Where some cities have an Eiffel Tower or an Opera House, the unnamed African city-state in Fiston Mwanza Mujila’s debut novel has a notorious nightclub. “See Tram 83 and die,” tourists advise each other. Cheerily or darkly? You decide. It’s the phantasmagorical centre of a raucous mining town, host to “transvestites and second-foot shoe peddlers and porn film fans and highwaymen and…” The list of varieties of patron goes on for many lines. Mujila is fond of catalogues.
Tram 83, which in the French language has won many accolades, is exuberant, with an additive style that’s expressive of the city-state’s collective life. This life may be characterised by opportunism and inequality, but here, as well, “the barrier of internal suffering” breaks down, and everybody shares the same destiny.
Mujila, a playwright and a poet, has produced a formally engaging book that mimics both the structures of jazz and the sense of overhearing conversation in a bar. Chunks of exposition are interrupted by dialogue, unwarned and enjambed, characters’ backstories are given as asides long after they’re introduced, and the lengthy chapter titles function as symbolic keys to the chapters, sometimes highlighting and sometimes burying critical ideas. The whole book is charged with snarled, involving language; you always feel you’re hunting for thoughtful treasures.
What’s missing is a story. There are plot points: photographs of powerful people in compromising positions, a squabble over a wife, a heist in a mine. The speed with which Mujila shuffles through them is not without its advantages. Our heroes are Requiem, a charming rogue, and the more docile Lucien; their climbs to, or falls from, fortune are always a surprise. But considering how much time we spend with these protagonists, more surprising is how few chances we get to feel for them.
Lucien, whom Requiem calls “an insult to virility”, is a writer working on a piece that’s meant to speak to the real Africa, an ambition that sometimes seems to mirror Mujila’s, and which sometimes is enjoyably satirised. A potential publisher, Ferdinand Malingeau, at one point tells him: “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? … There needs to be fucking in African literature too!” More fun and less anguish, in other words. Mujila gives us lots of both. CR
Scribe, 224pp, $24.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 3, 2015 as "Fiston Mwanza Mujila, Tram 83". Subscribe here.