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.