Variations on a Theme: Fiston Mwanza Mujila’s "Tram 83" [BTBA 2016]
This week’s Best Translated Book Award post is from Heather Cleary, translator of Sergio Chejfec, Oliverio Girondo, professor at Sarah Lawrence, and co-founder of the Buenos Aires Review. For more information on the BTBA, “like” our Facebook page and follow us on Twitter. And check back here each week for a new post by one of the judges.
I was lucky enough, during the last Brooklyn Book Festival, to catch celebrated Congolese writer Fiston Mwanza Mujila and translator Roland Glasser at the front end of a whirlwind tour marking the release of Tram 83. I remember being struck not only by the force and freshness of the passages they read, but also by the physicality of their recitals. Both kept time with measured flicks of finger and heel, driving home the importance of music to the novel—not only as a theme, but also as an organizing principle of the narrative. (Glasser, in fact, remarked that his process involved re-reading passages in French until he could mark their rhythm without looking at the page; only then would he set about noting down the English.)
At the same time the Kalashnikov swing of its prose challenges the conventional opposition of style and substance, Tram 83 also dips into tradition with a tale of misadventures that recalls picaresque narratives of yore, complete with chapter headings that lay out the events to come, and a friendship (of sorts) suffused with jealousy and betrayal.
Our first stop inside the world of the novel is Northern Station, the ruins of the rail system that is the legacy of colonialism and mineral extraction in the region. Beside us on the platform is Requiem, a former Marxist who has thrown himself headlong into the frenzied capitalism of the newly independent City-State where he lives. He’s involved in a number of illicit operations, and collects compromising photos of powerful local figures as a form of personal insurance. He is waiting for Lucien, with whom he shares a complicated past and little else: Lucien, a former history student and aspiring writer in a place that needs “doctors, mechanics, carpenters, and garbage collectors, but certainly not dreamers,” does his best to remain above the fray in the struggle for survival of the “students, the diggers, the baby-chicks, the for-profit tourists . . . the single-mamas, the human organ dealers, the child-soldiers” around him.
Tram 83 plays out, in many ways, as a call and response between these two incompatible ideologies: the cynical pragmatism of Requiem and the other denizens of the City-State, and Lucien’s naïve—and, ultimately, rather elitist—allegiance to the world of letters. A call and response, that is, with a healthy dose of “background noise,” most notably the refrain of the single-mamas and underage baby-chicks on the hunt for their next clients: “Do you have the time?”
Though he distances himself enough from the local population to warrant a beating that feels like two outside the bar from which the novel gets its name, Lucien eventually, predictably, gets dragged into the tumult. As he drafts and rewrites his magnum opus (“a stage tale that considers this country from a historical perspective. The Africa of Possibility: Lumumba, the Fall of an Angel, or the Pestle-Mortar Years . . . Characters include Che Guevara, Sékou Touré, Gandhi, Abraham Lincoln, Lumumba, Martin Luther King, Ceaușescu, not forgetting the dissident General”) for a Swiss expat publisher named Malingeau, he stumbles into robbery and romance—with notebook in hand all the while. But first, he has to arrive:
Northern Station. Friday. Around seven or nine in the evening.
“Patience, friend, you know full well our trains have lost all sense of time.”
The Northern Station was going to the dogs. It was essentially an unfinished metal structure, gutted by artillery, train tracks, and locomotives that called to mind the railroad built by Stanley, cassava fields, cut-rate hotels, greasy spoons, bordellos, Pentecostal churches, bakeries, and noise engineered by men of all generations and nationalities combined . . . According to the fickle but ever-recurring legend, the seeds of all resistance movements, all wars of liberation, sprouted at the station, between two locomotives. And as if that weren’t enough, the same legend claims that the building of the railroad resulted in numerous deaths attributed to tropical diseases, technical blunders, the poor working conditions imposed by the colonial authorities—in short, all the usual clichés.
Northern Station. Friday. Around seven or nine.
These opening lines introduce many of the motifs that give the narrative form. The dilapidated train station, a recurring backdrop in the novel, stands in for the broken promise of economic “progress” (as exploitative and destabilizing as that progress proved to be) and provides an ironic foil to the real motor of local society, Tram 83, where deals are made, treaties broken, and livelihoods eked out through seemingly infinite variations on the theme of extortion.
Time is also, always, of the essence: most notably, in the circular quality it takes on through the novel’s many riffs (“Do you have the time?”) and the permanent twilight of its central locale, populated as it is by sleepwalkers and night owls. It’s here, I would argue, between tempo and temporality that Tram 83 does its most interesting work, presenting the harshness of life in the City-State, complete with the claustrophobia generated by the novel’s ubiquitous refrains, with an unmistakable sense of play. Rejecting conservative formal and conceptual models—the African literature of “squalor, poverty, syphilis, and violence” bemoaned by Malingeau—Tram 83 is at once a celebration and a lament, a Bildungsroman sans Bildung, a masterful exercise in style, and a valuable contribution to the conversation about what literature in translation is and can be.