Book Review – Tram 83 by Fiston Mwanza Mujilla

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Goodreads Synopsis:

In a war-torn African city-state tourists of all languages and nationalities converge with students, ex-pats and locals. They have only one desire: to make a fortune by exploiting the mineral wealth of the country, both mineral and human. As soon as night falls, they go out to get drunk, dance, eat and abandon themselves in Tram 83, the only night-club of the city, the den of all iniquities.
Lucien, a professional writer, fleeing the exactions and the censorship, of the Back-Country, finds refuge in the city thanks to Requiem, a friend. Requiem lives mainly on theft and on swindle while Lucien only thinks of writing and living honestly. Around them gravitate gangsters and young girls, retired or runaway men, profit- seeking tourists and federal agents of a non-existent State.
Tram 83 plunges the reader into the atmosphere of a gold rush as cynical as it is comic and colourfully exotic. It’s an observation of human relationships in a world that has become a global village, an African-rhapsody novel hammered by rhythms of jazz.
 

Review:

So I picked this up to get back to my long-neglected “Read Around the World” challenge. The author of this is from the Democratic Republic of the Congo and this is translated from French. Unfortunately, despite the rave reviews, this was just not a book I enjoyed.

The writing style is very stream of consciousness and rambles on, and on, and on. At one point it was listing a whole stream of names which took up over a page and I had to just skip to the end because I got bored of reading them all. One thing I did enjoy though was that the conversations that took place in the titular Tram 83 were often interrupted by others and that’s thrown right in there too. I’ve lost track of how many times you’d be reading a conversation between Requiem and Lucien, the two main characters, and suddenly there’d be a “Do you have the time?” thrown in the middle without explanation. That aspect, along with all the other background noise that’s added in, really helps create the atmosphere of the Tram and the constant noise and people that are there.

It’s hard to talk about the plot as there isn’t really much of one and it jumps around a lot. We follow Lucien and his journey as a writer and also get glimpses of his friend Requiem and his publisher as they live their lives. Requiem makes a living blackmailing people with naked photos of them and his goal is to get one of the dissident General, while the publisher is one of the poor people being blackmailed by Requiem. There are a couple female characters but we see almost nothing of them.

This book is very male with a heavy male gaze on women which is definitely something that people should be aware of going in. There is a lot of description of women’s bodies and many of the interjections by female characters are sexual in nature as they try and get clients for the night. By the end of the book, you start just ignoring them, just as the characters themselves do.

Overall, this is a book unlike any I’ve read before and I’m glad I read it but it’s very hard to describe and hard to know who to recommend it to because it’s so difficult to categorise. If you’re doing a “Read Around the World” Challenge then it’s definitely a good choice for the Democratic Republic of the Congo. If you can read French, I imagine the original is even better for use of language as part of that is always lost in translation.

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