Not necessarily a fast read for me but I am nevertheless quenched since I have put to rest Mujila’s Tram 83. This is an interesting novel grappling with the underworld of a third world country torn apart by greed for minerals, power, money, that is, that innate desire in human beings to have control over others. This is a story set in a bar but conjuring up the essences of political war lords, creative writers, drunkards, prostitutes, miners etc.
This is the story of the people of the Democratic Republic of Congo. It is a projection of what a failed leadership leads to. It depicts the tale tale consequences of civil war, the enlisting of minors into forced labour in the mines, the debauchery of the society as minors are forced into prostitution and the general moral decay occasioned by the disillusionment of a socio-economic set up that is lopsided.
The opening chapter of the text provides a vivid picture of what the reader expects to encounter:
“IN THE BEGINNING WAS THE STONE, AND THE STONE PROMPTED OWNERSHIP, AND OWNERSHIP A RUSH, AND THE RUSH BROUGHT AN INFLUX OF MEN OF DIVERSE APPEARANCE WHO BUILT RAILROADS THROUGH THE ROCK, FORGED A LIFE OF PALM WINE, AND DEVISED A SYSTEM, A MIXTURE OF MINING AND TRADING.
Northern Station. Friday. Around seven or nine in the evening. “Patience, friend, you know full well our trains have lost all sense of time.”
The Northern Station was going to the dogs. It was essentially an unfinished metal structure, gutted by artillery, train tracks, and locomotives that called to mind the railroad built by Stanley, cassava fields, cut-rate hotels, greasy spoons, bordellos, Pentecostal churches, bakeries, and noise engineered by men of all generations and nationalities combined.
It was the only place on earth you could hang yourself, defecate, blaspheme, fall into infatuation, and thieve without regard to prying eyes. Indeed, an air of connivance hung ever about the place. Jackals don’t eat jackals. They pounce on the turkeys and partridges, and devour them. According to the fickle but ever-recurring legend, the seeds of all resistance movements, all wars of liberation, sprouted at the station, between two locomotives. And as if that weren’t enough, the same legend claims that the building of the railroad resulted in numerous deaths attributed to tropical diseases, technical blunders, the poor working conditions imposed by the colonial authorities – in short, all the usual clichés.” (pg 1-2)
Indeed, the lives of Requiem and Lucien symbolically reflects the weight of this statement: “It was the only place on earth you could hang yourself, defecate, blaspheme, fall into infatuation, and thieve without regard to prying eyes.” The opening line of the text alludes to the Bible and the creation story. Mujila draws on this to ironically problematize the struggles of the people of the Democratic Republic of Congo to not only put their lives together but the very being of their nation too.
This is the kind of story that wrenches a reader’s heart apart as we encounter baby chicks coerced into prostituting their bodies so as to survive. The efforts to make a living under whatever cost draws people in droves from all corners of the world. Rivalries abound, pimping takes centre stage, honesty and truth become an anathema and the human life is reduced to something that can easily be dispensed with. In dark humour, Mujila pokes fun at the people’s efforts to enrich themselves whilst openly disregarding human beings who end up being destroyed in the process.
The narrative texture and linguistic choices are inventive. There are sections of long paragraphs of one sentence, an isolated case of repetitive use of a single word in one paragraph and other uncanny literary choices that make the text unique. The music played in Tram 83 is a mixture of different genres but jazz abounds. In fact, one can argue that the music helps to drown the people’s sorrows just as much as the drugs, sex, extortions, and the drinking sprees do. It is an adventurous narrative that bespeaks of neo-colonialism and perpetual exploitation that has remained the bedrock of most postcolonies.
Tram 83 is a story of the jungle that is African states afflicted by failed leadership. The chaos that characterise the story are best depicted in the cranky nature of the narrative. The paragraphs appear to be characterised by a rough texture of crude language, obscenities, and a general air of perversion. In this way, Mujila successfully depicts the seedy underbelly of a country besieged by a reckless gold rush that can only resort to pure anarchy.