Fiston Mwanza Mujila is an award-winning author, born in the Democratic Republic of Congo, who now, at 33, lives in Austria. From what I could find, much of his work is influenced by the Congo’s battle for independence and its effect on civilian lives. His first novel, Tram 83, is the story of Requiem, a gangster rapidly gaining power and influence in a fictional, dystopian African city and his friend, Lucien, a writer who visits him and is sucked into Requiem’s corrupt empire and the city’s outrageously extravagant, filthy-glamorous nightlife.
The title refers to Tram 83, a nightclub where wealthy tourists, gangsters, miners, and prostitutes (ranging in age from 12 to “ageless”) go every night, all night. The Tram is what holds the crumbling city together—where Requiem, his cohorts, and the city’s prostitutes peddle to wealthy tourists from around the world. The nightclub is also famous for its jazz music, in particular the Railroad Diva, a hugely talented jazz singer, whose spellbinding performances prompt the patrons to simultaneously lose control of every bodily function, fall in love, despair, and rejoice. The Tram’s jazz music elevates the nightclub to more than a Sodom-and-Gomorrah-like pit of debauchery while simultaneously keeping everything in check.
Jazz might seem out of place in contrast to the club’s explosive atmosphere, but it’s a timeless feature of the nightclub, spanning and surviving its many owners, names, and decades of existence.
You don’t listen to jazz to get a whiff of sugar cane or reconnect with Negro consciousness or savor the beauty of the notes: you listen to jazz because you have to listen jazz when you make your bed on banknotes . . . Jazz is a sign of nobility, it’s the music of the rich and the newly rich, of those who build this beautiful broken world . . . When the musicians get jazzing, all of Tram 83 stirs from its sleeping sickness . . . Jazz is the only lever used by all the riffraff of Tram 83 to switch social class as one would subway cars.
In the context of the novel, jazz carries with it connotations of privilege and elitism, but becomes an equalizer through which each differentiated patron can collectively have “a chance to leave their bodies for the space of a tremolo.”
Tram 83 reads like a modern, twisted The Great Gatsby; a somewhat naïve, well-intentioned young writer adapts to the world of a self-made, nouveau-riche man who is at the center of a capitalist city’s social hub. But instead of becoming disillusioned by and abandoning the gaudy, corrupt lifestyle he explores, the writer finds success in the volatile African city and becomes infatuated with Tram 83’s ability to unite its visitors regardless of their wealth, nationality, age, profession, etc., into one energetic, resilient representation of humanity.
Though Tram 83’s plotline and intense imagery resemble that of The Great Gatsby, it’s a much quicker, more visceral, aggressive sort of book. As soon as the novel began, I was bombarded with the graphic, almost violently sexual antics the Tram’s inhabitants undertake on a nightly basis. The money-fueled, drug-addled underworld of Tram 83 is so shocking that it is often darkly humorous. As Lucien becomes acquainted with Tram 83’s women, he notes,
Steatopygia remained the epitome of beauty. All the honeys swore by Brazilian buttocks alone. You had to have those buttocks, or nothing. They would desperately slug a particular soy-based drink, take pills, and swallow food intended for pigs in order to increase the area of their rumps. The results left much to be desired: buttocks shaped like pineapples, avocadoes, balloons, or baseballs; oblique, square, or rectangular buttocks; buttocks that pedaled all by themselves, and so on.
Mujila offers imagery like this casually and conversationally, seeking neither to judge nor exalt the Tram’s regulars.
The way Mujila, in Roland Glasser’s translation, uses a lighthearted voice to describe the Tram’s wild, perverse mischief envelops the reader in this bizarre lifestyle, and even makes its excitement and freedom seem, at times, somewhat appealing. The carefree air of the language fits perfectly with the book and gives Glasser’s translation a skillful confidence. Within the first few paragraphs of the novel, a woman approaches Requiem and says, “Do you have the time, citizen?” a phrase I rapidly learned is the prostitutes’ way of announcing their availability. As I adapted to the city’s slang and colloquialisms (for instance, learning that prostitutes between ages 12 and 16 are called “baby-chicks”), the conversational tone allowed me to feel like an insider in the novel’s surreal world. Tram 83 is often grotesque and morbid, but the appeal of the Tram’s energy is as undeniable as the joy in reading the extremely, comically long list of clientele to the club:
Inadvertent musicians and elderly prostitutes . . . and Pentecostal preachers . . .. and transvestites and second-foot shoe peddlers . . . and former transsexuals and polka dancers and pirates of the high seas . . . and human organ dealers . . . and Siamese twins .. . . and drinkers of adulterated milk.
The city dwellers’ raucous and nightly adventures are so daring and unrestrained I almost admire them for it. Their extreme behavior is irrevocably intriguing; though their lives often seem horrible, I would welcome an opportunity to live in their world for a day out of sheer curiosity. Ultimately, the Tram’s visitors have no choice but to adopt the flexible, emotionally aloof attitude that is common to both novel and nightclub; any rigidity, formality or prudishness would result in a failure to finish the novel, much less survive in the city-state.
Tram 83 offers an unaffected view of humanity that is at once repulsive, hilarious, and oddly uplifting. By the end of the novel, I couldn’t help but be attached to the Tram and its patchwork of bizarre clientele, and I felt almost at home in the midst of the novel’s madness, including offhand discussions of 10 year olds giving birth to 21-pound babies. Mankind is united in its pursuit of sex, money, fame, and sensuality; this is neither admirable nor shameful, and these universal desires make us human. The novel, like the nightclub, is eccentric and somewhat disturbing, yet inclusive and universally appealing.