Fiston Mwanza Mujila Posts

Review of Fiston Mwanza Majila, “Tram 83” : Waiting for Godot in the Congo

I reviewed for The WireFiston Mwanza Majila’s wonderful debut Tram 83, translated by Roland Glasser from French into English and originally published by Deep Vellum ( USA). It has been published in the Indian subcontinent by Speaking Tiger Books on their exciting new list for International Literature. Here is the original url: http://thewire.in/2016/06/02/review-waiting-for-godot-in-the-congo-39893/ . This was published online on 2 June 2016. I am c&p the text below. 

Fiston Mwanza Mujila’s Tram 83 is a bold experiment in form, set in an anonymous ‘City-State,’ which unnervingly parallels the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Credit: Speaking Tiger Books.

Credit: Speaking Tiger Books.

These recorded sounds are historical monuments, works of literature, poems, tragedies. Through the rust and other elements, you can feel history, the history of peoples, the memory of migration. 

Fiston Mwanza Mujila burst upon the international literary landscape with his debut novel Tram 83. It was originally published in French in 2014 by Éditions Métailié and translated into English by Roland Glasser in 2015. Tram 83 is inspired by the city of Lubumbashi in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where the local economy is driven by diamond mining. The story is about ‘City-State,’ which could be anywhere, yet is distinctly a mining town. In City-State, one of the most popular restaurants and hooker bars is ‘Tram 83,’ and it is frequented by:

Inadvertent musicians and elderly prostitutes and prestidigitators and Pentecostal preachers and students resembling mechanics and doctors conducting diagnoses in nightclubs and young journalists already retired and transvestites and second-foot shoe peddlers and porn film fans and highwaymen and pimps and disbarred lawyers and casual labourers and former transsexuals and polka dancers and pirates of the high seas and seekers of political asylum and organised fraudsters and archeologists and would-be bounty hunters and modern day adventurers and explorers searching for a lost civilisation and human organ dealers and farmyard philosophers and hawkers of fresh water and hairdressers and shoeshine boys and repairers of spare parts and soldiers’ widows and sex maniacs and lovers of romance novels and dissident rebels and brothers in Christ and druids and shamans and aphrodisiac vendors and scriveners and purveyors of real fake passports and gun-runners and porters and bric-a-brac traders and mining prospectors short on liquid assets and Siamese twins and Mamelukes and carjackers and colonial infantrymen and haruspices and counterfeiters and rape-starved soldiers and drinkers of adulterated milk and self-taught bakers and marabouts and mercenaries claiming to be one of Bob Denard’s crew and inveterate alcoholics and diggers and militiamen proclaiming themselves “masters of the world” and poseur politicians and child soldiers and Peace Corps activists gamely tackling a thousand nightmarish railroad construction projects or small-scale copper or manganese mining operations and baby-chicks and drug dealers and busgirls and pizza delivery guys and growth hormone merchants, all sorts of tribes overran Tram 83, in search of good times on the cheap.

This long passage is best read aloud and that is the distinctive breakthrough in the novel. It is less a novel than an oral performance. There is absolutely no point in trying to read it as a classically structured novel. The writing has a structural rhythm defined by the punctuation. In an interview, Glasser said that while working on the translation he would spend some time walking around in the garden reading the text out aloud to himself.

Mwanza Mujila is a performance poet, something that gives him a natural feeling for the song in the words. The fabulous performance that he and Glasser gave at Malvern Books, accompanied on the saxophone by Chris Hall, shows how in tune he and his translator are. Ever since he was a child, Mwanza Mujila wanted to learn how to play the saxophone, but was unable to get one so instead he taught himself to use his voice as the instrument. He demonstrated it at the Brooklyn Book Festival. Woven along with these musical influences is the very strong impact of evangelical Christianity. The way that the words and lists build up to crescendos in the book are very similar to a tub-thumping pastor’s sermons.

It is fascinating to discover that Mwanza Mujila is pursuing a PhD in Romance languages & literatures. Romance literature emerged out of the textual recording of oral forms of storytelling like the Arthurian cycle. It is also phonetically written, lending itself to varying rhythms when read aloud. These stories also served a definite purpose of recording contemporary socio-political-economic events like the tin trade between France and Glastonbury but were also thoroughly entertaining. Obviously a form of storytelling that many centuries later continues to be popular.

A Beckettian relationship

This is not to say that the plot is unimportant. Tram 83 is primarily about two characters – Lucien, a writer, and Requiem, a hustler, who were close friends but drifted apart. Lucien is upright and ethical, while Requiem is wonderfully amoral, minting money however he can, from illegal sales to blackmail. Lucien returns from the “Back-Country,” having completed half of a “stage-tale” entitled “The Africa of Possibility: Lumumba, the Fall of an Angel, or the Pestle-Mortar Years…Characters include Che Guevara, Sékou Touré, Gandhi, Abraham Lincoln, Lumumba, Martin Luther King, Ceauşescu, not forgetting the dissident General”. He moves in with Requiem, who continues to flourish with his disreputable activities, but their relationship is now imbued with a deep-seated love/hate resentment towards each other. It is a particularly Beckettian relationship reminiscent of Vladimir and Estragon in Waiting for Godot especially with the refrain peppered throughout the text – “Do you have the time”. Many times the conversations do not make any sense unless read aloud. Out of nonsense emerges a narrative.

Around Lucien and Requiem swirl people and conversations, with a plethora of walk on parts. A few characters remain throughout the story, such as the publisher Ferdinand Malingeau. It is like a well-constructed theatrical performance, an opera, but it is surreal given the unnerving parallels with the DRC. In an interview with Asymptote the author said, “…the “City-State” could be anywhere; a non-place, in the same way that, in his view, DRC is a non-country — no stable government, borders constantly breached by armies from neighbouring states”.

Women are marginal to the story. Mwanza Mujila defended this decision in an online interview, saying, “Anyone who has spent at least one day in a quarry or mine knows that masculinity is a necessity (for the diggers) in this environment, and that this particular masculinity is constructed differently to that found in cities or out in the countryside, often to the detriment of women”.

Tram 83 has already garnered significant literary prizes, such as Grand Prix SGDL, the Literary Prize of Graz, Austria, 2015 Etisalat Prize for Literature and had been longlisted for the Man Booker International Prize 2015. It is a bold experiment in form and an absolutely marvellous debut – tough to read but intelligently crafted.

Buy it. Read it. Become a fan.

Fiston Mwanza Mujila Tram 83  Translated by Roland Glasser, Speaking Tiger Publishing, Delhi, 2016, 210 pages, Rs. 350.

2 June 2016

 

Press Release: SPEAKING TIGER LAUNCHES NEW INTERNATIONAL FICTION SERIES

Speaking TigerI am thrilled about this announcement. In India we get editions of books published internationally but not always easily. Some of the ways this is done is if a firm’s product manager decides to bring a local edition into the market; the consumer buys the international edition online at an exorbitant price or a distributor makes the books available in bookshops. But to have a dedicated space in a publishing house that will focus on international literature, world literature and translations. With the launch of the three titles in this series, Speaking Tiger, has had an auspicious beginning by publishing two out of the three writers on the Man Booker International Prize 2016 longlist — Eka Kurniawan and Fiston Mwanza Mujila. I remember reading Tram 83 last year and mentioning it after which the news was picked up in this part of the world.  From a publishing point of view launching such an imprint may be perceived as a risk since the local readership is not very well acquainted with these writers but one lives in hope… . For now this is a fabulous news indeed!) 

SPEAKING TIGER LAUNCHES NEW INTERNATIONAL FICTION SERIES

Speaking Tiger logoWe are pleased to announce the launch of our new series, ‘International Fiction’, which will bring you some of the best contemporary writing from around the world, either originally in English or in English translation. It will focus on fiction (novels, novellas and short stories) that is truly outstanding and original, and leaves a lasting impression on the mind.

The series kicks off this month with Indonesian writer Eka Kurniawan’s Beauty Is a Wound, translated from Bahasa into English by Annie Tucker. Rights to this amazing novel described as ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude kicked into another gear’ have been sold in 27 countries.  Published late last year in the US and UK, it quickly made its way to several prestigious lists, including  The Guardian’s The Year’s Best Literary Fiction, the New York Times Notable Books of 2015 and Oprah Winfrey’s Best Reads of 2015.

Hailed as ‘a literary child of Günter Grass, Gabriel García Márquez and Salman Rushdie’ (The New York Review of Books), Eka Kurniawan is already being spoken of as a likely contender for the Nobel Prize—to quote Le Monde: ‘Original and powerful… Maybe, who knows, the judges of the Nobel Prize could, in a few years, consider giving [Eka] the prize that Indonesia has never received.’

Beauty Is a Wound will be followed in March by South African writer Imraan Coovadia’s new novel, Tales of the Metric System. Part political thriller, part family drama, part historical and human rights drama, it tells the story of modern South Africa in ten chapters that describe ten days spread over four decades, from 1970 to 2010.

Reviews of Tales of the Metric System have been superlative since its publication in South Africa, the US, Germany and elsewhere. The Mail & Guardian has described the novel as ‘an astonishing feat of imagination’ and one that people ‘will read long after our time has passed’, and the Sunday Times reviewer wrote, ‘With its elegant prose and ruthless determination to lead you to the truth, Tales of the Metric System is about as good a book as you are likely to read on South Africa’s transition from struggle to power.’

In April we will publish Tram 83, the sensational debut novel by Congolese writer Fiston Mwanza Mujila, translated from the French by Roland Glasser. Set in a night club in an unnamed Congolese mining town, Tram 83 follows a poet, Lucien, and his escapades with a cast of writers, drunkards, drug dealers, sex workers and dreamers. Mujila’s novel has been described as an ‘exuberantly dark’ tale that ‘delights in absurdities’ and extracts ‘epic poetry from violence, despair and distraction’.

With these three brilliant novels as our lead titles, we will continue to bring you books every few months from different cultures and countries that delight, absorb and enthrall.

 

Speaking Tiger Publishing Pvt. Ltd
4381/4, Ansari Road
Daryaganj
New Delhi 110002
India
Phone: +91-11-47472630
e-mail: suchishree@speakingtiger.com
www.speakingtigerbooks.com

10 March 2016

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