idea of a river as entrails, with dysentery, gives you the primmylip purseymouths? Horseman, pass by. One of the greater pleasures, to my mind, of reading translated work from other cultures is the opportunity to learn what *their* boundaries are, what sets a word or idea apart as transgressive in their world-view. I got a very great deal out of reading this collection; I am not an eager seeker of experiences poetical; and I think that means many, if not most, of y'all could get a lot out of the read as well.

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