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Shakara Baby-chicks and Locomotive Tales: Fiston Mwanza Mujila's Tram 83

Graphics by Michelle Jia : Images Flicker ( I )

* If bliss had a name, it would be called Tram 83

Fiston Mwanza Mujila was announced winner of the 2015 Etisalat Literature Prize at a grand ceremony in Lagos on March 19, 2016. As Chair of the Jury panel, which also included writers Molara Wood and Zukiswa Wanner, I was proud to make the announcement at the ceremony and to bask vicariously in the glow that surrounded him. The Jury recognized the book for its great humour, its experimental narrative style, its adroit characterization, and for the subtlety of its reflections on the state of African politics today. What I propose to do now is to set this startling debut novel in the context of African and world literature.

The novel revolves around the fraught relationship between Requiem, an all-round hustler with a predilection for the oracular, and Lucien, a down-and-out historian and writer struggling to find his métier. Lucien is dependent on the largesse and support of his erstwhile friend and now reluctant benefactor. The story of the two friends is interwoven between two settings, one more prominently situated in the foreground and repeatedly returned to as the privileged confluence for all the major characters—the Tram 83 of the title—and the other the political and social setting of the City-State. The City-State is a misshapen republic that has broken away from the equally allegorically named Back-Country. Both are barely concealed references to the Democratic Republic of Congo, the City-State being the province of Katanga famous for its rich deposits of minerals including diamonds and cobalt, and the Back-Country being the rest of the DRC. The designation of the City-State is highly suggestive, as it points to the fact that it is neither a fully-fledged city nor is it an operational nation-state. Rather, its in-between status allows Mujila to paint an unsettling picture of brutal political self-interest placed at the mercy of a marauding capitalism. Capitalism in the novel is firmly tied to resource extraction and is represented by the many international tourists that mill around the place and always end up at the Tram. The name tourist is itself an ironic play on a commonly used designation for travel, leisure and discovery. The many transnational tourists of Tram 83 are however no sightseers but rather are desperately intent on expropriating heterogenite, the word Mujila coins as a stand-in for the numerous minerals that the province has been known for in the course of its turbulent history. As we are told: “The region was so rich in deposits that a legend had grown up – and it happens to be true – recounting how the inhabitants of the City-State dug up their gardens, their houses, their living room, their bathrooms, their bedrooms, and even the cemetery.  Yes, in the cemetery funerals would sometimes turn festive following chance discovery of a high-grade stone” (116). 1885 is frequently referred to in the novel as the year in which the tourists began to arrive in this veritable El Dorado, but those familiar with the history of the region will recognize it as a signal of the start of Belgium’s colonial rapine of the Congo following the 1884-85 Berlin Conference, when thirteen European countries and the United States met to settle the rules for Africa’s colonization. The precarious political status of the City-State in relation to the Back-Country also means that as their self-appointed messiah, the City-State’s Dissident General is emboldened to pass numerous edicts aiming to fortify its political independence and, more pointedly, to generate wealth for his own pockets. The citizens of the City-State, the tourists, and everyone else are in permanent thrall to his every whim and caprice.

The foreground and background settings of the Tram and the City-State provide two different yet interlinked dimensions for interpreting the novel. The fact that the City-State spells political oppression, obscene consumption, the free-reign of greedy transnational capitalist interests, and decrepit social conditions for the general populace encourages us to read the novel at least in part as a political allegory reminiscent of some of the work of Ayi Kwei Armah, Sembene Ousmane, Chinua Achebe,  Wole Soyinka, Sony Labou Tansi, and Ngugi wa Thiongo, among the many other African writers that have turned to the subject of politics in Africa. As setting the Tram on the other hand is a cross between a nightclub, a circus, and a theater of dreams. As we are pointedly told on the very first page, “indeed, an air of connivance hung ever about the place”. This air of connivance turns out not to be an idle metaphor, for whenever we are ushered into Tram 83 we eavesdrop on various deals-in-the-making, some with potentially sinister consequences, as we later come to find out. The various deals include the Belgian tourist Malingeau’s proposition to Lucien for him to scale down the number of characters in his working play so he can get him published, Requiem’s incessant interventions to either prevent the book deal from happening, or if it does, for him to exclusively profit from it, or, as we see repeatedly throughout the novel, the baby-chicks’, single mamas’ and busgirls’ attempts at attracting the attention of the club’s male clients. As we shall see in a moment, the female sex workers’ repeated attempts at getting the attention of clients in Tram 83 and the “psalms” that they reel out as part of their seductive repertoires provide re-iterated refrains that establish an unusual rhythmic quality to the narrative.

There are many ways in which Tram 83 is likely to be read, but I want to surmise that all of them will have to involve some reference to music. Jazz and other kinds of music infuse the nightclub without fail. Each time we are ushered into it we have the benefit of a band playing and are given elaborate descriptions of the provenance of the bandsmen (they come from various parts of the world, including South America), the sources of their music (a medley of jazz, salsa, Zairean-infused rumba, and several other music types), their playing styles (good, bad, and plain mournful), and even of the clothes they wear. We are also regularly shown the club audience’s responses to the various bands, ranging from indifference through excited approbation to menacing hostility.  But the musicality that we see at the level of content is also superbly augmented by rhythms at the level of narration and it is here that the experimental innovativeness of Mujila’s narrative style must be recognized. The rhythmic character of the narration is systematically structured around a series of repeated sentences, phrases, and sequences in a sometimes harmonious but often dissonant distributional matrix.  These provide the novel not only with the air of an improvisational jazz symphony, but, perhaps even more importantly, lend it a dramatic character, as if it was written to be visualized rather than just read, or for stage and screen, rather than just for the inert pages of the book we hold in our hands. There is something even danceable about it.

By far the most reiterated sentences in the novel are “Do you have the time”, and different variants of “Foreplay is like democracy. . .” The innocuous request for the time turns out to be the first gambit in a sex worker’s arsenal of approaches to a potential client. We first hear it uttered by a baby-chick keen on hooking up with Requiem at the train station where he is waiting for Lucien’s arrival at the start of the novel. Significantly “Do you have the time”, “Foreplay is like democracy. . .” and various other sentences and sentence fragments are subsequently repeated not only from the mouths of identifiable sex workers at the nightclub and elsewhere, but also in the form of disembodied interruptions that float in and out of the narrative at random as if completely unmoored. At a question-and-answer session after a reading in Lagos a couple of days before the Etisalat awards ceremony Mujila explained that what he sought to achieve with these floating sentences was the sense that can be found in all big cities, where conversations between people are constantly interrupted by random noises, sounds, and speech fragments from the wider urban environment. The challenge, he pointed out, was how to pay attention to these while also pursuing one's conversations at the same time. Thus we see that when the questions and fragmentary statements float into the narrative of Tram 83 they do not constitute ordinary interruptions. Rather, the reiterated sentences from the sex workers become not the mere projections from a background onto the scenes of address (be this a dialogue between two characters or a segment of contextualization or description lying strictly between the third-person narrator and the reader), but rather serve to redefine the very grounds upon which the scenes of address gain shape in the primary instance. While the reiterated questions, statements, and fragments enact the performative incremental repetitions most commonly found in poetry, they must ultimately be understood as establishing a dialectical relationship between the concerns for female survival that they express and the cynical masculine discourses of profit and competition that occupy the diegetic foreground at all times. Thus the reiterated statements are not to be parenthesized as we read but must be accounted for as a form of the strategic reconstellation of the foreground, for the women in the novel are to be taken as seriously as the men, even if on first viewing they seem to deliver nothing but the guarantee of hedonistic munificence. The sex workers are shakara girls, in the terms that Fela Ransome-Kuti made famous in his song “Shakara Olu Oje”, which song itself became an ubiquitous urban anthem in many parts of Africa in the 1970s and 80s. As anyone familiar with the song knows, a shakara girl is not to be taken lightly.

There are two other reiterated elements that also contribute to the rhythmic sense we gain from the narration. One is to be found in the subtle relationship established in the novel between ensembles and solos, or in another register, a chorus function and that of individual performativity. This particular feature is itself amenable to a musical interpretation, such as in examples of scene-setting at the beginning of a chapter 14:

Tram 83, interior.

In the background, a saxophonist performing a solo.

Center-forward, the young ladies of Avingon in their vestal robes eyeing up all the masculine clients.

Left-back, the Chinese tourists.

Front door, the busgirl with fat lips and her colonial-infantry patter (85).

Or, in a more pointedly operatic mode, the reaction (predominantly skeptical) to Malingeau’ first introduction of Lucien to the regulars of the Tram as a historian:

“Dear friends, you’re not going to believe me: this man you see is a historian!”

General hilarity.

The whole Tram as one:

“Didn’t you give a shit, or what!”

Then as a scattered choir:

“And you earn a living doing history?”

“Look what can happen by dint of imitating the tourists!”

“You study girls too, or just history?”

“You’re an embarrassment to us, with your wallowing in art history!”

“I’ll throw myself onto the tracks if dad insists I study history and stuff,” exclaimed a kid, barely ten years old, who was with his father.

. . .

“You can’t do anything about a passion. But I’m not just a historian.  I’m also a writer.”

A guy at a neighbouring table butted in:

“Writer or historian, same difference.”

“I’m in writing,” he insisted.

“Writing. Writing. Writing.

His interlocutor pronounced this word in a guttural voice.  He remained circumspect, as if victim of an apparition.  Lucien remained on his guard, for fear of being made a fool of a second time.

“I’m a writer but. . .” (42; 43).

And, about twenty pages later, a reprise, but this time as Lucien attempts a public reading of his manuscript, suggestively titled, by the way—The Africa of Possibility: Lumumba, the Fall of an Angel, or the Pestle-Mortar Years:

He extracted his texts from a portfolio. He took a serious stance. He opened the book after having requested a minute’s silence in memory of the victims [of a recent mine cave-in]. He was trembling like a dead leaf. He emphasized the words, raised his voice. He hadn’t counted on the audience trying to trip him up.  One minute too many, one sentence out of place, and he’d find out what they were made of. Which wasn’t long in happening, as the imprecations began to rend the heavens.

The whole Tram, as one:

“Get off, Lucien!”

Then as a scattered choir:

“Don’t you preach at us!”

“You’re hot, I want you!”

“Alligator!”

“Show-off!” (61)

One can almost hear the dissonant acapella captured in these scenes. The entire novel can be read along the lines of a jazz opera or ballet, for almost all the conversations that take place are set against the distribution of characters within the scenes in a variety of clusters that establish different relations of proximity and distance to the events and conversations that unfold. Mujila’s consistent infusion of music into his narrative calls to mind most strongly Wole Soyinka’s own deployment of drumming throughout the action of Death and the King’s Horseman. In the case of Soyinka’s play, it has a highly elaborate sonic and poetic dimension that is easy to miss when reading it merely as a play text.  But whereas Soyinka’s sonic infusions provide a means of modulating the action of his play, in the case of Tram 83 the musical dimension is a means of suggesting an orchestration, as if Mujila is the conductor of the improvisational jazz symphony I mentioned earlier. This dimension of orchestration (and not just the presence of music at the level of content) seems to me to be distinctive in African if not world literature.

The third and final reiterated feature of the novel I would like to highlight is the device of lengthy itemization that punctuates the narrative at irregular intervals. The list of the variety of people that come to the Tram early on in the novel provides a good instance but is by no means the only one. To gauge its effect, we are obliged to quote the passage in full:

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 archeologists 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 dissident rebels and brothers in Christ and druids and shamans and aphrodisiac vendors and scriveners and purveyors of real fake passports and gun-runners and porters and bric-a-brac traders and mining prospectors short of liquid assets and Siamese twins and Mamelukes and carjackers and colonial infantrymen and baruspices and counterfeiters and rape-starved soldiers and drinkers of adulterated milk and self-taught bankers and marabouts and mercenaries claiming to be one of Bob Denard’s crew and inveterate alcoholics and diggers and militiamen proclaiming themselves “masters of the world” and poseur politicians and child soldiers and Peace Corps activists gamely tackling a thousand nightmarish railroad construction projects or small-scale copper or manganese mining operations and baby-chicks and drug dealers and busgirls and pizza delivery guys and growth hormone merchants and all sorts of tribes overran Tram 83, in search of good times on the cheap (7-8).

To catch the effectiveness of this list one must read it out aloud without pausing even to laugh at its patent absurdism. At the Lagos reading already referred to Mujila did a duet on the passage at the end of chapter 28 in which the word “mourning” is repeated ninety times without a break. Lucien has been trying to “fashion a language to say love with the five words he had left (history, tonsillitis, truce, shame, and weld)”, while the Train Diva “unreeled a song, long and mournful. . . ” While the actor read the lines out in a measured monotone, Mujila joined him but inflected his contribution with variations of nervous giggles, tearful falsettos, an irregular return to his own version of a monotone. The suggestion was that the Train Diva’s singing was a way of battling the threat of nervous breakdown. This gives us a clue as to how to read the various lists we find in the novel, all of which without fail are the haphazard assemblages of variant entities ("inadvertent musicians, lovers of romance novels, Siamese twins, and pizza delivery guys" in the lengthy passage just cited). The haphazard assemblages encapsulated in the lengthy lists are also the sign of a quest for community coupled to its automatic negation, a quest firmly tied to its very conditions of impossibility. The reason for this intractable coupling of community with chaos is fairly straightforward, namely, that in the Hobbesian universe of the City-State everything is exclusively reduced to the two primary impulses of sex and money, money and sex, or sex-as-money-as-money-as-sex. 

Even though everything in the City-State points to political corruption, the decrepitude of the social environment (blackouts are a commonplace in the novel) and the social hierarchies generated by the relentless pursuit of the famed heterogenite, the characters in Tram 83 are far from sad or miserable. They are most definitely not defeated. This provides a stark contrast to any other African work that depicts a similar set of dastardly conditions. Take for example Alain Mabanckou’s extraordinarily hilarious Broken Glass, which we must note as one of the direct inspirations for Tram 83. Mabanckou pens the preface to Mujila’s novel and has high praise for it. Broken Glass turns on the eponymous hero’s valiant attempt to write down the history of Credit Gone West, the drinking bar of which he is the constant and invariant occupant. The conceit of Broken Glass is to be understood as that of the omnibus narrative, the most famous example of which is Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. For Chaucer’s Tales it is the lengthy pilgrimage embarked upon by the pilgrims setting out together from the Tabard Inn that allows him to put on display a colorful array of characters and their stories that capture the social milieu of fourteenth-century England. Mabanckou’s novel achieves a similar objective, with the various characters that come to drink at Credit Gone West keen to have their personal narratives written down by Broken Glass also reflecting different levels of Congolese society. They also tell their stories against the background of a chaotic political order in Congo (Brazzaville), references to which are amply provided in the first chapter of the novel. And yet even though Mabanckou’s novel is also hilarious it could not be more different than Tram 83. In Broken Glass the characters that plead to have their stories written down—such as the Pampers Guy and the Printer—are all marked by defeat, and even Broken Glass himself is later shown to have been afflicted by delusions of grandeur that wrecked his marriage and lost him his job as a maths teacher. What is more, Mabanckou’s novel is scatological in the tradition that we find exemplified by Dambudzo Marechera’s The House of Hunger, Yambo Ouloguem’s Bound to Violence, Ayi Kwei Armah’s The Beautyful Ones are Not Yet Born, and Calixthe Beyala’s The Sun Hath Looked Upon Me, among others. Like these other works of African literature Mabanckou’s novel is littered with references to blood, shit, and puking everywhere. In one memorable scene, a lengthy pissing competition is staged between the irrepressible Cassimir High-Life, who just happens to be passing through town and drops in for a drink, and the formidable Robinette right behind Credit Gone West.  Broken Glass’s inherently picaresque structure, from which its essential mode of social critique is derived, is also reminiscent of Amadou Hampaté Bâ’s The Fortunes of Wangrin, Ken Saro-Wiwa’s Sozaboy, and to a certain degree even Ben Okri’s The Famished RoadTram 83 is different from all these because despite the fact that there is much in their social surroundings that should make them abject and miserable the characters in the novel are exuberant rather than defeated. They want to live. Period.

This desire to live, rather than merely to exist, may also serve to explain what is perhaps the most unsettling aspect of the novel, namely, the representation of women. In Tram 83 we find a gallery of female characters, all of whose roles are tied to sex work: the aforementioned baby-chicks, single mamas, and busgirls, and all whom, while categorized according to their ages and the youthfulness of their bodies, share the common pursuit of sex-for-money. And yet what might appear on first reading as a wet dream for men turns out on closer inspection to be something quite different. For, as we are told, the women manage “the whole shebang, from Genesis to the Letter to the Corinthians: ‘Put your leg like this, place your right hand on my belly, ride me like I were your horse, stroke my curves, back forward, back forward slowly, stop, now start stroking my hair. . .’” (31). In other words, these women regulate the manner in which they are to be interacted with. Far from being victims of male desire, they express a vitality that can even outstrip the desires of the men. Everyone knows exactly what they are getting when they agree to enter into a sexual relationship. The operative word is agreement, for in Mujila’s novel sex is completely disambiguated from romantic desire. It becomes first and last a transaction, in which the women have utter control on how the transaction is going to be conducted. More importantly, the designs of the various sex workers in the novel provide the most trenchant critique of the atrophied socio-economic relations that the ruthless system of extraction governing the City-State itself produces. As the epigraph to the novel baldly states: “You will eat by the sweat of your breasts.” The switch from “brow” to “breasts” is a mark of the atrophying of the labor relation, where men and women are conventionally obliged to survive strictly from the sweat of their labor. Indeed, the epigraph speaks directly to the inversion of the words of the Psalmist: “When you shall eat of the fruit of your hands, You will be happy, and it will be well with you” (Psalm 128:2, New American Standard Bible). The inversion suggests that in the environment of wanton extraction that dominates the novel, a woman must control her only means of production. This does not mean that there is no cost, but the cost of illness and sexually-transmitted diseases is equally borne by both men and women. In the universe of corruption that is the City-State, no one is spared.

The labor of women’s breasts also gives us a way to understand the novel’s overall critique of Lucien’s intellectualism. As we have already noted, his public reading at the Tram does not go too well. In fact, a young man in the audience “sweetly left his seat, stepped up on the stage, and let fly with a left uppercut. An unusually violent punch. . .” This was to “learn you to respect guys who have really experienced life” (63). This violent reaction to the struggling historian, writer, and abiding intellectual seems peculiarly excessive and out-of-place, especially given that not only is Lucien trying to write what amounts to a revolutionary play, with a cast of characters that includes Patrice Lumumba, Che Guevara, and Chairman Mao among various others, he also presents no competition whatsoever for the tourists with respect to the various sex-workers and the satiation of their desires. Lucien shows absolutely no interest in any of them, repeatedly invoking his continuing commitment to his wife Jacqueline as a way of warding off the many baby-chicks that desire him for their own. It is only much later, when he is mysteriously rescued from the police cell by Émillienne and goes to her brothel to visit her that we come to question his apparent displays of affronted purity. Despite Émillienne’s gentle and utterly genuine ministrations of love for him, Lucien rudely snubs her and condemns as reprehensible and debased the brothel work on which her wealth is based. It is then that we sense how blind he is to the conditions that enable him to be an intellectual in the first place. For Lucien’s failure is a failure of self-awareness and auto-critique. True, he is a keen observer of the contradictions that unfold around him, which he scribbles feverishly into his notebook. And true, he seems so incorruptible as to actually prefer to remain in police custody rather than descend to the level of giving a bribe to the police chief that interrogates. But one thing he does not do is to question the material grounds that enable him to have the freedom to be an intellectual in the first place.  Throughout the novel, Lucien is the beneficiary of the reluctant support of Requiem, his erstwhile best friend from university but now a blatant frenemy intent on destroying him by any means possible. Requiem provides Lucien with food and shelter and brings him newspapers every day while also directing a series of humiliations at him. We are made to believe that this fraught relationship is due to the fact that Lucien took Requiem’s wife Jacqueline when he had been given up for dead after going to fight in the army and not being heard of for several years. But it turns out that their enmity is due to something more profound. Requiem is a lapsed Marxist while Lucien has managed to retain their once shared idealism. But Lucien retains his idealism only at the cost of not examining the compromised grounds upon which he is able to remain an intellectual in the first place. In other words, he is much like the idealist we hear of in the apocryphal story attributed to Archimedes: “Give me a place to stand, and I will move the whole world." To which the skeptic replies, “There is no such place, for to move the world you will have to stand on it.” Thus Lucien’s lapse is in imagining that he can retain the authenticity of an intellectual whilst depending for his survival on the generosity of others who have had to make their peace with the corrupt conditions. This is what explains his condemnation at the hands of Requiem and the other characters in the Tram. It is perhaps the most important lesson for all intellectuals working in and out of Africa today. How do we launch the revolution when we ourselves are so badly compromised?


* Tram 83 was superbly translated from the French by Roland Glasser, with a Foreward by Alain Mabanckou and published by Deep Vellum Publishing in 2014.

Ato Quayson is Professor of English and Director of the Centre for Diaspora and Transnational Studies at the University of Toronto, where he has been since August 2005. He did his BA at the University of Ghana and took his PhD from Cambridge University in 1995. He then went on to the University of Oxford as a Research Fellow, returning to Cambridge in Sept 1995 to become a Fellow at Pembroke College and a member of the Faculty of English where he eventually became a Reader in Commonwealth and Postcolonial Studies.