📑 Review: Tram 83 by Fiston Mwanza Mujilla
In an African city in secession, which could be Kinshasa or Lubumbashi, land tourists of all languages and nationalities. They have only one desire: to make a fortune by exploiting the mineral wealths of the country. They work during the day in mining concession and, as soon as night falls, they go out to get drunk, dance, eat and abandon themselves in Tram 83, the only night-club of the city, the den of all the outlaws: ex children-soldiers, prostitutes, blank students, unmarried mothers, sorcerers' apprentices. Lucien, a professional writer, fleeing the exactions and the censorship, finds refuge in the city thanks to Requiem, a youth friend. Requiem lives mainly on theft and on swindle while Lucien only thinks of writing and living honestly. Around them gravitate gangsters and young girls, retired or runaway men, profit-seeking tourists and federal agents of a non-existent State.
Acclaimed newcomer Fiston Mwanza Mujila has dazzled the literary world with his debut novel, praised again and again for its musicality and lyricism. From the very first page we are thrown into the hustle and bustle of the “City-state”, with no anchor we are lost in the sounds that fill up the town and seems to emanate endlessly from the train station. It is inside this train station where we meet Lucien and requiem and embark on dizzying journey watching the two frenemies try to survive the town and each other. Lucien’s struggles to remain true to his ideals veer towards the absurd, yet his attempts to stay honest are also sweet and charming. Meanwhile, his best enemy Requiem is getting himself in exponentially growing amounts of trouble. Lucien’s struggles to remain true to his ideals veer towards quixotic, windmill-tilting absurdity, such as when he refuses to bribe his way out of prison. But he’s also sweet and charming. Meanwhile, his best enemy Requiem deals in ever-increasing amounts of money and trouble, chiefly by raiding the city’s diamond mine. In that way, Requiem can take revenge on all who have wronged him. Just as Lucien is apparently chaste and monk-like, Requiem is endlessly hungry.
Mujila is unrelenting in his attempt to bring the environment to life, it becomes almost claustrophobic at times; much like it would be in reality. We are asked to try to fully grasp the depraved lives and fates of the faceless characters by being faced with them again and again. Mujila said: “I wanted Tram to be able to represent a form of exploitation and neocolonialism that happens throughout Africa, not just in the Congo.”
It seemed fitting that in addressing such a harsh reality, the novel seems to almost delight in the absurdities; extracting poetry and rhythm from the violence and despair. The madness and the chaos is not only a reflection of the physical location but also a reflection of the lives of the writers, drunkards, drug dealers and dreamers that make up the “City-state”.
“Your neighbor sells doughnuts, you also start selling doughnuts, and you even dabble with black magic to nab all his customers.”
"The tragedy is already written, we merely preface it."
"You write an epic poem about the hairstyle of the president’s wife, they give you a house; a monologue rehashing the dreams of the Minister of Divination, Clairvoyance, and Prophecies, they buy you a trip to Venice; a novel about the president’s childhood, they appoint you Minister of Agriculture and Bovine Farming."