‘Tram 83’ by Fiston Mwanza Mujila (Review)

IMG_5299With my preference for literary fiction in translation, I make plenty of virtual trips all around the world (even if I do have  a few places I visit more than others…).  If there is an area I have neglected, though, it’s definitely Africa, and while the continent isn’t completely terra incognita for the blog, there are certainly quite a few blank spaces on my literary map.  It’s a good thing, then, that there are people out there who can give me a little nudge from time to time – I was recently sent a review copy that sees me take a journey out of my comfort zone, ending up at a very unusual venue…

Fiston Mwanza Mujila’s Tram 83 (translated by Roland Glasser, review copy courtesy of Deep Vellum Press) takes place in an unnamed African City-State, one which has seceded from the rest of the country (which it calls the Back-Country).  Our first view is of the vast, unfinished railway station, where Requiem, a colourful character we’ll get to know well, is waiting to pick up Lucien, an old friend who has decided to move to the City-State for reasons unknown.  A happy reunion?  Not really.  Lucien is just an unwelcome burden on the shadowy businessman, a task stopping him from getting on with his day…

…or rather night, because what Requiem really wants is to head over to Tram 83, the hottest, most vibrant place in town:

“Tram 83 was one of the most popular restaurants and hooker bars.  Its renown stretched beyond the City-State’s borders.  “See Tram 83 and die” was the regular refrain of the tourists who blew into town from the four corners of the globe to conduct their business.”
p.7 (Deep Vellum Press, 2015)

If you want loud music, beer, sex with nubile baby-chicks and single-mamas (or even a dog kebab…), this is the place for you.  Lucien, however, is a writer, a man focused on his art and unwilling to be distracted by the madness unfolding around him.  You fear that his stay in the chaotic city-state might be a rather unpleasant one…

Tram 83, Mwanza Mujila’s first novel, has been translated into several languages, and it’s easy to see why.  There’s a hint of the exotic, something rather different from what we might previously have read from Africa.  In fact, one of the book’s characters, the publisher Ferdinand Malingeau, says it best (if rather crudely…):

“I’m familiar with that view of things…  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?  I’m concerned for the future of African literature in general.  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!” (p.41)

On that score, Tram 83 certainly doesn’t disappoint.  This is a book which focuses on the positives, usually involving drink, music and women…

The story, for the most part, follows the paths of two very different men, Requiem and Lucien.  Requiem, a man of wide repute, known in the City-State by a thousand different names, is as corrupt as can be, a man with a finger in every pie and not averse to becoming violent when needed.  From stealing precious metals from the mines to sourcing photos of white ex-pats in compromising positions with the local women, he’s always able to find a dollar somewhere.  Which is just as well – his high sex drive means he needs a good source of income to keep up appearances.

Lucien, on the other hand, spends his days very differently.  The reader’s representative in the chaotic city is a man who goes home to write when others are just getting ready for the night.  His refusal to sleep with the women throwing themselves at him is a sin in the eyes of the locals, and they find it even harder to understand why he declines offers of work others would (and do) kill for…

There are several other prominent characters in Tram 83, but the biggest of all is probably the City-State.  Mwanza Mujila has created a colourful, frenetic backdrop to his novel, a city at war led by a mad, sex-crazed dissident General.  There are mines with all kinds of metals and gems, a rickety and unreliable train service (mainly used by students and workers in perpetual conflict) and a smattering of ex-pats and tourists attracted by the chaos.  In its cosmopolitan atmosphere, it’s akin at times to a Central African Shanghai or Casablanca.

The Tram itself is hedonism pure, taken straight from one of Dante’s circles (with non-stop music as a bonus), and in a country where men die young (in war or by other means), the women in surplus throng to the bar.  All are desperate to hook up with men, hoping to get hold of some of the foreign money floating around, and the constant harrying cry of “Do you have the time?” (the not-so-secret code for bodily availability) echoes throughout the book.  So prevalent, and open, is the sexual market, that the toilets  of the Tram are mostly used for different bodily functions – unisex facilities, one might say…

Against this backdrop, then, we start to wonder why Lucien is here.  As much as we want to sympathise with him, it’s hard not to think that he’s the one who’s at fault.  While he’s hoping to produce some great writing, you suspect he may be in the wrong place:

“There’s cities which don’t need literature: they are literature.  They file past, chest thrust out, head on their shoulders.  They are proud and full of confidence despite the garbage bags they cart around.  The City-State, an example among so many others…  She pulsated with literature.” (p.86)

Lucien persists with his own style of literature with dramatic consequences, in particular at a public reading which goes horribly wrong.  Let’s just say that the Melbourne Writers Festival has nothing on open mic night at Tram 83 😉

There’s a lot to like about the book, but I’d have to say that it took me a while to get into it.  There’s a lot of repetition and confusion early on, reflecting the chaos in the Tram, and that did get trying at times.  Gradually, however, the book settled into a rhythm, and I became more interested as the story progressed.  As our publisher friend remarked, there’s no shortage of issues to discuss for an African writer, and Mwanza Mujila acknowledges this, remarking on the lack of opportunity for those born into life in the City-State:

“Your fate is already sealed, your route marked out in advance…” (p.33)

In the end, though, he decides to follow his creation’s advice – this book eschews the misery to show an Africa in party mood 🙂

Tram 83 is another little gem from Deep Vellum, a novel straying off the old white Anglophone path – there’s no Heart of Darkness to be found here (and if there is, it’s just so the couples at the Tram can have more privacy).  Having said that, while it’s a great place to visit on paper, like Lucien, I’m not sure I’d survive in real life.  You see, you need to be a very special character indeed to survive a visit to the Tram – I might just stay at home instead 😉

12 thoughts on “‘Tram 83’ by Fiston Mwanza Mujila (Review)

  1. Hi Tony
    THE HAIRDRESSER OF HARARE, by Tendai Huchu, is an exception to novels regarding the continent of Africa. It seems, most novels and non-fiction consist of war, and what ensues, the rape of women, girls, the gross tragedy of female genital circumcision, the list is long and in my opinion a must read.

    Yet, I am sure there is life in Africa, yes, wonderful music, beautiful women and men, children…the story Tendai Huchu describes is such a life, it is a pleasure to learn that even in Zimbabwe people go on with ordinary life.

    I will leave TRAM 83 😉 for Tendai Huchu’s hair salon 😀

    Thank you for your great review 🙂


  2. I’ve had a review copy of this sitting on my laptop for a couple of months and (because it’s in PDF and such a drag to read) have never got around to it. I’m always looking for great new African fiction though, so now I might have to drag myself out and actually pay for a published copy. Thanks for the great review, Tram 83 sounds like it’s somewhere I’ll definitely be happier visiting on the page than in real life 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Max – A fair few, five or six from memory: Texas, The Mountain and the Wall, Sphinx, The Art of Flight and Home (have I missed any?!). The Art of Flight is excellent memoir/literary musings, Texas, Home and The Mountain and the Wall are all good for the story and the interest of the setting, but Sphinx is the standout, a book I think may take out this year’s BTBA…


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