“In the beginning was the stone and the stone prompted ownership” is how Fiston Mwanza Mujilla’s Tram 83 opens. An epigraph that serves as an elusive foreshadowing of the story that follows.
The stone in question is a diamond, African diamonds, to be specific, which have prompted a diamond-rush in a vaguely recognizable African city we come to know only as the City-State; a corrupt, filthy way-station of a town (trains and rail-lines figure prominently in the narrative) complete with a tyrannical general intent on pandering to the tourists at the expense of his citizens. It’s a rough town, inhabited by desperate locals and voyeuristic tourists seeking their fortune as well as a place “unpolluted by the excrement of globalization.” Africa. Each night the motley crew of City-State transients intermingle and perform, in a way, a gritty, chaotic theater of the absurd at the town’s only venue for leisure: Tram 83.
Not one to worry himself over ease of entry, Mujilla drops his readers right into the middle of the City-State milieu, which he evokes through a fantastical method of storytelling that treads the line between reality and fable.
Tram 83 is a literary mixtape of a book. Mujilla utilizes everything from science fiction’s alienating style, which often features protagonists grappling to understand a brave new world just as readers must grapple with the head-spinning array of baby chicks, single mamas, students, diggers and tourists of the City-State, to the profane energy of the beat’s drug-induced, maniacal prose stylings. Add a bit of theatre of the absurd and, of course, poetry, and you have one hell of a read.
Details concerning the two protagonists, the idealistic Lucien and the sardonically world-weary Requiem are slowly revealed over the course of the novel. Both are City-State natives who left for the back-country (which seems to be everywhere that isn’t the City-State) years ago and have since returned — Requiem in an effort to escape an unnamed tragedy and Lucien only recently, in order to finish his historical stage-tale about Africa, both characters ripe to serve as pawns in Mujilla’s thinly veiled critique of colonialism, identity and art.
Tram 83, like many books Deep Vellum publishes, is a novel about writing, both its impotence and its potential.
Mujilla utilizes the character of Lucien to question the viability of the writer in the 21st century by poking fun at the posturing of the intellectual. Lucien, who is always scribbling observations in his notebook and voicing pretentious platitudes on the importance of writing (“I think, unless I am mistaken, that literature deserves pride of place in the shaping of history”) elicits the scorn of the locals, voiced on occasion by the humorously intrusive narrator (perhaps the author?), who questions the archetype of the intellectual savior with interjections like “What the hell is your conscience doing in a story that you don’t need to be a writer to understand? Ultimately what is the conscience of a writer who won’t open his eyes?” and “What a hypocrite scribbling on scraps of paper instead of telling us the truth to our faces.”
It’s a brilliantly cynical examination of the role of the writer in contemporary Africa, a continent which needs nothing less than another post-colonial artist-savior.
The result is an occasionally meta novel; the chapter’s amusing epigraphs, in a nod to theater, could reference Lucien’s work in progress — is Tram 83 Lucien’s stage-play? And Mujilla’s occasional insertion of an outside voice to express the thoughts of the locals (“Lucien annoyed us”) functions almost like a theatrical Greek chorus, interjecting at various times to temper our mood or incite a new line of response.
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It’s a uniquely 21st century take on the nuances of post-colonial thought. Sure, Mujilla refers to the segregation of Africans and white tourists in the City-State casually as “urban-planning,” but Lucien complicates the reading, his status among the locals floating somewhere between that of the voyeuristic tourist and the heroic African intellectual, leaving readers to flounder in an effort to determine when Mujilla is sincere and when he is not.
It’s a profoundly conflicting book, a beautiful take-down of those who would argue for art’s ability to affect change — to, as Lucien aims to do, “establish truth" — and an illustration of a profound new view on the consequences of colonialism told in an always urgent, often insincere (or so it seems) and never less than wholly unique voice. Tram 83 is a satirical send-up of the fatalistic lens through which the Western world often views the “other,” metaphorically recreating the confusion inherent to an intellectual conundrum we should all grapple with more. What is truth in a world in which we dramatize what we don’t understand? In which stereotypes and oversimplifications become the norm? In which an artist believes he can affect change?
And what is choice when the Western view of history ascribes each to their own inevitability? Leaving many in the less-fortunate parts of the world to be consumed by the future, as the citizens in City-State are consumed by theirs. “We didn’t know what the hell else to do except head underground, moles that we were, that we are, that we shall remain. You don’t mess with your destiny.”
Fiston Mwazna Mujilla and translator Roland Glasser stop in Dallas at The Wild Detectives (314 W. 8th St.) for a reading in support of the book’s recent release by Dallas’ Deep Vellum Publishing at 7 p.m. Thursday. A jazz band plays at 8 p.m.