Fiston Mwanza Mujila's debut novel, "Tram 83," arrives in its English translation bearing heavy expectations. The French original, published last year, won a slew of awards and resounding praise. Whether the acclaim is going to follow the book in the United States will depend on readers' openness to what for many will be a foreign style.
While other African writers such as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Teju Cole and Okey Ndibe have enjoyed recent popularity, their work tends to be more conventionally narrative-driven and, therefore, better suited to the mainstream.
"Tram 83" is driven more by language, rhythm and atmosphere — and, most important, how all of these mix, dissolve and reconfigure in consciousness. The setting is City-State, a town somewhere in central Africa supported fully by mining. Following the mines are the normally associated sex and drug industries. Much of the novel's action takes place in Tram 83, the only club in town, where pubescent girls beckon and men drink themselves blotto.
At the heart of this environment are two friends, Lucien and Requiem. The former is a writer, the latter is a kind of outlaw, getting what he can where he can. Lucien struggles through his intellectual pursuits to resist the hedonism verging on nihilism that's all around. Requiem embraces the life at Tram 83 and, to his thinking, reality as it is. This brief summary suggests a more pat morality tale than what the book offers. The arguments about how to engage (or not engage) and whether a better world is possible aren't limited to characters' dialogue but work themselves into the texture of the novel.
Lucien's project is a genre-blending "stage-tale that considers this country from an historical perspective" that sounds similar in many ways to Mujila's. According to Lucien's friend in Paris, "All the blacks the world over are waiting desperately for you to complete this text. … The diaspora has run out of patience. Lucien. We blacks of France are waiting for your work to redeem us." But by the time the book is published (to the same kind of celebration that Mujila received) the same friend will say, "if you phone me again, let's talk of other things … but definitely not literature. We're in the 21st century."
In satirizing Lucien's ambitions, the book confronts the myopic view that literature (or industry) could "fix" or "redeem" Africa. Mujila's world is too complex for that. Let's not forget, as Lucien's publisher tells him at one point, "Here, we live, we [make love], we're happy. … There needs to be [lovemaking] in African literature too!"
One thing this novel demonstrates is the necessity of its own polyvocal style, some kind of hybridization of Lucien and Requiem, to be at once observing and engaged, critical and celebratory. "There's cities which don't need literature: they are literature." Maybe. But to say so takes an author. For whom we should be thankful.
Scott Parker is a book critic in Montana.