Tale of untapped wealth and abject poverty in Congo

Tram 83 is about a writer lost in the ideal world of the pen and dreams of showcasing his plays in France. PHOTO | FILE
Tram 83 is about a writer lost in the ideal world of the pen and dreams of showcasing his plays in France. PHOTO | FILE 

What do you think of when you hear of the Congo? Chances are you don’t think literature. Music, war, gems, maybe football but certainly not literature, unless you’ve read Alain Mabanckou.

He wrote the forward to Fiston Mwanza Mujila’s maiden book; the first words you get to read are full of praise and glee, and I tell you not exaggerated, on a first time author as though it were a blessing, a baptism; a rite of passage.

Mujila is a colourful writer whose writing is almost like a merry dancer, in tune with the beat and no care in the world. His book, Tram 83, is named after an actual location: a bar on the outskirts of Brazzaville, near a train station.

It might interest you to know that it is an actual train line from that city to Pointe Noire, a city which Mabanckou writes about intensely in his own 2013 novel Tomorrow I’ll Be Twenty.

How apt that the first chapter starts with “In the beginning was the stone…” setting the foundation for the novel somewhat.

The Congo Basin is a resource-rich area and the social and economic impact of what lies underneath the earth there makes a fascinating subject for Mujila.

Tram 83 is about a writer lost in the ideal world of the pen and dreams of showcasing his plays in France, while his friend Requiem is immersed in the murky world of crime and debauchery. It initially reads like a play, with the repetition of poetry.

Although originally translated from French by Roland Glasser, nothing feels lost. Instead the novel reads more like a man reaching to his mother’s tongue to express that which is in his heart than the necessary labour bestowed by a literary agent.

From the blackouts across the continent to underage prostitution, drug abuse, armed gangsters, rioting university students, economic exploitation, crude miners and dark bars with unisex washrooms, the book is a portrait of a people besieged by the wealth that lies underneath in a city of ruin.

His work is easy to relate to if you were raised in Africa. The exception is that his characters’ language can get salty and some parts read like a blush on a Catholic school girl’s first crush.

Mujila paints vivid pictures, through which traces of poetry can be seen and echoed in the dimly lit Tram 83, with prostitutes annoyingly interrupting all conversations over dog kebabs, cat stew, roasted rat and bad booze. It can all be nauseating from the pulsating, dizzying vividness of his work.

No wonder he’s an award winner. He won the Etisalat Literature Prize in 2015 and made it to the Man Booker International Prize long list.

Mujila is certainly a Johnny-come-lately as Nigerians would say, deserving of a seat at the literary table because he brought his own folding chair to watch the sun rise on his literary career.

Grab a copy and lean in to hear what this talented writer has to say.