“Tram 83” by Fiston Mwanza Mujila [Why This Book Should Win]
This entry in the Why This Book Should Win series, is by Rachel Cordasco, who writes for Book Riot and runs the site Bookishly Witty. We will be running two of these posts every business day leading up to the announcement of the finalists.
Tram 83 by Fiston Mwanza Mujila, translated from the French by Roland Glasser (Democratic Republic of the Congo, Deep Vellum)
Relatively short, but consciously powerful, Tram 83 is one of those books that draws you in with the first note and carries you through every variation and improvisation before ejecting you with a last crescendo.
I read Tram 83 in one sitting, and I think that this is the best way to experience it (if possible). After all, the swirling, kaleidoscopic, jazzy, crude, and hyper atmosphere of the novel (which makes jazz central to its expression of a nonexistent State) is best appreciated through complete immersion. This story of Lucien (a writer trying to hold on to some utopian vision of art) and Requiem (a gangster and trafficker who clings to his power over the debauched world of a fictional separatist African city) offers us a vision of modern colonialism and the devastating cycle of war after war of liberation that has gripped nations across the African continent for over a century.
Mujila himself hails from Democratic Republic of Congo, and Tram 83 is his first (and already award-winning) novel. We see his exploration of literary ideals clashing with the mundane, even grotesque, necessities of daily life in a city that has become unmoored from a state and a history. It is Tram 83, the city’s most infamous nightclub, that acts as a gathering place for prostitutes, criminals, tourists, soldiers, and others. Here Lucien comes night after night, sometimes with his friend/sworn enemy Requiem, sometimes with his would-be publisher Malingeau, and each time he writes down snatches of prose that capture the whirlwind, wild nature of this uninhibited place.
But above all, it is the profiteering tourists who, together with corrupt politicians, exploit the diamond mines and suck out the wealth that they offer. Thus money, corruption, and sexual abandon characterize the nightclub where everyone who seeks prosperity gathers. Tram 83 is the petri dish and Mujila is the scientist peering through a microscope at the chaotic and carnivalesque results of this gathering.
It is jazz, though, that gives Tram 83 its rhythm and body. Mujila set the novel in a nightclub, after all, where music and conversation mix with sights and smells until everything melds into a series of tangible experiences. Each chapter opens with a line or paragraph that’s striking in its seriousness, as compared to the more casual, colloquial language of the novel itself. For example:
Strategy means resolving a given situation intelligently.
Requiem and Malingeau, or when two crooks drink to each other’s health.
This latter opening (to chapter 14), which sounds like the title of some 18th-century English play, then leads into a series of stage directions:
Tram 83, interior.
In the background, a saxophonist performing a solo.
Center-forward, the young ladies of Avignon in their vestal robes eyeing up all the masculine clients.
This constant stylistic flux embodies the “swinging rhythms, keyboards, clarinets, saxophones, drums, and electric guitars” that can be heard in the nightclub. Even opera finds its place in this novel- chapter 25 describes a nightclub singer who looks like, and even sort of sounds like, the famous Maria Callas.
Such a shifting, swirling novel poses its own unique translation challenges, but Roland Glasser has expertly captured the story and its rhythms and made the English translation seem like the original French. We read this book with the understanding that “translation” is itself a character- Lucien trying to translate his experiences into literature, criminals translating scams into money, music translating emotions into sounds. With Tram 83, Mujila shows us a liminal, shifting world, and Glasser has captured it for English ears. A performance like this one deserves to be rewarded.