Tram 83 was originally published in French in 2014 and is the debut novel of Fiston Mwanza Mujila. It has won numerous literary prizes in France and Austria and has been translated into eight languages. The story’s setting is inspired by Mujila’s birthplace, Lubumbashi, Democratic Republic of Congo, focusing on the underbelly of life there. The unnamed city is presented as a centre of human greed, since tourists from all over the world flock there in the hope of making a fortune out of the mineral wealth of the country. The major settings of the novel are the train station and Tram 83, the only night-club of the city. The novel is broad and compact and politically aware. It explores, amongst other things, the issues of civil war and political unrest, censorship, globalisation, exploitation and capitalism.
In many ways, the major theme of the novel is the difficulty of creating culture and intelligence, as well as a radically subversive literature, out of the raw materials of life and the context and history in which the individual finds him or herself. Like Joyce’s Ulysses, It is really writing about writing and presents the reader with the horrors of history, which is the nightmare from which we are trying to awake. It must be emphasised, however, that it is writing about writing as it fits into the general, larger field of representations. Thus, Mujila focuses on the characterisation of Lucien, an aspiring, subversive writer and ex-history teacher who has once had to abandon his manuscript when faced with a gun down his throat and who is again attempting to publish.
Lucien is a supremely moral consciousness and refuses to take the easy way out by producing state literature. Instead, he writes against the state. The inclusion of the resisting writer and the journey to publication foregrounds the status of representation and its political situation after the fashion of much postcolonial and postmodern literature. Lucien has been arrested for speaking his mind on stage, described as “breaching national security, and planned and systematic incitement to revolt” (63). The suggestion is that Lucien’s novel is to be considered as such an incitement. The fundamental irony is, however, that the work is to be published by the white man who demands major cuts and revisions, corrupting the spirit and the sense of the writing with the clamour of his voice. The very means of representation and those that hold them and control them, the dominant and implicit racial and gender identity of representation and literature itself and how representations are themselves enabled, are outlined and criticised.
In this general description and critique of representation and the political situation of writing today, and how it fits into the larger, more general field of representations, photography makes its appearance. Lucien is coupled with Requiem, the opportunist. Requiem controls the male tourists through a strategy of photographing them without their clothes on and then blackmailing them. This representational strategy operates through the image, the body and the event, the opportunity, and the materiality of photography, which operates without the conscientious moral filter of a Lucien and his non-figurative and immaterial prose. The tourists are ensnared by prostitutes and then exposed in blood and flesh truthfulness. Women and gender are implicated in the process which produce powerful, controlling representations for the black man. The novel compares and contrasts the two forms of representation, the photographic and the literary, and their political value, how they are both separated and tied together in a work of radical subversion against the state. It is thus the poles of image and text and the seeing and writing nexus which is at its heart.
Although women are a resource from which the writer draws, and despite the inclusion of the marginalised voices of prostitutes, the novel may be criticised for its weak characterisation of the sex and for the minor role they play in the unfolding of events. I have indicated that gender is implicated in the photography of Requiem, however there are only faint impressions rather than clear, critical outlines. This is a curious failing in such a politically aware novel.
The style of the novel in translation is accessible. Biblical imagery abounds and the writing is for the most part self-consciously fabricated, particularly when it comes to the dialogue. Lists and listings and rules saturate every other page. Indeed, the dominant image of the novel is the list and the dominant technique appears to be listing. There is perhaps a parody on the techniques of the archive of the state which relies on lists and rules of action and even perhaps a nod to the historical origin of writing which has been seen to derive from the practice of listing and the state archive.
Tram 83 is certainly a memorable and important novel. It has the experimentalism of youth and signals the potential of things to come. It is intellectual literature. The world it paints is bizarre and absurd and it therefore represents the strangeness of our reality and historical condition. The masculinity of the novel is however, a rather serious failing, particularly when one thinks of how women have historically been exempted from the political field and political representation. It is, however, certainly worthwhile reading and one can learn much from it.
About the Publisher:
Jacaranda was founded in 2012 as a publisher of adult fiction and non-fiction, including illustrated books, “across linguistic, racial, gender and cultural boundaries”. The publishing house aims to “directly address the ongoing lack of diversity in the industry today, and seek[s] to enrich the landscape from boardroom to bookshelf”. Jacaranda aims to represent “the cultural, heritage and ethnic variety that can be found in London, with a particular interest in works related to Africa, the Caribbean, and African America”.
Review by Suneel Mehmi.
Suneel is a scholar and an amateur writer, poet, musician and artist. He is a member of the British Asian community and lives in East London. He holds degrees in Law and English Literature from the London School of Economics and Political Science, Brunel University and the University of Westminster. He has published academic work on the concept of Law and its relationship to violence in the adult short stories of Roald Dahl and is currently working on the relationship between photography and law in Victorian writing. He has previously contributed scholarly book reviews to the Literary London journal and to the London Fictions website.