Contrasting the disused railway station servicing a country estate with a small novelty train that ushers tourists over the grounds, the narrator of W. G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn muses: “It seemed to me like a curious object lesson from the history of evolution, which at times repeats its earlier conceits with a certain sense of irony . . .” A similar irony suffuses Fiston Mwanza Mujila’s first novel, Tram 83, but its sentimental geography represents less a history that has careened into decadence than one that has never properly begun.
The book opens at the ramshackle train station of a secessionist city-state somewhere in Africa. Lucien, the book’s protagonist, arrives there after a long stay in “the Back Country.” While clearly modeled in part on the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the lawless backwater where Lucien disembarks bears shades of William S. Burroughs’s Interzone: peopled by every class of hustler and lowlife, throbbing with allure and peril, it promises salvation and doom to the motley multitudes who flock there.
The train is Mujila’s titular diety, though it is little more than an idea. The station is an unfinished scrapheap; the trains run irregularly if at all; and the fantasies of going elsewhere congregate in a deliriously downmarket nightclub called Tram 83. Like the unregistered taxis that fill in for Kinshasa’s almost nonexistent public transport, Tram 83 is the focus for dreams rendered futile by the devastation of Congolese civil society. In one of the dizzying lists that are one of the book’s main stylistic features, Mujila inventories its habituées:
Inadvertent musicians and elderly prostitutes and prestidigitators and Pentecostal preachers and students resembling mechanics and doctors conducting diagnoses in nightclubs and young journalists already retired 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 . . .
This is where Lucien’s Charon, his ex-Marxist ex-friend Requiem, brings him when the train finally pulls into the station. Requiem is a grifter, at one with the dog-eat-dog ethos of City-State; Lucien is a penniless writer, out of step with his country and his era. A friend from Clignancourt in Paris calls him periodically to check on the progress of Lucien’s theater piece; however, to keep from paying for another minute of call-time, his friend instead writes his questions on a sheet of paper and rattles them off “like a journalist commentating the Mohamed Ali—George Foreman boxing match.” Lucien therefore never manages to tell his friend he was forced to burn his writings in the Back Country.
After various feckless run-ins with petty criminals and hookers, Lucien meets a Swiss publisher, Malingeau, in Tram 83. Though he ridicules Lucien’s humanist leanings in a country that needs “doctors, mechanics, carpenters, and garbage collectors,” he soon takes an interest in the work-in-progress, which features Che Guevara, Abraham Lincoln, and City-State’s reigning dissident General. That same night, the publisher, after countless bottles of beer, announces his intention to stage Lucien’s play.
All he asks for is a bit of revision: the cast should be cut from twenty to ten, or ten to two, or else brought back to twenty. As he scribbles away, Lucien learns of the shady relations between his ex-friend and publisher: Requiem—contemptuous of the whites who come to City-State to sleep with its women and make off with the minerals from its outlying mines—has started demanding money in exchange for access to Lucien’s work. Furthermore, Requiem has added photos of Malingeau in a compromising position to his collection of dirt on all City-State’s rich and powerful. Much of the novel centers on the strained relations and misadventures of the rogue, the writer, and the publisher.
Mujila has given a curious twist to a timeworn genre: Tram 83 is a picaresque novel in stasis, its hero waylaid by adventures he is constantly hoping to avoid. The language ranges from slangy to poignant, with philosophical asides and frequent pastiches of received ideas of Africa in the west. The digressions are the book’s strong point: an amputee’s confession of his daydreams of changing his life for that of a dog in Paris, with “hospitals for dogs, casinos for dogs, weight rooms for dogs, and even dogs who go on vacation” is at once ribald and mortifying, and the characters’ offhand remarks about their pecuniary longings say a great deal about the emptiness of freedom in countries where material foundations are reserved for the moneyed and corrupt.
For years now, postcolonial studies have battled ethnocentrism, and writers like Mujila’s compatriot, V.Y. Mudimbe, have asserted Africa’s centrality to any thorough understanding of human history. Still, an interest in the continent’s art, literature, or cinema has an air of the exotic or offbeat. Eventually, this will have to change. With Deep Vellum’s release of this remarkable debut and such honorable initiatives as Tilted Axis Press, which will be publishing translations exclusively from outside of Europe, perhaps this will happen sooner rather than later.