To match the rhythms and polyphonic noise of Tram 83, Mujila bends and cracks the language, producing a feverish Joycean prose that can be dizzying, wearying, and brilliant by turns. It’s always excessive: he wears out the language, and the language wears you out ... Set in a nightmarish wet-dream of a 'hooker-bar' nightclub, Tram 83 can seem like a novel about fucking and music and precisely nothing else ... as a meditation or debauch on the nothing that is left behind when everything falls apart, Tram 83 is a literary manifesto, or at least a literary revelation ... a wildly inventive and gleefully amoral farce, Tram 83 is also a deadly serious anatomy of the Democratic Republic of Congo’s mining frontier. It is political to its core, committed and 'relevant,' while also being a glorious mess and a lot of fun ... Elusive, intense, brief, and insubstantial, these moments of community, imagined and real, are the novel’s beating heart, the moments when shit turns to diamonds: buried under 50 years of disappointment, oppression, and struggle, weighed down by facts on the ground and watered with blood, Tram 83 is the paper on which the Congo continues to exist, the song of ourselves which Mujila sings and celebrates.
With echoes of Flannery O’Connor, Ralph Ellison, and Joseph Conrad, Mujila’s language alchemizes epic poetry from violence, despair and distraction. He bebops in broken time with words and structure, improvising and free-associating. Regularly interrupting the narrative with the constant cross-rhythm section of the club is an effective technique for communicating the prevailing cacophony ... Trains and train stations are prominent in Tram 83, signifying possibility and opportunity as well as globalization and the exploitation of the natural environment. Trains, too, are both protagonist and antagonist. Tram 83 ends, appropriately and ambiguously, where it began: at the train station. Mujila has found his groove.
Mujila has given a curious twist to a timeworn genre: Tram 83 is a picaresque novel in stasis, its hero waylaid by adventures he is constantly hoping to avoid. The language ranges from slangy to poignant, with philosophical asides and frequent pastiches of received ideas of Africa in the west. The digressions are the book’s strong point: an amputee’s confession of his daydreams of changing his life for that of a dog in Paris, with 'hospitals for dogs, casinos for dogs, weight rooms for dogs, and even dogs who go on vacation' is at once ribald and mortifying, and the characters’ offhand remarks about their pecuniary longings say a great deal about the emptiness of freedom in countries where material foundations are reserved for the moneyed and corrupt.
The bizarre list goes on for about a page, appearing suddenly like a solo in a jazz improvisation. This is characteristic of Mujila’s style, which shifts between conventional narrative and stream of consciousness without losing the narrative arc. This results in an originality not seen often in contemporary African writing, typified, for instance, by Chimamanda Adichie in Americanah or most recently, Chigozie Obioma in The Fishermen. In his novel, artfully translated from the French by Roland Glasser, Mujila successfully eschews the social realist approach for uncharted literary territory, interjecting humor...and his global knowledge of music...along the way ... Throughout the novel, the point of view shifts, zooming in on the private thoughts of the main characters and zooming out to encompass those of a more omniscient narrator. This puts Mujila’s musically attuned gift for moving seamlessly between the past and the present, between the inner and outer world of his characters on glorious display ... Mujilla writes fresh, inventive literature that is not only accessible in its use of humor and music, but deeply probes the complexities and challenges that persist in Congo today.
The idiosyncratic narrator swerves from summary to stream of consciousness to satiric dialogue, to deliver surprising lines of stunning poetic beauty ... Initially, the novel is difficult to navigate, but like Thomas Pynchon or David Foster Wallace—or free jazz, for that matter—Mujila rewards patience. The third-person narrator lurches forward like the train Lucien rides in on from the distant provinces. Eventually he finds his old friend Requiem. The events that follow form less of a plot and more of a series of episodes. Sometimes, Mujila drops the action or quirky dialogue onto the page, dislocating but offering a feeling akin to hanging out with a garrulous friend who can’t wait to show you what misadventure will come next ... Tram 83 isn’t for the faint of heart, but rather, it’s for those that have a sense of humor, an interest in seedy underbellies, and a willingness to, at times, feel a little lost in the haze of biblical imagery, flippant debauchery, free sex, and anarchy. Ezra Pound would be proud; Mujila 'made it new.'
Tram 83 may not be a novel in the usual sense—it is more of a francophone triumph of style over substance—but it is a welcome voice from that quarter, and a promise of lively works to come ... Structured more around refrains than it is around plot, Tram 83 is as much a musical work as it is a fictional one. The most frequent refrain is 'Do you have the time?,' the come-on repeated by the baby-chicks, single-mamas, and other carefully delineated species of hookerdom who pass their days and nights at Tram 83 ... Like the International Zone of William S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch, Tram 83 takes place in a special enclave—in its country but not of it, subject to its own rules, breathing its own atmosphere ... Tram 83 is not exactly a deep novel, but it carries itself with exuberance and style.
Fiston captures that surging life-force, too. If his portrait of Congo makes it appear socially and politically hopeless, what's hopeful is the spirit of his writing, which crackles and leaps with energy. Rather than moralize, he transfigures harsh reality with a bounding, inventive, bebop-style prose, translated from the French with light-footed skill by Roland Glasser ... Fiston evokes the textures of the city in all its deliriousness, blowing marvelous riffs on everything from the sleaziness of foreign visitors to the differing shapes of streetwalkers' buttocks to the way the poor patrons of Tram 83 like jazz, because it's so classy. Virtually every scene is punctuated by the come-ons of the prostitutes — too lewd to quote here — that serve almost like a Greek chorus repeatedly saying, 'Live for now, live for now, live for now.'
Rapid and poetic, Mujila depicts a province where 'every day is a pitched battle.' It’s a brutal landscape with regular blackouts and unreliable running water, where many hungry denizens hunt house pets and vermin for food with the same vigor they use to excavate diamonds and minerals. The central characters fight to change the paths laid before them, desperate to rebel against a fate imposed by life in a consumptive environment. Mujila succeeds in exploring themes of globalization and exploitation in a kinetic, engaging work.
Stylistically quirky and unorthodox fiction from Africa ... While the novel has several narrative threads, Mujila is not working in the George Eliot tradition of realistic fiction. Instead, incidents lurch from one thing to another—sexual encounters to blackmail to the mineral-rich Hope mine. Much of the dialogue is repetitious and antiphonal, as recurring phrases such as 'Do you have the time?' and 'I hate foreplay' help create and define the atmosphere at the nightclub ... One’s admiration for the novel will be highly influenced by one’s tolerance for experimental, relatively plotless fiction.