Tram 83

By Fiston Mwaza Mujila


Deep Vellum Publishing
September 2015

Reviewed by Gabino Iglesias


Saying Fiston Mwanza Mujila's Tram 83 is reminiscent of John Coltrane's music would be accurate, but also too broad and vague. Mujila's prose, for example, has nothing in common with the somewhat controlled and melodious phrasing Coltrane demonstrates in A Love Supreme. Instead, this narrative is as exhilarating, strange, and fast-paced as the otherworldly explorations Coltrane offers in the very unpredictable Interstellar Space. Much like this latter album, Tram 83 is a masterful exploration of new territory and a brave work of art that, instead of politely asking the reader to go along for the ride, forcefully drags her into a plethora of intertwining stories and characters.

The main storyline follows two friends who reunite in a bustling and unnamed African city. One of them is a writer who has just come back home from Europe and is working on a play he wants to get published. The other is a hustler who enjoys the dangerous nightlife, the company of very young women, and devising new ways to get rich. Their lives collide with those of prostitutes, racketeers, politicians, intellectuals, tourists, and even a publisher as they all meet in the Tram 83, the only nightclub in the war-torn, poverty-stricken town. The city is in secession and bears the scars of war, but that doesn't matter to the large groups of profit-seekers that go to it hoping to get rich off of its minerals. There, between jazz, sex, drinking, and crime, the two friends go through a series of adventures and opportunities that serve as top-notch entertainment as well as a painfully honest and humorous look at modern African and the true consequences of being part of the global village.

Mujila's writing is at once quirky and dark, frenetic and melodic. Some passages seem pulled out of a somewhat comedic noir novel while others rival David Foster Wallace's best paragraphs, both in complexity and length. Ultimately, Mujila is concerned with telling a story and placing the reader within it, and he stops at nothing to achieve that goal. What comes from that brave compromise with raw storytelling is a novel that offers a feverish mix of broken bar conversations, descriptions, and lists. Here's just a portion of an early passage in which the author describes the usual crowd at Tram 83:

[D]issident rebels and brothers in Christ and druids and shamans and aphrodisiac vendors and scriveners and purveyors of real and fake passports and gun-runners and porters and bric-a-brac traders and mining prospectors short on liquid assets and Siamese twins and Mamelukes and carjackers and infantrymen and haruspices and counterfeiters and rape-starved soldiers and drinkers of adulterated milk and self-taught bakers . . .

The passage, which covers two pages, embodies the spirit and diversity of the narrative. While the mood of the novel sometimes shifts between humorous and violent, what is remarkable here is the fact that, much like the patrons of Tram 83, Mujila manages to cram the world into a microcosm without making it lose any of its richness, variety, speed, and scope. Tram 83, while a novel about Africa, is also a novel about the world and a text that perfectly exemplifies the global village imagined by philosopher and communication theorist Marshall McLuhan; a place where travel and technology contribute to bringing the world together in a physical, as well as a cultural, way.

The amalgamation and constant excesses in Tram 83 are impossible to ignore and they can lead the reader to become callous to the brutality that goes on in the city, and in Africa in general. But Mujila regularly inserts depressing life stories or perfect examples of sacrifices and uncomfortable living in order to ensure that the reader's mind remains as sensitive as an open wound to the pain of the characters. From underage prostitutes to thieves of all kinds, the vicious and/or scatological elements Mujila injects into the narrative serve to remind readers that the world, even when seen through a fictional lens, is an ugly place:

Religion of the stone: we don't know the weather forecast, we are the weather forecast, not to mention that we devise our own solar system. The sun rises at the Northern Station and sets at the tram between two grapefruit-breasts. We are the cloud princes of guile and resourcefulness, the sons of the earth and of the railroad. It's the new world here. You don't fuck, we fuck you. You don't eat, we eat you. You don't wreck, we wreck you. It's the new world here. It's every man for himself, and shit for all. It's the jungle.

There is a fine line between the depressive and hilarious, and Tram 83, more than walking it, stands on it and performs backflips: "I don't have syphilis, that's the only good news." This novel was constructed with jazz in mind, and the result is a narrative that moves forward at breakneck speed and uses language the way virtuoso musicians use notes; they tell a tale, but also leave plenty to the imagination while simultaneously being a celebration of themselves. Mujila received many accolades for this novel after it was first published in French in 2014, and reading this superb translation by Roland Glasser makes it clear that anyone in the English-speaking world who comes across it will be begging for more translations of Mujila's work as soon as they're done with it.