Category Archives: Literary Fiction

Tram 83 by Fiston Mwanza Mujila

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Tram 83

Tram 83 is an experience; visceral, frantic, pulsating. It’s like nothing you have ever read before. The novel is set in the Congo in a mining and trading town, loosely based on Lubambashi. The town is a City-State to which rebels had retreated, seceding from the rest of the country, known as the Back-Country.

Requiem and Lucien have not seen each other for 10 years; Requiem waits at Northern Station for Lucien to arrive from the Back-Country.  Northern Station, scene of clashes between miners and students, is “the station whose unfinished metal structure brought to mind the figure of Henry Morton Stanley”. This phrase is repeated often though usually abbreviated to “the station whose metal structure…” Repetition is used throughout the novel to good effect. It helps create the eclectic atmosphere with its ongoing rhythm as well as the sense of life in this place being ‘on repeat’.

Tram 83 is the nightclub where everything happens; a place where patrons leave their empties on the table to prove the number of drinks they had ordered (so the waitresses don’t overcharge them); a place teeming with single mamas (between 20 and 40) and their “massive melon breasts”, baby chicks (girls under sixteen), child soldiers, drug dealers and for-profit tourists. The opening gambit when trying to lure a man is, “Do you have the time?” This refrain punctuates and interrupts the text at regular intervals.

Every chapter begins with an epigraph in block capitals which is a vague, often ironic clue, to the chapter’s theme. This one at the beginning of Chapter 9 is a good example of Fiston Mujila’s inimical writing style:

TRAM 83: BY DAY AS BY NIGHT, ETERNAL IN ITS SPLENDOUR OF A PARADISE GOING TO HELL IN A HANDCART, WITH THE CRUMMIEST CUSTOMERS AND THOSE WHO CHUCK THEIR FORTUNE OUT THE WINDOW, SYMBOL OF A SOCIETY IN PERFECT HARMONY, INTERMIXED, INTERMINGLED, CARTE BLANCHE TO MENDELIAN CROSS-BREEDING, FORCED INFATUATIONS, PREMATURE EJACULATIONS

The City-State is a dissolute society where the one person, Lucien, who refuses to indulge in the corrupt behaviours that are the norm, comes across as the one who is in the wrong. Requiem is Lucien’s friend but he hates him and undermines him at every turn. They have been estranged for 10 years and Requiem has become cynical and disillusioned. To him, “…they were just two life forms adrift in a city become a state by force of Kalashnikovs.”

Requiem has become a wheeler dealer moving from delivering merchandise, robbing mines, blackmailing officials and screwing whoever he can. Lucien is a writer who was forced to burn his own manuscript and he is frantically trying to reconstruct it. He is encouraged by meeting Swiss drifter Ferdinand Malingeau, who promises to stage a reading of Lucien’s work at Tram 83; this is ludicrous as it is the most inappropriate setting for such intellectual material. In this theatre of the absurd, anything can and does happen.

Lucien dreams as dreams should be – illogical, incoherent, people change into something else, one minute on a stage, and the next minute on a boat leaving a misty port. Dreams are a commonly used device in many novels but often they are too obviously used to advance the storyline and are remembered too clearly.

Lucien describes Requiem by a list of different aliases that is one page long. He is “Requiem for a New World alias Local Boy alias Man and His Destiny alias Al Pacino alias…etc. The writer uses this device throughout the novel. There are paragraphs of lists that describe a thing or a thought or a place; the mere juxtaposition of certain words made me laugh out loud. In this way, the novel simultaneously digs at politics and corruption and makes you laugh. Threading through, underneath and over the action is jazz – “the music of those who built this beautiful, broken world”.

What makes this book brilliant, other than the disconnected nihilistic characters is the writing. It is fast, furious, hectic, and eclectic; a bit like music or dance. Some of the time I do not understand the allusions and references but, like watching a dance piece or listening to instrumental music, understanding and meaning exist at a level beneath (or is it above?) that of language. Unmissable and unique.

The Book of Memory by Petina Gappah

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The Book of Memory

Memory is the name of an albino woman who is in a Zimbabwean jail, awaiting the death sentence, for the murder of her guardian, Lloyd Hendricks. Her parents sold her to this white man when she was 9 years old and she never saw them again.

The title has two meanings, in that it is the book Memory wrote about her life and it also explores memory itself; its fallibility, its haziness, how it can be misconstrued. Memory is writing to an American woman, Melinda Carter, who writes columns in a magazine. Her focus is to expose miscarriages of justice so Memory’s lawyer, who is appealing against her sentence, introduced Melinda to Memory in the hope that a sympathetic article in a prestigious magazine would help her cause. This device enables the writer to explain village life, Shona culture and Zimbabwean politics as it would be explained to a foreigner.

Her story shifts between village life, life with her birth family, prison life and life with Lloyd in a largely white farming community. The vibrant essence of village life as well as the squalor is brought to life. Memory is ostracised, feared and teased because of her albinism. She is further excluded from normal life by having to avoid the sun. Her life is lived narrowly between home, school, church and hospital. By contrast, life at Summer Madness, the homestead in which she lives with Lloyd is tranquil and calm; it has a swimming pool, a library, a treehouse, dogs and horses. She is bewildered by her surroundings and longs for home. She also has no idea why she has been removed from her family. She remembers her mother’s ‘white dress with big red poppies all over it’. She remembers her two siblings that died, the one shortly before she was handed over to Lloyd and she misses her sister, Joyi. She suffers from terrible nightmares.

Memory’s life in prison is brilliantly described; the conditions in Chikurubi Maximum Security Prison are appalling as is the manner in which the inmates are treated by the wardens. The corruption is terrible as the wardens take supplies meant for the inmates home; even the sanitary pads. Despite this, the conversations held between wardens and inmates are very funny. The warden, Synodia, makes so little sense that Memory refers to her statements, as Synodic Utterances. This tone of witty cynicism permeates much of Memory’s writings on the deprivations of prison life. Some of the inmates too are quite eccentric and their attitudes to their crimes give more than an inkling about their lives outside prison.

The story of how she was sold and how Lloyd died are the two things, the reader is dying to know. This is eked out in between flashbacks to early childhood, flashbacks to life with Lloyd and prison life. At times the flashbacks to village life were a little repetitive but it certainly has the effect of increasing the tension. When the truth is revealed, Memory has to re-consider everything she previously thought about her life.

One of the major themes in this novel is the effect that superstition and cultural beliefs have on people’s lives. The customary practice of ngozi in Shona culture is meant to appease the spirit of vengeance that follows a violent death. It raises the question of what is to be done when traditional cultural beliefs and practices place limits on human rights. Furthermore, the superstitions around albinism are highlighted; a taboo that must be exposed as such. Another theme is the effect on a person of being removed from their culture but never quite being accepted by the culture in which they are placed; reminiscent of Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga.

It may seem, on the face of it, that the novel is tackling too many pressing issues and may run the risk of doing too much; however, this is not the case. The different strands knit together naturally and show the domino effect of how decisions taken before one is even born can have dire consequences on one’s own life. The writing is exemplary and the suspense as the story unfolds ensures the reader’s interest does not flag.

The Fisherman by Chigozie Obiama

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the fishermen

Four brothers, ranging in age from 15 down to 9, are drawn to the forbidden river which the community has deemed dangerous. They fish there every day; fishing consumes them; they talk about being fisherman; they compose songs about it and they do not care about anything else. This simple boyish adventure results in tragic consequences.

The story is narrated from Ben’s point of view and takes place in the mid-nineties. He looks back on his 9 year old self, two decades later and realises that it all went wrong for the family when their disciplinarian father was transferred from Akure in the west of Nigeria to Yola in the north, 1000 kms away. Much as their mother begged him to take the family along because she doubted her ability to manage without him, he refused. He was concerned because historically the area was known for violence against their tribe, the Igbo tribe.

A neighbour discovered that the boys had been fishing at the Omi-Ala river which is thought by the community to be dangerous and is even under a curfew. She reported this to their mother who was “deeply shaken by her ignorance despite living in the same house”. She castigates them in English as a sign of her ire and when their father returns she breaks the news to him. He is furious and they are severely whipped. It seems an over-reaction until you understand that his fury is due to the aspirations he has for his sons; he has designated a career to each of them and is giving them a Western education to this end.

This beating sets off a spiral of revenge because Ikenna, the eldest boy,  the one who they all look up to, the one who is their leading light insists that Iya Iyabo, the women who reported them is punished. The predictions of Abulu, the madman who roams around naked and performs bizarre actions in public,  are also plaguing Ikenna. This creates a rift between him and the other brothers. He becomes disobedient, suspicious and violent until they realise that the Ikenna “who was once their brother had been bottled in a tightly sealed jar and thrown into an ocean.” The inevitable happens but the nature of its unfolding both shocks and surprises the reader.

In telling the story of this family’s descent into horror, the writer interweaves aspects of Nigerian politics into the narrative such as the brothers having a chance meeting with MK Abiola. The tension between contemporary life and traditional beliefs is a strong theme as evidenced by Ikenna’s belief in the madman’s prophecy. Community life exaggerates the impact of such beliefs, characterised as it is by gossip, exaggeration and close living quarters.

The dialogue is colourful and reflects the idiom of their indigenous languages, in particular morals, fables and specific turns of phrase. This can also be amusing as the parents use idioms and then explain what they mean lest the boys take them literally. Another aspect of the novel that is very pleasing is the way it is structured. Each chapter introduces a specific theme and is named after creatures or objects from the natural world such as eagles, snakes, locusts or leeches. These creatures personify a particular quality in a character or provide a rack on which to hang the theme of the chapter. This gives the novel a rhythm and structure  which is comforting and gives the reader a sense of the familiar.

This has all the elements that make novels by African writers so appealing; lyrical, idiomatic language; a society still squirming under the influence of Westernisation; an experience of all the senses and a compelling plot.

 

The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born by Ayi Kwei Armah

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The Beautyful Ones

This novel was published in 1968, shortly after the coup in Ghana in which Nkrumah’s government was overthrown. The unnamed protagonist is disillusioned and disappointed at the endemic corruption after independence had promised so much. He refuses to engage in corrupt practices so falls further and further behind in the game of life. Parallels with our situation in South Africa are inescapable where a very high percentage of the population live in poverty. Apartheid is dead but its structures live on and the government seems unwilling to tackle this head-on.

The novel is bleak and depressing as well as being quite a grind because of the denseness of the language and the minute details that are painstakingly described. Despite this, it is an important and beautifully written text. The stench of decay is palpable to the degree that you will block your nose while reading. Excrement is both a metaphor for the stink and mess of corruption and a fact of life. Nothing is as much an indicator of poverty like access to flushing toilets. The communal latrine outside the man’s home features in many different situations.

The man also has to bear scorn from his own family who cannot understand why he will not jump on the bandwagon; he has to bear the resentment on their faces when he comes home every day and therefore often escapes to Teacher, his confidante, who does not engage in life at all but lies on his bed, naked, in a darkened room. His nakedness speaks of someone who has nothing to hide in stark contrast to Koomson, his childhood friend, who is portly and overdressed. Koomson is part of the government and lives in a fancy apartment with a snooty wife and Westernised children. It is a strange phenomenon that when a person is true to themselves and goes against the grain of society, that person is seen as the immoral one or as the uncooperative, rude one who is making everything in life difficult.

The novel is rich in symbolism and imagery. A simple touch of the banister by the man leads to a detailed description of its genesis, why it feels so repulsive, the people who had held on to it and what they had been doing with their hands before holding on to it. It is visceral and tactile;  a remarkably skilled use of language. One of the most evocative images in the book is the chichidodo bird; this is a bird that “hates excrement with all its soul. But the chichidodo only feeds on maggots, and you know the maggots grow best inside the lavatory.” A Ghanaian mythical bird denoting a typical Catch-22 situation before anyone had even heard of Catch-22. The man’s wife, Oyo, says he himself is the chichidodo when he speaks of the life of his friend as having more “rottenness in it than the slime at the bottom of a garbage dump.”

The element of Afro-pessimism in the novel is undeniable as he asks, “How long will Africa be cursed with its leaders?…we were ready here for big and beautiful things, but what we had was our own black men hugging new paunches scrambling to ask the white man to welcome them onto our backs.” Looking back from 2016, we can see that this is not only an African problem; politicians are corrupt the whole world over. However it is exacerbated in Africa because of colonialism-created poverty. In my opinion, this reinforces the need for the decolonisation project; then and now.

The deliberate mis-spelling of the title is another intriguing question; is the distortion of beauty in Africa by corrupt practices represented by the subversion of the spelling? is it a recognition that the cycle will repeat itself until there is re-birth? is it a subversion of the English language itself because of its association with the previous oppressors as well as the black elite who aspire to whiteness? Read it and decide for yourself.