“Patience, friend, you know full well our trains have lost all sense of time”
In this captivating first-person narrative, the narrator is well aware, he is not Bulawayo’s Darling in We Need New Names, he is a raconteur…a renaissance man. The first quoted statement in the book is attributed to no one—anyone could have said it, anyone, including the reader; it is a painful general knowledge in a certain Congolese mining town. This is the level of creativity that greats one from the onset of this energetic narrative of realism, you’re involved from the very beginning.
Poetry, drama, prose…all three, to a keen reader are easy picks in any good work of literature. But, of course, one eventually overwhelms the others, forcing the work into a structure and ultimately earning it its categorization. Fiston Mwanza Mujila’s debut novel Tram 83 is a prose, but then, poetry and drama come as hard that one finds it a little difficult classing the work in his/her mind; poetry, prose or drama. By pushing hard and yet effortlessly the frontiers of these genres however, and daring to blur the borders between them, Mujila, who is first and foremost a poet, successfully churns out an amazing literary piece, a classic, I dare say. Little wonder, at the reading preceding the Etisalat Prize for Literature which the book eventually won, it took two writers (Mujila himself and Penny Busseto, another shortlisted author for the same award) an enthralling performance to give a comprehensive reading from the book.
Lucien, an ex-History teacher and aspiring writer arrives City-State, the smallest capital of the world, which came to be as a result of a rebellious fight against a government force for an unstated period of time. In the narrator’s words “a group of rebels retreated to a small stretch of land in a rich and converted province they called City State.” The government now holds onto the other part of this place called Back Country. Perhaps finding a new atmosphere to clamp-on or take a second shot at his goal, Lucien, the protagonist, leaves Back Country and traces up his old-time buddy and school mate, Requiem.
Requiem, a rogue, might not be worthy of being called a friend, but in a place like City-State, this hell of a place magnificently captured in ones imagination like pictures of a film in this novel—in a place like this, this sort of friendship might be the best one can ever get.
The plot which revolves around Lucien, the writer…Requiem, the rogue …and Malingeau, the publisher is almost mundane, but this is forgivable as it is peculiar to the genre realism in fiction. I feel Requiem should have been shot dead in the street before the novel even begins.
The City State, a place of cave-ins, suicide, radioactivity, drugs, vendetta, sexually transmitted diseases, abortions, childbirth, rape, pneumonia, sequestration, clashes between miners and students of endless strikes, bad lucks, sleeping sickness and train mishaps, is a Sin City and its nucleus is Tram 83, a club. “See Tram 83 and die”, it is the home of tourists of different grades, Slim jings, ageless single mamas, for profit tourists, waitress, busgirls, the ever time conscious Baby chicks, jazz music, students dressed like mechanics etc.
After losing his daughter to death, his works to self-inflicted fire and his wife in a separation, Lucien is faced with the challenge of starting again, away from the trauma in Back Country. His only destination is City State, his only hope in the Sin City, Requiem.
Mujila gives the whole of City State a hopeless and irredeemable situation; to an extent a 10 year old boy, on page 42, sits with his father at 3am in a place like Tram 83 talking back at strangers. He killed the Marxist ideology in one of his characters from the very beginning to achieve this. But can this be said of any society in the world? Am afraid the answer is a No. In this bravura of a narration, a few intellectuals were evasively mentioned on page 138 but again, as not worthy to say anything about other than being clients of the complete rottenness in Tram 83. Some conscious readers, as I, would want to know who they are and where and what they discuss. Just like every other class of the society is given a share in this exhilarating narration, they should have been at every available dais in projecting their views. Every society has, no matter how tiny, a group of conscious intellectuals from whose ideas humanity hopes liberation. The writer does not deny their existence in City State and Tram 83, he just creatively stifles their voices.
Mujila overwhelmingly uses a style of random but poignant and rhythmical choices of single words or phrases to describe a scenario; a style I last read in Mozart’s childish way of lettering his cousin. This style gives liberty to imagination and literarily translates images into notes. It can be said that Mujila is prolific using this style as it can be seen on almost every of the pages in describing places and scenarios.
And please do not tell of repetitions when it is done so creatively using the depth of language, new words, slangs, fast and catchy phrases and with endless vulgarity.
Asked after one of his concerts, what Jazz is, Louis Armstrong replied “Man, if you gotta ask, you’ll never know”. But Mujila takes a shot at this difficult question with his amazing skills. In Tram 83, on page 11, Jazz has a definition; “it is a sign of nobility”, the narrator says. “It is the music of the rich and the newly rich, of those who built this beautiful broken world.”
In Fiston Mwanza Mujila, I think we have a new name… This is book is a beautiful read.