Fiston Mwanze Mujila’s Tram 83 translated from French by Roland Glasser, as evidenced by its acclaim in Africa and beyond, has wowed the world of literature; its many awards and book nominations – the latest being the Pan African Etisalat Prize for Literature (2015) – attest to how much of a masterpiece the work is. In this compelling story about the lives of two contemporaries with different ideologies in a state deeply troubled by instability, Mujila examines the realities experienced in an unnamed state in Central Africa.
Lucien, an intellectual and a budding writer has left “Back-Country” to search for opportunities in an unnamed city-state, near the Democratic Republic of Congo – where he stays with a old friend, Requiem, a businessman who believes the world is already beyond redemption.
The city is depicted as a harsh place, brimming with narratives of everyday people struggling through whatever means necessary to survive. The Tram 83 of the title is a bar frequented by Lucien and Requiem that appears to be the heart of the city-state. It is here that bar girls demand tips from customers, threatening them with penknives; hookers of different categories including young teenage girls who are called baby-chicks throw themselves at male patrons, and young orphaned or abandoned children who have grown up a little too quickly lurk around seeking means to survive. Tram 83 is also a shelter ground for profit seeking tourists and offers an exotic mix of cultures. With frequent blackouts and life claiming cave-ins at mining grounds, the city-state is presented, quite paradoxically, as a dangerous landscape yet also a haven for new-beginnings. In the words of the narrator “there are cities that do not need literature; they are literature.” The reader is taken into a witty and riveting world where several questions are laid bare about modern Africa; questions about immigration, instability, capitalism, and political oppression.
Mujila’s work is enthralling in its uniqueness. in its uniqueness; His biblical imagery, stream of consciousness, as well as the use of refrains and repeated references to jazz give the novel a distinct musical quality. Mujila’s ability as a poet and a playwright are reflected beautifully in his debut novel; this style, though, demands painstaking engagement from the reader in navigating through the narrative; but ultimately, Tram 83 does reward by being interesting and very engaging. The language has a rhythm and an atmosphere that stands out from the mainstream of much contemporary African writing.
On the whole, Tram 83 is a powerful work and a rewarding read. The repeated refrain in this novel, “Do you have the time?” used by the hookers at Tram 83 is at this point an opportune question to throw open albeit in a different context. “Do you have the time?” If you do, Mujila’s Tram 83 is a novel that is worth the time.