I think I may once, in my youth, have been to a nightclub in Mumbai a bit like Tram 83, the one in the eponymous book by Fiston Mwanza Mujila, translated from the French by Roland Glasser.
I think I may once, in my youth, have been to a nightclub in Mumbai a bit like Tram 83, the one in the eponymous book by Fiston Mwanza Mujila, translated from the French by Roland Glasser. It was hot and crowded, the music pounded, there were all sorts of people doing all sorts of things. It was one of those places that begins by aiming to be respectable, but soon becomes sleazy, so it was wild and very exciting. But I knew even then, that this place would soon come to seem sordid. So while I loved the experience while I was there, I never went back.
I recognised some of the Mumbai club’s elements in this book set in an unnamed city-state in an unnamed part of Africa, about a club called Tram 83 and the life of a place riven by civil war, exploited by foreign mine owners and devoid of anything that passes for civilisation because of the sheer need to survive.
Tram 83, the nightclub, exists because it must. What else are people to do in what is essentially a mining city-state ruled by his dissidence, the general, who runs everything according to his mood of the moment All resources such as power and water are directed to its natural resources such as diamonds and cobalt via the mines, which are rented or sold to the for-profit tourists who arrive greedily every day and who have nothing to do with themselves but buy alcohol, drugs and baby-chicks at nightclubs.
Baby-chicks are pre-adolescent hustlers who are much older than their years, clever about what might make a man part with his money: Things like silicone breasts and no foreplay. But there are also older hustlers known as single mamas and boys of all work called slim jims.
The food is primarily dog meat — only the for-profit tourists and their mines have fully-intact German shepherds for security, dogs so clever it’s rumoured they can even make coffee the way their owners like it. But not even these clever dogs can stop theft, one man and his gang mining the mines belonging to another. And Requiem is the best of these thieves, a man whose survival skills are so finely honed, he has a hold over all the for-profit tourists and even his dissidence, the general.
Into this world steps Lucien, reluctantly. Lucien is a historian and a writer, who sees the world through the texts he is constantly composing that will eventually become a play about life in the city-state. As an intellectual, Lucien is different from everyone else, a fact that makes him both a hero and a loser in the eyes of others. Lucien accepts no baby-chick offer, he’s married, so he will not sleep with the single mama who loves him so much, she even rescues him from the clutches of the police. He is totally uninterested in diamonds and mines, and has only one thing on his mind: How to get his play published and staged. For some people, this makes him ridiculous — what kind of man does not take advantage of everything on offer Others think he’s the most civilised person ever seen in the city-state and make much of his presence in their lives.
But just as Lucien is reluctant to immerse himself in the world of the city-state and Tram 83 except for his play, Requiem is reluctant to have much to do with Lucien, even though he’s putting up the writer and taking care of him financially. On one level, this is personal. When Requiem was a soldier in the civil war, it was thought he had died, and so his wife Jacqueline married Lucien. But on another level, Lucien is the antithesis of Requiem. And when Lucien finds a publisher, a for-profit tourist Requiem had once worked for, Requiem, the man with a hold even over his dissidence, the general, is humiliated. What’s that going to do to Tram 83 and the city-state
If you think my description of the book is breathless and complicated, wait till you read the actual book. Laconic and cynical in tone and style, there’s so much going on in its 210 pages, it feels like you’ve been whisked away from your own civilised, middle-class world and spent your whole life in Tram 83. Mujila pulls you right into his novel, so that even though the city-state is horrible and sordid, it’s also life the way many people live it, a world where you do what you have to do if you fully intend to survive.
It’s a little difficult to get into the book at first though, because you simply don’t know what’s going on. Who’s Requiem Who’s Lucien Who’s the hero And later, when you realise there’s no such thing as a hero in this book, you wonder: Is there a storyline at all, or is Tram 83 just about life the way greed makes it
Once you fling away your preconceptions of novels, however, you are swept into a world that our own is scarily close to even without a civil war. Remember: I’ve been to a club that’s pretty similar, right here in Mumbai.
Books about the unbridled globalisation of greed are not uncommon, but Tram 83 is truly one of the most cynical books ever written — and one of the funniest, provided you can laugh at the terrible.
Kushalrani Gulab is a freelance editor and writer who dreams of being a sanyasi by the sea