Two friends and a nightclub near a half-finished train station in the Congo are at the centre of a dramatic novel called Tram 83 by Fiston Mwanza Mujila.
Requiem, who uses multiple pseudonyms, is an ex-soldier turned crime boss. He lives in the lawless City-State ruled by a de-facto dissident general, a place loosely based on Lubumbashi in southeastern Congo.
The book starts with the arrival of Requiem’s university acquaintance Lucien, a penniless but principled theatre writer who has come from the Back-Country and Paris. The two have not met in years and at one point in their lives, both were in love with the same woman, which is still a sore topic between them.
Lucien is running away from his past and now is attempting to write a new play, while living in a town where everybody is coveting the immense mineral wealth. Instead, Lucien gets increasingly caught up in Requiem’s criminality and is hopelessly clueless about the attentions of a beautiful singer that every man lusts after.
In the evening, everyone gathers at the only bar-cum-restaurant, Tram 83, which is a microcosm of the wider society. Here the patrons eat dog meat and grilled rats, gamble, are entertained and pick up prostitutes.
As Requiem plots a raid on a diamond mine with the help of Lucien, in comes a dubious Swiss publisher called Maligneau, who declares he will stage Lucien’s play, albeit with lots of revisions. It remains to be seen which of the two, the crooked Requiem or the idealistic Lucien, will survive this chaotic but vibrant setting.
The shenanigans of a backwater town in a postcolonial African country is not a new book genre, but Mujila has an unusual style. The cast is an eclectic collection of drunkards, drug-dealers, underage sex workers, petty thieves, students, mine diggers and mercenaries. There is much talk of breasts, plenty of expletives and lewd language, and the story clamours with noise, good music and the drama of a seedy bar.
From the beginning, Mujila plunges you into this dark, disordered town, where you can literally smell and feel the squalor. The book is characterised by extra-long sentences, drunken dialogues, opening lines of hookers and mind-boggling lists of random things. At times, it is confusing trying to identify the narrator in various parts of this fast-paced tale. The story also reveals a part of Africa we do not read too much of in the English language, and differs from contemporary African literature.
Tram 83 won the 2017 Internationaler Literaturpreis award in Germany, the 2015 Etisalat Prize and the 2014 French Voices award. Last year, it was longlisted for the Man Booker International Prize.
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