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📖 🇨🇩 #62: A poetic debut from the DRC
Vibey fiction from Fiston Mwanza Mujila
Welcome to Bookmarked, a weekly newsletter following my journey as I read one book from every country. If you like the sound of my project, I’d love it if you shared Bookmarked with a friend.
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The first scene of Fiston Mwanza Mujila’s Tram 83 takes place at a train station, where Lucien, a budding writer and the novel’s narrator, meets his childhood friend, a dodgy businessman called Requiem, for the first time in a decade. The setting is an unnamed country in Central Africa, which is run by warlords and referred to as the City-State.
Most of the novel’s action takes place at Tram 83, a nightclub at the heart of the country where locals and tourists congregate to blow off steam. In one of the book’s first long lists, Mujila describes Tram 83’s clientele:
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 and seekers of political asylum and organized fraudsters and archaeologists and would-be bounty hunters and modern day adventurers and explorers searching for a lost civilization and human organ dealers and farmyard philosophers and hawkers of fresh water and hairdressers and shoeshine boys and repairers of spare parts and soldiers’ widows and sex maniacs and lovers of romance novels…
And so on, and so on. Page-long lists, we soon learn, are characteristic of Mujila’s writing. Though Tram 83 doesn’t include a whole lot of plot, Mujila does spend time exploring the relationship between Lucien and Requiem, two men who were once ideologically aligned, but whose lives have taken very different paths in recent years. Whilst Lucien sees himself as intellectual and is currently writing a play that he hopes to put on in Paris, Requiem lives for playing fast and loose in the city and thrives in the hedonism of Tram 83.
In one particularly memorable scene, Lucien gives a reading of his play at Tram 83, only to be booed off the stage and beaten by an audience who perceive him as arrogant and idealistic, out of touch with the real world. This part of Lucien is again exposed when he later refuses to bribe police officers and winds up getting arrested.
Tram 83 is internationally acclaimed: in 2016 it won the Grand Prix of Literary Associations and it was longlisted for the Man Booker International Prize in the same year. If you enjoy experimental fiction that doesn’t have much plot, Tram 83 is worth a read. Mujila’s prose is vibey and rhythmic, with lots of repetition of both phrases and themes. It’s quite unlike anything I’ve ever read and it raises some really interesting questions about what it takes to build a better life.
However, I can’t help but wish Mujila’s female characters were more fleshed out and I have to admit that this book was a little too trippy for me. I don’t regret reading it, but I did find it quite hard going.
Tram 83 by Fiston Mwanza Mujila, translated by Roland Glasser (Scribe, 2015 / Editions Métailié, 2014)
More books by Congolese authors:
The Rift by V. Y. Mudimbe, tr. Marjolijn de Jager
Life and a Half by Sony Lab’ou Tansi, tr. Alison Dundy
How Dare the Sun Rise by Sandra Uwiringiyimana with Abigail Pesta
Full Circle by Frederick Kambemba Yamusangie
What have you read recently?
If you’ve read a brilliant book in translation or you’d like to pass on a recommendation, I’d love to hear about it! For this project, I’m focussing on contemporary fiction and short stories, with a preference for female authors—but I’m always happy to venture further afield for a good recommendation.
You can get in touch by replying to this email or leaving a comment. I’ll be featuring your recommendations in upcoming newsletters, and I’ll keep a growing list here.
Bookmarked is written by Tabatha Leggett. If you know someone who would enjoy this newsletter, please forward it to them!