Saturday, December 10, 2016

Democratic Republic of the Congo: Tram 83 by Fiston Mwanza Mujila

This was a fascinating book to read shortly after Ishmael Beah's "Radiance of Tomorrow", as it gave a completely different view of the seedy underbelly of an African city, being set in a nightclub - Tram 83 - with its varied cast of miners, students, "baby chicks", gangsters, profit seeking tourists, musicians and others. "Radiance of Tomorrow" showed the old village ways as wise, and judged the evening drunkenness of the miners harshly. Tram 83 appears to make no moral judgments. It's structure, too, is quite different. There is a narrative of sorts, but language is central. Reading it is a heady experience, in which it doesn't pay to stop and puzzle over the meaning of each sentence - rather, let yourself be immersed in the rhythms, an experience rather like being in a night club full of jazz rhythms, noise, laughter, music, fights, snatches of conversations in which you are not quite sure who is talking...

Lucien is a writer home from abroad. His childhood friend Requiem has ambitions to make money in any way possible. Although it seems there is bad blood between these two. The phrase "keep your friends close and your enemies closer" comes to mind. The location of Tram 83 is "The City State" ruled by "the Dissident General" while the land outside the "City State" is the "Back Country". Mining is the source of riches in this country.

It's not a book for the faint hearted. Another character, the publisher, Malingeau, says "the main character in the African novel is always single, neurotic, perverse, depressive, childless, homeless and overburdened with debt. Here, we live, we fuck, we're happy. There needs to be fucking in African literature too!" There is plenty of that, and drugs, illegal firearms, wheeling and dealing, the eating of dog kebabs and much more besides.

Underneath it all the phrases that repeat themselves like the bass to a jazz riff such as "the station with its 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" - a passage which repeats throughout the book, occasionally in full but mostly in truncated form, like a fragment of a theme repeating, now on trumpet, now on saxophone, now on bass.

Not a book I would have ever read if I was not doing this challenge. But a fascinating experience, nevertheless.

Fiston Mwanza Mujila was born in Lubumbashi in 1981 and now lives in Graz, Austria. Tram 83 was written in French and translated by Roland Glasser. It was published in the US by Deep Vellum publishing. I read the edition published in Australia and New Zealand by Scribe Publishing.

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