Tram 83 by Fiston Mwanza Mujilla is the first of two African novels on the Man Booker international Prize long list – a reasonable representation given that many African writers write in English. It’s a first novel which has already received a lot of praise and comes with a laudatory introduction by fellow Congolese novelist Alain Mabanckou. Tram 83 takes place in mining town where Clint Eastwood might fear to step:
“Tram 83 was one of the most popular restaurants and hooker bars, its renown stretching 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.”
The small mining town is the impromptu capital of a province which has been declared independent by a rebel General in account of its possession of most of the country’s mineral wealth:
“The government army and the dissident rebels fought each other day in, day out. To get things back on track the international community had sponsored nineteen sovereign national conferences which had all come to less than naught.”
The novel begins with Lucien, a would-be writer, returning to the town, met by his old friend Requiem (though, as we will discover, their friendship has a dark and complex history). Requiem earns a living moving “merchandise,” with a side-line in blackmail. He is wealthy enough to live in Vampiretown, which, in colonial times, was the European quarter. Lucien is writing a play which he hopes will be performed in Paris; he was forced to burn the first version of this at gunpoint (interestingly, the novel reminded me of Jean Genet at times, whose first novel was destroyed by the authorities forcing him to rewrite it).
He finds a willing publisher (in Tram 83, of course, a microcosm of the continent) but is up against Requiem and a hostile public – literally hostile, that is, as he discovers when he attempts a reading:
“Outside, they continued to manhandle him. Someone picked up a tire. Someone suggested he be burned alive.”
Requiem, meanwhile, acting out of a deep-seated resentment of Lucien, obtains compromising photographs of the publisher (his usual modus operandi) and blackmails him in an attempt to thwart Lucien’s plans.#
Tram 83 is a satire on both the political and literary situation in Africa with some wonderful lines:
“Torture is one of the demarcation points between an organised banana republic and a chaotic, or in other words disorganised, banana republic.”
Or this advice which Lucien receives from his publisher:
“Africa is of no interest to many intellectuals; let’s just say it’s not as exotic as it was four hundred years ago. My proposition is that you resubmit this same text to me but with the action taking place in Columbia.”
However, it would be a mistake to think of it as a humorous book. Much of its effect is achieved through repetition – a repetition designed to show the desperate existence of the inhabitants, in particular the women, who, though divided by age group, are united by availability:
“…the girls under sixteen called baby-chicks, the single-mamas or those aged between twenty and forty and referred to as single-mamas even when they don’t have children, and the ageless women whose fixed age begins at forty one.”
The lines with which they attempt to hook their clients (“Do you have the time?”) echo throughout the novel, frequently interrupting other conversations.
Tram 83, then, is, for all its pulsing narrative and exuberant characters, a rather bleak book which I admired rather than loved: admired, in particular, for its lack of condescension to a European readership, plunging unapologetically into the filth and stench of the bar and refusing to leave until the last drop is drunk.