“Poverty does away with shame and your courtesies.”
Tram 83 begins in a train station as Requiem (pimp, scammer, thief, blackmailer, kidnapper, mover of merchandise) meets an old childhood friend, Lucien (writer, “Highbrow. Uncool. Bearded. Unpolished shoes. Straggly hair. Stubbly. Surveys show that eighty percent of girls fall for such individuals.”), from whom he has been estranged for a decade. It’s complicated. Requiem is a newly-minted capitalist, an entrepreneur in a newly-liberated unnamed African city, which seceded from an unnamed African country: “a city become a state by force of Kalashnikovs.” He is, as most everyone is, both protagonist and antagonist in Tram 83, the debut novel of Fiston Mwanza Mujila, the celebrated Congolese poet and playwright.
The eponymous Tram 83 is a restaurant/bar/nightclub where everyone congregates after a long, hard day of ripping off each other. Not that they’ve stopped once night falls—at Tram 83, everyone is on the make. Mujila riffing on the clientele:
Inadvertent musicians and elderly prostitutes and… Pentecostal preachers and students resembling mechanics and doctors conducting diagnoses… and young journalists…and transvestites and second-foot shoe peddlers and porn film fans and highwaymen and pimps and disbarred lawyers and casual laborers and former transsexuals and polka dancers and pirates of the high seas and seekers of political asylum and organized fraudsters and archeologists and would-be bounty hunters and… human organ dealers and farmyard philosophers and hawkers of fresh water and hairdressers and shoeshine boys and repairers of spare parts and… dissident rebels and brothers in Christ and druids and shamans and aphrodisiac vendors and scriveners and purveyors of real fake passports and gun-runners and… brica-brac traders and mining prospectors… and carjackers and infantrymen and… counterfeiters and… mercenaries… and inveterate alcoholics and diggers and militiamen… and poseur politicians and child soldiers and Peace Corps activists.. and drug dealers… and growth hormone merchants, all sorts of tribes overran Tram 83, in search of good times on the cheap.
Part The Day of the Locust, part Saturday Night Fever, and part Guns N’ Roses’ “Welcome to the Jungle,” Tram 83’s pervasive nihilism threatens to overwhelm or become monotonous, and therefore it successfully, viscerally conveys this anarchic, disintegrating society. If you begin to think, “Well the hell with it,” just reading it, what must it feel like to live it? Cognitive dissonance is inescapable when farce and tragedy become your daily reality.
The unnamed narrator relates the story with a world-weary, contemptuous humor about what he considers to be Lucien’s pointless affectations of conscience. This attitude begins as droll amusement but gradually morphs into outrage at Lucien’s “ungratefulness”—his impractical attempts to resist the ubiquitous local corruption. Lucien manages to insult virtually everyone by daring to be different and attempting to better himself and others. A “show-off,” Lucien has committed the crime of setting himself apart in the old (false) dichotomy between street smarts and pointy-headed professors. “I just didn’t imagine there were any brainy people left in the City-State. This country’s been knocked flat, it’s all got to be rebuilt: roads, schools, hospitals, the station, even men. We need doctors, mechanics, carpenters, and garbage collectors, but certainly not dreamers!” Cynical and ambitious, Requiem has no patience for Lucien’s writer’s sensibilities and literary pretensions.
“We had an ideal, innocence…”
“Innocence,” echoed Requiem, bursting into laughter. “You really mean innocence? Innocence is cowardice. You have to move with the times, brother.”
Lucien, not helping his case, is painfully earnest and entirely lacking in humor:
I trained as an historian. I think, unless I am mistaken, that literature deserves pride of place in the shaping of history. It is by way of literature that I can reestablish the truth. I intend to piece together the memory of a country that exists only on paper. To fantasize about the City-State and the Back-Country with a view to exploring collective memory…
And so forth. Lucien regrets the current state of literature in the City-State:
You write an epic poem about the hairstyle of the president’s wife, they give you a house; a monologue rehashing the dreams of the Minister of Divination, Clairvoyance, and Prophecies, they buy you a trip to Venice; a novel about the president’s childhood, they appoint you Minister of Agriculture and Bovine Farming.
The narrator asks, “Ultimately, what exactly is the conscience of a writer who won’t open his eyes?
With echoes of Flannery O’Connor, Ralph Ellison, and Joseph Conrad, Mujila’s language alchemizes epic poetry from violence, despair and distraction. He bebops in broken time with words and structure, improvising and free-associating. Regularly interrupting the narrative with the constant cross-rhythm section of the club is an effective technique for communicating the prevailing cacophony.
Mujila delights in the absurdities. For instance, dogs are the major source of protein in Tram 83, while a few are kept as pets.
Could they explain this type of eccentricity? All the suburbs were in desperate search of dogs to stuff in the oven, while these others doted on such critters despite their hunger. Perhaps a research avenue for humanities students, said The Negus [Requiem] more than once; for example: “Neighborly or poetical relations of an urban migration, street folk, and stray dogs: a socio-critical essay.”
Meanwhile the Americans have begun an organization called “Save the Dogs in Africa!”.
Trains and train stations are prominent in Tram 83, signifying possibility and opportunity as well as globalization and the exploitation of the natural environment. Trains, too, are both protagonist and antagonist. Tram 83 ends, appropriately and ambiguously, where it began: at the train station. Mujila has found his groove.