4 February 16 | Chad W. Post

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.

Comments are disabled for this article.
I Remember Nightfall
I Remember Nightfall by Marosa di Giorgio
Reviewed by Talia Franks

I Remember Nightfall by Marosa di Giorgio (trans. From the Spanish by Jeannine Marie Pitas) is a bilingual poetry volume in four parts, consisting of the poems “The History of Violets,” “Magnolia,” “The War of the Orchards,” and “The Native. . .

Read More >

Joyce y las gallinas
Joyce y las gallinas by Anna Ballbona
Reviewed by Brendan Riley

This review was originally published as a report on the book at New Spanish Books, and has been reprinted here with permission of the reviewer. The book was originally published in the Catalan by Anagrama as Joyce i les. . .

Read More >

Lost in Translation: An Illustrated Compendium of Untranslatable Words from Around the World
Lost in Translation: An Illustrated Compendium of Untranslatable Words from Around the World by Ella Frances Sanders
Reviewed by Kaija Straumanis

Hello and greetings in the 2017 holiday season!

For those of you still looking for something to gift a friend or family member this winter season, or if you’re on the lookout for something to gift in the. . .

Read More >

The Size of the World
The Size of the World by Branko Anđić
Reviewed by Jaimie Lau

Three generations of men—a storyteller, his father and his son—encompass this book’s world. . . . it is a world of historical confusion, illusion, and hope of three generations of Belgraders.

The first and last sentences of the first. . .

Read More >

Island of Point Nemo
Island of Point Nemo by Jean-Marie Blas de Roblès
Reviewed by Katherine Rucker

The Island of Point Nemo is a novel tour by plane, train, automobile, blimp, horse, and submarine through a world that I can only hope is what Jean-Marie Blas de Roblès’s psyche looks like, giant squids and all.

What. . .

Read More >

The Truce
The Truce by Mario Benedetti
Reviewed by Adrianne Aron

Mario Benedetti (1920-2009), Uruguay’s most beloved writer, was a man who loved to bend the rules. He gave his haikus as many syllables as fit his mood, and wrote a play divided into sections instead of acts. In his country,. . .

Read More >

I Am a Season That Does Not Exist in the World
I Am a Season That Does Not Exist in the World by Kim Kyung Ju
Reviewed by Jacob Rogers

Kim Kyung Ju’s I Am a Season That Does Not Exist in the World, translated from the Korean by Jake Levine, is a wonderful absurdist poetry collection. It’s a mix of verse and prose poems, or even poems in the. . .

Read More >

Kingdom Cons
Kingdom Cons by Yuri Herrera
Reviewed by Sarah Booker

Yuri Herrera is overwhelming in the way that he sucks readers into his worlds, transporting them to a borderland that is at once mythical in its construction and powerfully recognizable as a reflection of its modern-day counterpart. Kingdom Cons, originally. . .

Read More >

The Invented Part
The Invented Part by Rodrigo Fresán
Reviewed by Tiffany Nichols

Imagine reading a work that suddenly and very accurately calls out you, the reader, for not providing your full attention to the act of reading. Imagine how embarrassing it is when you, the reader, believe that you are engrossed in. . .

Read More >

A Simple Story: The Last Malambo
A Simple Story: The Last Malambo by Leila Guerriero
Reviewed by Emilee Brecht

Leila Guerriero’s A Simple Story: The Last Malambo chronicles the unique ferocity of a national dance competition in Argentina. The dance, called the malambo, pushes the physical and mental limits of male competitors striving to become champions of not only. . .

Read More >

The next few events from our Translation Events Calendar: See More Events >