Fiston Mwanza Mujila
Roland Glasser, translator
(Deep Vellum Publishing)
This book will kick your arse into the middle of next week and you'll like it. You'll also appreciate the artful translation while gliding along the literary zip-line of tropical prose that is Tram 83, written in French by Mujila, who's Congolese, then transformed into English by Glasser with almost supernatural skill, truth and lushness. Mujila conjured the book, this brutally beautiful river of story-words, then Glasser channeled it with his spot-on translation. Bless them both for using language at its most shimmering and bawdy to shake us, enlighten us, titillate us, transport us.
More than any other story I've read in recent years (perhaps ever), Tram 83 precisely evokes the crazy, emotion-charged, frustrating, raw, bittersweet experience of urban Africa, especially in its most desperate locales. The book's location, Mujila said in an interview with Bomb magazine, "...is like a paradise that's run out of gas." Tram 83 is a bar, the story's center of activity, conversation and sexual commerce, in a Democratic Republic of Congo-like, fictional "city-state" that is somewhere near, but beyond, the borders of the D.R.C. (Mujila was born in Lubumbashi, D.R.C.; he now lives in Austria.)
If, like me, you happen to have won life's lottery and grown up pleasantly sedated by the vast anesthetic that is middle class America, or in any other prosperous part of the so-called First World (i.e. most of it), it's comforting, and self-flattering, to think that dropped into the same circumstances you wouldn't behave the way most of the characters do in Tram 83. But you'd be wrong. Someone who is hungry enough, hopeless enough and ensconced in daily, threatening instability can and will do anything. "The survival instinct can't be learned," Mujila writes. "It's innate. Otherwise they'd have introduced instinct classes at university already." Mujila's characters, however, are surviving --- using their wits, instincts, brutishness and bodies --- at least until tomorrow night, or until they can somehow escape the place, though most of them never will. Except maybe Lucien.
When he arrives in the city from upcountry, Lucien, the protaganist, a writer, reconnects with a one time friend, Requiem, who's not the finest human being to walk the earth. The two start sharing a residence. When they first meet at the town's chaotic train station after their long estrangement, Mujila takes us inside Requiem's head: "He was already thinking of the silicone breasts of the girl waiting for him at Tram 83. But after so many years apart, how could he abandon Lucien and slip into the folds of the night with that doll?"
Then Lucien appears on the platform.
Requiem sensed a presence. He raised his eyebrows: Lucien, in the flesh but skeletal... Lucien was dressed all in black, the harmony broken only by a red scarf... Tousled hair. Crumpled face. Mustache intact. Cold gaze. Hoarse voice. They embraced without much enthusiasm.
One is tempted to quote the entire torrid voluptuous book, many passages of which read like exuberant incantations, chorus after chorus of unexpectedly joyful debauchery, ribald language, and sex invitations mixed with literary deal making (there's a big time book editor in the stew, Ferdinand Malingeau, who wants to publish Lucien's work; Requiem thinks he deserves a piece of the action), the rants and threats of a guerrilla general, exploitation run amok and an infrastructure having daily nervous breakdowns. All of it is rendered in a ravishing architecture of words. The stark contrast of the form and content is a little crazy making, but you don't want it to stop because it's too damn exquisite and, odd as it sounds, fun to read. Take this long chunk, a speed-rap marathon, single sentence paragraph, in which Mujila describes the unhinged theater that is Tram 83 any night of the week:
"Inadvertent musicians and elderly prostitutes and prestidigitators and Pentecostal preachers and students resembling mechanics and doctors conducting diagnoses in nightclubs and young journalists already retired and transvestites and second-foot shoe peddlers and porn film fans and highwaymen and pimps and disbarred lawyers and casual laborers and former transsexuals and polka dancers and pirates of the high seas and seekers of political asylum and organized fraudsters and archeologists and would-be bounty hunters and modern day adventurers and explorers searching for a lost civilization and human organ dealers and farmyard philosophers and hawkers of fresh water and hairdressers and shoeshine boys and repairers of spare parts and soldiers' widows and sex maniacs and lovers of romance novels and dissident rebels and brothers in Christ and druids and shamans and aphrodisiac vendors and scriveners and purveyors of real 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 colonial infantrymen and haruspices and counterfeiters and rape-starved soldiers and drinkers of adulterated milk and self-taught bakers and marabouts and mercenaries claiming to be one of Bob Denard's crew and inveterate alcoholics and diggers and militiamen proclaiming themselves 'masters of the world' and poseur politicians and child soldiers and Peace Corps activists gamely tackling a thousand nightmarish railroad construction projects or small-scale copper or manganese mining operations and baby-chicks and drug dealers and busgirls and pizza delivery guys and growth hormone merchants, all sorts of tribes overran Tram 83, in search of good times on the cheap."
And that's just page 8.
But the real genius of Mujila's picaresque novel --- it reads more like an epic poem --- is that, sure, it's about Africa and Africans, takes place in Africa, but it sums up and captures the intimate battle of darkness and desperation vs. hope and optimism that nearly every one of us fights within ourselves, in some form, at some point, maybe many times --- from the suburbs of the comfort-rich USA to the crumbling backwater hell holes of government-less nations largely ruled by regional war lords. It's a tightly focused story and a universal statement that seems to ask: Do you think there's a future or not, and if so, are you going to be there? That's the everyday query that fills Tram 83, the bar, and Tram 83, the novel, like thick smoke, then blows out into the streets --- and all around the world, and out into space, and beyond.