Just look at that cover art. I mean, just LOOK at it. There is no information in the English edition of Fiston Mwanza Mujila’s first novel, Tram 83, on who did the graphic design for the cover (I don’t count the bland branding agency who apparently sourced it), but by golly I hope they get a share of the royalties. Raving praise was showered on this novel on its first appearance: it won the English PEN Translates award in 2015, and the French Voices Award and the Grand Prix SGDL de Premier Roman in 2014. Mujila was born in the DR Congo, and now lives in Austria. His English translator is Roland Glasser.
Tearing ourselves away from strong lines and cool colours, let’s consider the words. ‘Underbelly’ occurs often in the reviews so far, but I was most struck by the inherent dignity of the novel’s origin in French, which really matters. The setting is squalid and poetic: a tramshed nightclub and drinking hole in a central African railhead, populated by miners and prostitutes, and swindlers of all kinds. Mujila does not create a linear narrative, because there is no beginning and end to this story, and frankly I soon lost track of who was coming and going. What matters is the immense composting effect of scraps of life and craziness being shrieked and muttered as the two main characters, Requiem the grafter and Lucien the hapless innocent, shove and stumble through their days in and around Tram 83. Each chapter is punctuated with the assured demand of ‘Do you have the time?’, the verbal calling-card of the underage and self-possessed girls who sell themselves as routinely as they would buy bread in a shop.
Their repetitive street cries for their trade retain the elegance of French, giving these largely unnamed women authority and power. They descend on the arriving traveller like birds, because they are simply part of the economic ecosystem, part of the food-chain that sustains the grim and frenetic activities in and around Tram 83. The sex they sell is impersonal, described in vaunting terms learned from pornography. The strangely affecting formality of French idiom forces dignity on whatever they say, as if they are elegant actors repeating lines they’ve learned for an unpalatable but necessary role. Their nightmare existence never ends, no-one seems to leave, and I have no idea where the money comes from to fuel this miniature economy.
I applaud the skill and poetry of the language that realises a vision from hell with an insistent jazz soundtrack. One bookseller beautifully described Tram 83 as ‘Blade Runner in Africa with a John Coltrane soundtrack’, and I’m willing to go along with that. Mujila’s novel is an explosion of talent and poetic vision. I’ll be waiting for the next one.
Fiston Mwanza Mujila, Tram 83 (2014), translated by Roland Glasser (Jacaranda Books, 2015), ISBN 978 1 909762 22 0, £8.99
UPDATE: Tram 83 is now longlisted for the 2016 Man Booker International Prize!