A slim, colorful paperback, written in French by a Congolese transplant learning German in Austria, didn’t look like a breakout hit when it was published in 2014. But that, of course, is just what playwright and poet Fiston Mwanza Mujila’s debut novel, “Tram 83,” became. The book’s fast-paced prose and incantatory, almost violent bursts of language were a revelation to the Francophone literary scene, and the awards began piling up within the year: winner of the Etisalat Prize for first African novel, shortlisted for the Prix du Monde, and now the novel’s English translation has been longlisted for the 2016 Man Booker Prize, one of the most prestigious awards in the English language.
The Michigan Daily caught up with Mujila, a native of Lubumbashi in the Democratic Republic of Congo, in an email exchange while he enjoyed a brief respite from international touring in his new home of Graz, Austria. We were assisted by Mujila’s eminently skillful translator, Roland Glasser, who also translated “Tram 83” into the exquisitely worded English language edition.
The novel follows the uneasy friendship of Lucien, a troubled writer escaping violence in the countryside, and Requiem, a gleeful ne’er-do-well who boozes and womanizes by day, and schemes and steals by night. Lucien has arrived by rusting colonial train in the capital of an unnamed central-African country, teeming with Chinese investors and African workers, Portuguese musicians and “baby chicks and single mamas” from no man’s land. Mujila describes all visitors to the city and its popular nightclub, “Tram 83,” as “tourists” with a cynical wink.
“The tourists belong to every nationality. People come from all over the world in search of the stone (minerals),” he wrote. “There are not only Westerners but also thousands of African tourists to be found in the nooks and crannies of the City-State. I wanted to reappraise globalization by bringing in all these different populations.”
Yet one European visitor, a Swiss publisher named Malingeau, is a source not only of exploitation, but also of the African exuberance and joie de vivre that brings the city to life.
“A character in a novel can slip out of the author’s control,” Mujila wrote. “The publisher is one such example. He considers himself African and finds pleasure in the carnival-like drinking sprees and hedonism of this bar called Tram 83. In his own opinion, African literature should be a joyous thing, since life is also to be found in rumba, jazz, and the other delights of Tram 83.”
All of the characters live or die by the caprices of the mine — the unstable mineral deposit outside town, surrounded by armed guards and constantly changing hands — though it promises great wealth for few and unfathomable chaos for all who live there. The looming presence of the mine dominates the novel, casting its ominous shadow over the characters in this improbable place.
“The phenomenon of the mine tackled in the novel is timeless and universal,” Mujila wrote.
But it also speaks to the desperation that characterizes central Africa today, wracked as it is by conflict over minerals and resources.
“I wanted to provide some food for thought — the novel contains several portions — about what it means to be young in a country in a state of war or under a dictatorship. In the Congo, over half the population are young people in a country ravaged by decades of dictatorship and war. But there is in this youth — even when it is obliged to go down into the mines or other black holes of existence to earn a crust — an extraordinary resilience, a desire for freedom and a call for a new world,” Mujila wrote.
The book’s greatest virtue, and perhaps the key to its international success, is the throbbing musicality of its language. The prose is visceral, as sensuous and vivid as a live performance — not surprising, considering both the surfeit of talented Congolese musicians, from rumberos to rappers, and Mujila’s own musical background. This connected the novel to international traditions, particularly jazz, and to the author’s own musical heritage in the DRC.
“Singing contributes to the recognition of an individual within a group, to the legitimization of their exploits or their actions,” Mujila explained. “The Luba people of the Congo practiced kasala, an oratorical art in which an individual is praised for their merits, or to crown important events at court, be they happy or sad. This oratorical form was common in ancestral Africa.”
Not much happens in the novel, so to speak, and you can feel it in the plodding, rhythmic languor of the subtropical air. Lucien is stuck, waiting for something to happen — a visa, a publication, a war. It’s a universal feeling, known to writers everywhere, and Lucien fluctuates between the tantalizing misadventures of his swindler friend and his own earnest scribblings. It is not Lucien himself, but the fiendish vitality of his surroundings that drives the novel forward.
The success of “Tram 83” has affected not just awards and fanfare, but a series of global translations into Hebrew, Greek, Catalan, Dutch and Swedish, to name just a few. The book’s afterlife will now simmer on at bookstores in Tel Aviv and bedside tables in Barcelona.
As Mujila’s African expatriate contemporaries, from Nigeria’s Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie to Zimbabwe’s NoViolet Bulawayo, proliferate in the West, he will continue to bring his distinctive, musical voice into the fray. While the media often celebrates the so-called “African Renaissance” of literature as though it runs into a concrete wall at the edges of the vast continent, what defines Mujila’s prose is not its provincialism, but its diversity, its shape-shifting nature and forcefully unfocused lens on the world.
“The child is not born from a tree. He comes from his mother’s belly,” Mujila wrote. “In Lubumbashi, the town of my birth, and throughout the Congo I’m sure, a child is often identified in relation to his parents. ‘Whose child is that?’ people often ask. I feel no unease at being considered an African or Congolese author, even if I don’t write in the name of a nationality, a people, a city, a country or a continent.”
In many ways, as is true for all writers, Mujila’s youth in a vital, turbulent African capital is the pounding heart behind his work. But “Tram 83” does not define the DRC, and Lubumbashi fails to encapsulate the essence of Mujila, to close in around him like a hermetically sealed chamber. He writes as an African and as a European, an expatriate and a native son — perhaps, simply, as a citizen of the world.