Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 12, 2015

Tram 83, by Fiston Mwanza Mujila, translated by Roland Glasser #BookReview

PrintSometimes the internet offers a curious synchronicity…

All through this book Tram 83, the author refers to non-profit tourists in his unnamed African country, distinguishing them from those who come to make money.  And (for the first time ever) a Goodreads computer-generated recommendation turned out to be useful because it alerted me to a phenomenon I knew nothing about.  The recommended book is called China’s Second Continent, How the Chinese are building a new empire in Africa and if you check out the book description here you can see that Howard W. French’s account of China’s new presence in Africa is shaping the continent’s future.

French’s nuanced portraits reveal the paradigms forming around this new world order, from the all-too-familiar echoes of colonial ambition—exploitation of resources and labor; cut-rate infrastructure projects; dubious treaties—to new frontiers of cultural and economic exchange, where dichotomies of suspicion and trust, assimilation and isolation, idealism and disillusionment are in dynamic flux. (Goodreads, Book 18373202 viewed 10/12/15)

Who knew?  I knew they were UN vote-buying in the Pacific but not that they were becoming a presence in Africa.  I should pay better attention. (Or maybe the ABC 7.30 program could go easy on the gushing interviews with Hollywood stars and go back to being a serious current affairs program bringing us up to speed on international current affairs?  But I digress).

Mujila’s story doesn’t mention the Chinese much more than any other ethnic group, (though they do get a starring role in the concluding chapters) but the author does note the presence of an influx of outsiders, .  Which, when we in the west are used to thinking of Africa as a place that people want to leave (and risk their lives as refugees doing so), is an interesting phenomenon. The unnamed African country depicted in Tram 83 shows the reader that the absence of any kind of governance allows for rich pickings by outsider investors who own the mines, creating a place where the breakdown of social norms offers only chaos and danger.

But Tram 83 is not a misery to read.  The tone is upbeat and jazzy.  The novel pulses along with an anarchic beat that’s reminiscent of Dave Brubeck’s Time Out.   The main characters bemuse the reader with a surreal kind of charm.  Alongside dizzying lists of things that blur into crowded background noise, fragments of the plot emerge, surfacing only momentarily, similar to the way scraps of a theme or motif lurk within jazz improvisations and then disappear again.

There are memes which litter the book, with the most poignant refrain coming from the baby-chicks.  ‘Do you have the time?’ they ask incessantly.  As ubiquitous as ‘have a nice day’, which we in the consumerist west now all recognise as an empty coda to a retail transaction,  ‘do you have the time?’ represents not just these underage girls offering their bodies to any passer-by, but also a subliminal plaintive wail.  Does anyone have time for these girls, time to care for them or about them?

Epigrams are scattered throughout the book too:

Death holds no meaning since you’ve never really lived. (p. 37)

Good intentions can be found even in the lion’s den. (p.42)

Poverty is hereditary just like power, stupidity and haemorrhoids. (p.182)

The main characters are the hapless Lucien, trying to be a writer and burdened by a conscience which irritates the amoral narrator; and Requeim, who wants to make a fast buck and doesn’t care who he betrays along the way.  The entrepreneur Mr Ferdinand Malingeau is a parody of a literary dilettante: he uses his influence to set Lucien up for a reading of his work at Tram 83 but it is, of course, a disaster.  Tram 83 is a nightclub, a place to buy and sell drugs, booze and flesh.  And there are always thugs there to spoil your day, it’s just a matter of which of the four types it might be:

Lucien knew that there exist four types of desperado: 1) Those who live and sleep at the market, beggars and pickpockets, less harmful.  2) Those who hang about the station and sleep inside the locomotives, semi-harmful.  3) Those who stroll about The Tram, harmful. 4) And finally, those who operate in the mines, extremely harmful.

They are either demobilised soldiers, or adolescents from families stuck in a downward spiral, fleeing famine and other drudgeries such as “Today it’s your turn to feed the family, shift your ass and go get us some palm oil, salted fish, cassava flour, and matches,” or else defrocked students.

Their age, according to the seasons and the frequency of trains at the station whose metal structure: eight to thirty. At thirty-one years old, they become suicidals or city highwaymen who’ll slit your throat once night has barely fallen.  (p. 131)

BTW, no, I haven’t accidentally omitted some text after trains at the station whose metal structure, that’s a meme, the breakdown of the rail infrastructure and its timetables representing the entire shambolic society where the dissident General presides over anarchy.

Things get serious when Ferdinand refuses to cave in to Requiem’s blackmail (i.e. compromising photos where the embarrassment is not being photographed with underage girls, but more a matter of the size of the male appendage) so Requiem tries another target, one more powerful and dangerous…

Tram 83 won’t appeal to all tastes.  My first two attempts to read it failed (but that may have been due to personal circumstances).  The third time I picked it up I found myself enjoying it immensely, despite its coarse language and its confrontingly careless dismissal of horrific situations.  (Dog kebabs?  Save your outrage: Mujila slides in a wry comment about an American charity called ‘Save the Dog’, reminding us that it’s much easier to engage world condemnation of cruelty to cute animals than it is to get the world to care about the humans so hungry that they’ll eat whatever they can get.)

See also this review at Words without Borders.

Author: Fiston Mwanza Mujila
Title: Tram 83
Translated from the French by Roland Glasser and with a foreword by Alain Mabanckou
Publisher: Scribe Publications, 2015
ISBN: 9781925106947
Review copy courtesy of Scribe.

Availability

Fishpond: Tram 83


Responses

  1. Aha, fascinating Lisa, because I only learnt of this phenomenon – that of the Chinese building relations with Africa – on Geraldine Doogue’s Saturday Extra this morning. It was in the context of demography and the fact that in the future Africa may be a source of labour for all we countries with less that zero growth i.e. whose populations are well below “replacement levels”.

    Synchronicity!

    • Synchronicity indeed! I wonder if I can find a podcast of that? I’ll wait a day or two and then have a hunt around…

      • Hopefully they podcast that program. It wasn’t the first topic up as I recollect but you’ll find it. We are completely relandscaping our front garden, so, being averse to sticking earbuds in my ear, I take the iPad out with me and stream RN, usually, while I work. Am listening to programs I don’t usually listen to.

        • I used to listen to it before I retired, because waking up at the same time every day helped my insomnia. But now that I can keep bizarre hours, the alarm stays off!

          • Do bizarre hours help your insomnia? What I worked out a few years ago is that if I go to bed late enough – somewhere between midnight and 2am I’ll sleep. I still get/wake up around 7 or so, and I rarely feel tired. It seems that I just don’t need a lot of sleep. If I go to bed too early I just toss and turn, turn and toss. On the odd occasion that I’m tired earlier, and go to bed and actually do sleep straight way I’ll invariably wake up earlier, around 6. I’ve been doing this for quite a few years now and I’m a much happier person.

            • No, bizarre hours don’t help, but it doesn’t matter now in the same way. When I was working, it was quite dangerous to be driving to and from work when I’d only had two hours sleep or so. The traffic around where I live is a doddle, but out in the boondocks the youngsters born in the new suburbs 18 years ago are now full of testosterone and the hoons in their hoon-mobiles are really quite insane.
              So all year round with a brief respite over the long summer holiday, I rose at 6.00 am every day of the week. That’s the trick: it’s not going to bed at the same time that helps, it’s setting your body clock to get up at the same time every day that works.

              • So do you still have insomnia? For me it’s simply a case of going to bed when I’m tired – and because I seem not to need 8 hours sleep, rather less, I’m not tired until the early hours of the morning. Once I worked that out, the insomnia all but disappeared.

                I cannot sleep in, never have, so I guess my body clock has always been set to wake between 6 and 7. I can’t every remember it being different. So, my problem was that I used to try to go to bed around 11pm to get the so-called required 7-8 hours of sleep that was my problem.

  2. Reading Lisa’s review of the novel,TRAM 83,reminds me of other contemporary African writers whose narrative techniques and subject matter transcend tradition and literary form, reminiscent of modern African writing. Such writers who come to mind are Chris Abani, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Dinaw Mengestu, Aminatta Forna, Ishmael Beah, Okey Ndibe, Taiye Selasi, Chinelo Okparanta, Laila Lalami, and NoViolet Bulawayo.

    At literary events I’ve attended that featured African writers, interviewers would often ask them if their writing aligns with a particular African literary tradition. What is common thread throughout these authors’ responses is the desire to be true to their ideas and writing craft. Some of the excerpts from TRAM 83 remind me of Okey Ndibe’s novel Foreign Gods, Inc. Chimamanda Nogozi Adichie’s Americanah, Chris Abani’s novel Graceland, and NoViolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names. Fiston Mwanza Mujila seems to be evoking an urban story for all readers to engage.

    • Yes, I’ve listened to some of the Wheeler Centre’s videos & podcasts of a recent series featuring African writers, and the take-home message seemed to be a reminder that Africa is a continent not a country and we can no more characterise writing from there as ‘African’ than we can lump all the diverse countries of Europe together and call their literature European. So while I have noticed the common motif of gender relations in women’s writing from Africa, I’ve steered clear of making any generalisations about a literary tradition because I just don’t know enough about it.

  3. This was a fun book to read and one that seems to have been succesful everywhere. My review was from the American edition, and there’s a British one too – good to see Scribe picking this up (relatively) early in Australia :)

    Interestingly, I just saw a piece linked to from the Wheeler Centre’s Twitter account in which the lack of Indonesian literature in Australia was briefly discussed. That mentions Text Publishing and Eka Kurniawan (and Elena Ferrante!). Let’s hope that there is a bit of a sea change in fiction in translation in Australia…

    • Hmm, I wouldn’t be criticising Australian booksellers for any lack of Indonesian literature here in Australia. I hope the Wheeler Centre article acknowledged that there’s a lack of Indonesian literature everywhere largely due to lack of support from the Indonesian government. I haven’t got time to look for it right now, but if you check out the posts I did re the Bendigo Writers Festival where I interviewed Lily Yulianti Farid, there’s a link to the brains behind the Lontar Foundation which makes it clear that the Indonesian government has done its writers no favours and made a very tardy effort to support being featured at the Frankfurt Book Fair.

  4. Very true. The LTI Korea, for example, for all its faults, has thrown money and support behind Korean literature and translators over the past few years, with decent results. Lontar still seems to be a bit of a shoe-string organisation which really needs official backing to make a difference.

    • Yes, I’ve seen this issue raised in ArabLit forums, criticising the west for not supporting their literature. But the cold hard fact is that governments and wealthy entrepreneurs (of which there are plenty in Indonesia and the Middle East) need to support the promotion of any of their arts onto the world stage because they can’t expect The Rest of the World to pay for it. Australian publishers have a tough enough time competing with the US/UK domination of the book market without being expected to fund translation from countries that can well afford to pay for it themselves. I take my hat off to those Aussie publishers that do offer translations and I’d like to see more Australian translators getting this kind of work, but realistically, given the size of our book market and the pressures that are on it, translation of literature from other countries is always going to be a very small part of it.
      I do think there’s a place for the UN through its cultural programs to support translation for very small, poor countries so that we hear their voices – but Indonesia is not in that category and like the rich countries of the Middle East, they should be supporting their authors themselves. I suspect that in both cases they don’t really want the voices of their authors to be heard internationally because they would rather suppress criticism.
      What I would like to see is more of in Australia is our recent migrants writing their stories in their own languages and having those translated. I don’t mean sad refugee stories, I mean fiction that reflects their international outlook and ways of writing.

  5. Possibly, but that’s what’s been happening in the US and UK, and these books then crowd out the literature of the home country. Many readers think that if they read books written in English by recent (or even second-generation) immigrants, then they’re reading world literature, when in fact they’re reading books crafted specifically for the new audience.

    As for Australia, yes, it’s a small market, but I’d still like to see more of an effort in the area of fiction in translation. Kudos to Text and Scribe – I wish more publishers would follow their lead. Also, where are the small indies like Peirene, And Other Stories, Deep Vellum and New Vessel Press in Australia? It’d be great to see someone start something like that up here – and with Melbourne being a UNESCO World City of Literature… ;)

    • I suppose that the rise of the eBook makes it more possible than it was, in the sense that a small Aussie version of Peirene etc could compete on the world market…
      Meantime I’d like to see Peirene stitch up something with a local publisher so that a subscription didn’t involve such expensive postage. Before the Amazon acquisition of the Book Depository I used to buy individual Peirene titles postage free but now that the BD’s prices have gone up so much even I think twice about buying them.

  6. Yes, that’s an easy way for Aussie publishers to get into the market, by acquiring Australian rights, or distribution rights, to some books from overseas indies (which is pretty much what Text has started to do). I’d still like someone to actually do their own thing, though – imagine if a Melbourne-based press appeared, focusing on books from Indonesia and elsewhere in Asia. A mix of titles sourced from UK/US small presses and own commissions – who knows…

  7. Filling in the missing piece in the jigsaw…

  8. Earlier in the year I was astonished when we docked in Namibia to find that there was a huge Chinese building project just along the wharf. But really I should not have been that surprised, Chinese investment is happening all around the world..

  9. I did quite a lot of reading about China in late 2010 (prior to my trip there). I learned about its links with Africa in a book called “What China Thinks” (if I remember correctly, the author claims China was planning/building a shipping hub, a mining hub and a trading hub in various locations on the continent, purely to look after its own interests). China also gives money to African nations that have been turned down by the IMF.

    Interestingly, I read a Henning Mankell novel, The Man from Beijing, that explores this murky network of China-Africa investment links. I know he was quite an outspoken critic of China in this regard; he feared that it was buying up land to grow food for its own citizens and that it was shipping peasants there to do the graft rather than employ locals.

  10. Well, China always has invested around its region and then further afield, and it makes sense for them to be engaged in food security for its citizens. Every now and again people here arc up about them buying agricultural properties but the Foreign Investment Review Board always approves it in the end because the truth is that there’s not enough Australians investing in farms. But shipping peasants in to do the labour is an interesting one – I know when my brother-in-law was managing a farm for some Japanese investors that they did not have a clue about the vagaries of Australian farming and quite a bit was lost in translation. They gave up in the end and sold the property to someone else.
    The question for governments is ensuring that there is a benefit for its own people, and that, in Africa, comes back to good governance. In SE Asia under their assorted dictatorships they invited investment in on the basis of majority ownership of the investment (even when it was starting from scratch in a bare paddock) and employment strategies that meant the foreign investors had to employ a significant majority of local workers *and* train up a management class so that eventually they could take over management altogether. This meant that eventually there were huge factories all over places like Indonesia, employing locals at the bottom and the top, and the investor ending up with only 40% of the profits, but they were still happy enough with that. (And so were the corrupt officials who were in on the deal as well, I suppose!)

  11. Tram 83 has been shortlisted for the 2015 Etisalat Prize for Literature. And I think it is well deserved. :-)

    As for the Chinese making inroads into Africa to dominate or try manipulate the commanding heights of the economy, the less said the better, at least for me. We Africans have allowed it to a large extent. Over here in Ghana, they are everywhere, the mining sector, business of buying and selling, manufacturing name it.

    Good governance is key to managing our own economy and when that is lacking then we virtually cede our country to foreigners. Colonialism, welcome back!

    • Do you see trouble ahead, Celestine? There has been sometimes violent anti-Chinese sentiment in Malaysia and Indonesia since the 20th century (and maybe before that, I don’t know).

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