Category Archives: Congolese fiction

“There needs to be fucking in African literature too!”

Tram 83, by Fiston Mwanza Mujila and translated by Roland Glasser

There’s a tendency in the UK to expect a certain kind of book from Africa. It’s a serious book, dealing with the pain of a continent and the aftermath of Colonialism. It’s hailed as an important book, but it’s possibly a little dull and hardly anyone reads it. I don’t read it.

At one point in Tram 83 a publisher says to a young author:

We’ve already had enough of squalor, poverty, syphilis, and violence in African literature. Look around us. There are beautiful girls, good-looking men, Brazza Beer, good music. Doesn’t all that inspire you? I’m concerned for the future of African literature in general. The main character in the African novel is always single, neurotic, perverse, depressive, childless, homeless, and overburdened with debt. Here, we live, we fuck, we’re happy. There needs to be fucking in African literature too!”

Tram 83 puts the fucking back into African literature.

tram-83

Tram 83 is the legendary nightclub at the heart of a breakaway city-state ruled by a dissident general rumoured to be a sorcerer. It’s where everyone goes and everything and anything happens. Well, anything save a quiet conversation.

“Do you have the time?”

Requiem is a local fixer and money-maker. It’s hard to say exactly what he does, but he makes money doing it. His old friend Lucien, a writer, comes to stay with him. Lucien wants to write a doorstep novel featuring twenty famous historical characters from Europe and beyond. It sounds unreadable, but his bigger problem is that he’s finding it unwriteable and Tram 83’s distractions don’t help.

“Call me Astrid. I can’t live without caresses.”

Tram 83 doesn’t have a plot as such. Instead it has sequences of incantatory prose that seems as drunk on Brazza beer and hot jazz as are the regulars at Tram 83. Requiem wants to make money, possibly by robbing a mine (it’s a popular way to make some cash in the mineral-rich city-state, but a dangerous one). Lucien wants to write his book and meets a local publisher who’s interested provided he cuts the number of characters in half, relocates it to South America and perhaps turns it into a play.

“What are you trying to do? Get me horny?”

Requiem and Lucien careen through the city, interrupted constantly by the baby-chicks and single-mamas selling themselves with the constant code-question “do you have the time?” Hardly anybody does. When you’re young you sell yourself, when you’re old you sell whatever you can find. Tram 83 is a merciless place.

“Getting drunk on wine feels like a con. Two little glasses and you lose your head. Beer, now that’s a heavenly way to get wasted.”

Tram 83 is awash with foreign workers and “for-profit tourists”. The Europeans, Americans, Russians, Canadians, now the Chinese all eager to get their own little slice of mineral wealth. Are Requiem and his crew so different? There’s money literally lying in the ground. The foreigners have government contracts while Requiem has to sneak into the mines under cover of night, but the government’s just another set of strongmen, the General a man with more guns on his side than Requiem has. What you get is what you can grasp, and why should Requiem have any less than the next guy?

It was said that in a single day dozens of sacks of heterogenite were carted off from huts and other makeshift camps. With such eroded, tampered foundations, houses threatened to collapse at the slightest rain. Will you consent to starve to death when there’s silver, copper, barium, tin, or coal lying quietly under your feet? From the area around Hope Mine to as far as the east side of Vampiretown, the city took on the appearance of an archaeological site. Even the goats and wheelbarrows smelled of the cobalt quarries.

Meanwhile Lucien tries to make art. He shuns the advances of the baby-chicks, which confuses and offends them. He ignores the pleas from his French publisher for the overdue manuscript he owes, ashamed to admit that he was forced to burn it with a kalashnikov to the back of his neck. He does a reading at Tram 83, the crowd mob him and beat him to a pulp. As the text reflects:

There are cities which don’t need literature: they are literature. They file past, chest thrust out, head on their shoulders. They are proud and full of confidence despite the garbage bags they cart around. The City-State, an example among so many others—she pulsated with literature.

It’s a confident and persuasive paragraph, but perhaps illustrates one problem with the book. In the comments under David Hebblethwaite’s review (links at the bottom) Grant of 1st reading referenced that paragraph noting that while it sounds clever it’s not clear what it actually means. I think that’s fair. The best way to read Tram 83 is to let it wash over you, to treat it like the jazz constantly played at Tram 83 itself. It’s impressionistic, but cumulatively so and if you poke at individual elements they might not hold together quite as well as you’d think.

“I don’t like foreplay. It kills the pleasure.”

Tram 83 is ultimately a hymn to language as much as anything else. It’s no surprise to learn that Mujila is also a poet, because the book hums with poetry. I had several possible one-liner titles for this post. I considered calling this post ‘the monologues of a Kalashnikov,’ which I thought an extraordinarily evocative phrase (though I couldn’t say of what exactly). There are moments of syncopated alliteration like ‘He stepped over the sleepers stretched out on the sidewalk’ and lines that could have stepped out of a William Gibson novel like ‘The Tram retained its botched-night splendor.’

“Give me a real cuddle.”

At times it’s very funny. The exchanges between Lucien and his potential publisher are a micro-satire on the self-importance of literature and the constant tension between art and business in publishing. Lucien clearly has talent, but does anybody care? Abroad, back in France, they do but only for so long as expat African fiction remains fashionable. Back at home nobody’s lining up to buy the latest novel (a theme in Teju Cole’s Every Day is for the Thief also).

“Take me to Bratislava and make me your dream queen!”

It would be easy to make all this bleak and angry. Foreign exploitation, political failure, violence and indifference to anything beyond surviving the next day, it’s potentially grim stuff. What makes Tram 83 different is the sense that regardless of all of this people still meet friends, go dancing, have sex, have a laugh, drink some beers, live. It’s the life as well as the language that makes Tram 83 sing.

Tram 83 knows what it’s doing. There’s clever use of repeated imagery, like the central motif of the never quite finished and war scarred rusting train station. It’s constantly referred to, a landmark both the text and the city revolve around (like the club itself), and as it gets mentioned again and again the description shortens until it becomes simply “the station whose metal structure” with no end to the description at all because none is needed – everyone including the reader knows the station by now and it’s enough merely to refer to it for the rest of its damaged history to spill forth. There’s paragraphs like beat poetry, cascading on for a page or more until you near-drown in the words, coming choking up for air on the other side:

Jalopies out of gas, deep-frozen products from the Galapagos Islands, knick-knacks, ceiling fans, oil changes, sheep, sarcastic remarks, hearses on alert, eggs contaminated with melamine, relics, minarets as far as the eye can see, bistros, baker-deli-linen-fish-lumber stores, phone booths, internet cafés, criminal records, pools of stagnant water, garbage bags at the mercy of beggars, stray dogs, no-entry signs, mountains of refuse, black market in the merchandise and its derivatives, discotheques, abandoned locomotives, born-again Christian evangelist churches, cockfights, settlings of scores, boxing galas, mosquitoes resistant to all pesticides, booing, trolleys, wimps bankrolled by mercenaries, Neanderthals, laundries, desires, beverages, arranged widowhoods of wives of soldiers declared missing, ringworms, jeers revised and corrected by the foreign press, daydreams of dissident rebels prepared to open another front because of an oilfield, magic potions to treat unidentified diseases, backwash and backwash, cannibals, bleeders, baby chicks with their “do you have the time?”, idols with feet of clay, smoking rooms, palimpsests, cathedrals, repeat offenders in custody released on bail who return to the scene of the crime with the weapon of the crime, oriental tapestries, suicidals, the comings and goings of naked-men diddlers, assorted gaffes, superfluities, prolegomena, dark looks, erections paraphrased and channeled into paper tissues…The night came on with her swimsuits and undershirts she forgot to wring out.

I’m more sympathetic to poet-novelists than some, and this is definitely a poet-novelist’s work. In that I was reminded slightly of Jean-Euphèle Milcé’s Alphabet of the Night, against which I commented that where there was a choice between sense and imagery that imagery won every time. That’s true here too. Mujila’s angel-headed hipsters aren’t strictly speaking credible characters. They’re convincing though, provided you go with the flow and don’t poke too hard at what any individual paragraph means exactly.

Tram 83 has the exuberance of late-night live jazz, sending you home blinking into daylight exhilarated and exhausted. It doesn’t play to easy narratives of African experience (as if there could be such a thing in such a vast continent). I didn’t take to it quite as much as I did Mabanckou, those prose-avalanches sometimes smother, but I think it definitely merits the attention it’s received and I look forward to Mujila’s next.

Other reviews

Tram 83 has been pretty heavily reviewed on the blogosphere. David’s Book World’s is here, Tony’s Reading List’s is here, Winston’s Dad’s Blog’s is here, 1st Reading’s Blog’s is here, ANZ LitLover’s Blog’s is here, Words without Borders’ is here and Shiny New Books’ review is here. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn I’d missed some too.

Also potentially of interest is my review here of Alain Mabanckou’s Memoirs of a Porcupine. Mabanckou provides the foreword to Tram 83 and given Mabanckou’s status Mujila can hardly not owe a debt back to him.

The other link with Mabanckou is that I mention above rumours that the dissident general is a sorceror, more specifically the rumour is that he “eats” his enemies in the spirit world just as the porcupine’s master Kibandi does in Memoirs. It’s not a major plot point here (it’s a single throw-away reference), but it’s a nice reward for my having chosen to read several African novels in relatively quick succession so letting me recognise links and common references one to the other.

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Filed under Congolese fiction, French, Mujila, Fiston Mwanza

yes, I was a happy porcupine back then,

Memoirs of a Porcupine, by Alain Mabanckou and translated by Helen Stevenson

One of the great joys of trying new authors is when you find one that has long been writing for you, if only you’d known it. Mabanckou with his wonderful mix of comedy, social commentary and psychological insight has long been writing for me. I just didn’t know it.

MemoirsofaPorcupine

In Congolese (and some wider African) folklore certain people have spirit doubles – animal familiars which grant them powers and through which they can work magic on the world. Many of these sorcerers use their powers for good, giving healings and blessings and so on. Some however use them for evil, in particular magically murdering their enemies.

If that sounds fantastical, well it is. It’s also however still a fairly widespread idea and even now suspected evil sorcerers are sometimes killed, blamed for deaths people otherwise struggle to explain. It’s not a belief system we have in the West, but we do have fairly widespread beliefs in ghosts and clairvoyants and mediums and faith healers (in which I’d personally include homoeopathists). How superstition manifests varies, but the instinct to it is all too human.

The narrator in Memoirs is the porcupine familiar of a just-recently killed sorcerer named Kibandi. Kibandi’s father, Papa Kibandi, was a sorcerer in turn and when Kibandi turned 11 forced him to drink a secret potion which killed Kibandi’s instincts for empathy and good and granted him an all-too physical porcupine as a spirit familiar.

Doubles don’t normally outlive their humans, so Porcupine (as I’ll call him) is now sitting under a baobab tree with nothing to do other than to reflect on Kibandi’s life and his part in it. At surface level it’s what it says on the tin – memoirs of a porcupine including how the sorcerer Kibandi used magic to kill nearly 100 people before finally being defeated. On another it’s the story of how Kibandi let jealousy and resentment rule his life and ultimately destroy it.

As a young man Kibandi is a skilled roofer. He makes good money and is much in demand. He lives with his mother, his father dead some years before. When Kibandi’s mother dies, on “a grey Monday, a Monday when even the flies couldn’t get off the ground, [in which his home village of] Séképembé seemed empty, the sky so low a human could almost have plucked a cluster of clouds without even raising his arm,” Kibandi’s sole restraint goes with her.

Kibandi had been courting the beautiful daughter of a rich villager, but when the father doesn’t attend Kibandi’s mother’s funeral Kibandi realises that he along with several other suitors are just being strung along so the father can extract gifts from them. Kibandi’s pride is outraged, and he decides to get revenge on the father by sending Porcupine to “eat” the daughter’s spirit so slaying her. Porcupine finds it all a bit unfair, but it’s not his job to second-guess his human.

If you’re the sort of person who sees slights you’ll see them everywhere. Kibandi stops taking care of himself, notices every insult or harsh glance and hits back by using Porcupine. The money stops rolling in as he spends more and more of his time nursing his grievances and taking his sorcerous revenges. A young man, abused, wastes his life spending his energies on imagined feuds and blaming others for his failings. Take away the sorcery and the story remains the same.

If that were all this was that would be interesting enough, but what makes this glorious is Porcupine himself. The tale he has to tell is a simple one, but he struggles to keep to the point. As he says “perhaps I’ve strayed too far from the subject of my confessions […] it must be the human in me speaking, in fact I learned my sense of digression from men, they never go straight to the point, open brackets they forget to close”.

Porcupine reflects on village life, on the attractions of villainy over goodness, on the lessons taught him by the old porcupine who ruled his little porcupine family. Kibandi used his powers to magically learn to read and what he knows Porcupine knows, so Porcupine can read too and indulges in a little literary analysis as he looks back disapprovingly on the books read by the one man he doesn’t regret helping kill, a vain Europeanised intellectual named Amédée:

if there’s one person whose disappearance I really don’t regret it’s that young man, he was such a show-off, a braggart of the first order, he thought he was most intelligent person in the village, in the region, not to say the whole country, he wore Terylene suits, sparkly ties, the kind of shoes you wear if you work in an office, those dens of idleness where men sit down, pretend to read papers and put off till tomorrow what they should be doing today, Amédée walked around with his chest puffed out, just because he’d studied for years, simply because he’d visited countries where it snows, let me tell you this, whenever he came to Séképembé to visit his parents, the young girls on heat went running after him, even married women cheated on their husbands, they’d bring him things to eat on the quiet, round the back of his father’ s hut, they’d wash his dirty linen for him, the guy went round doing things he shouldn’t have all over the place with married women and the young women on heat,

It’s a lovely commentary too of course on the returned expat, now a big man in his home village and a great success though who knows how great a success he actually was abroad. Amédée is a big reader and seduces girls by telling them stories he’s learned from his books. Porcupine is sceptical:

novels are books written by men to recount things which are untrue, they’ll say it all comes from their imagination, there are some novelists who would sell their own mothers or fathers to steal my porcupine destiny, draw inspiration from it, write a story in which I’d have an rather less than glorious role, make me look like low life, let me tell you this, human beings find life so boring, they need novels so they can invent other lives for themselves, by diving into one of these books, dear Baobab, you can take off round the world, leave the bush in the blink of an eye, turn up in a distant country, meet foreign people, strange animals, porcupines with even murkier pasts than mine,

There are indeed some novelists who might take a porcupine’s life and make him look like low life. It’s shocking.

Porcupine also takes the time to directly critique some of Amédée’s reading. For example: “Amédée would tell the young girls all about a wretched old man who went deep sea fishing and had to battle all alone with a huge fish, if you ask me this huge fish was the harmful double of a fisherman who was jealous of the old guy’s experience,”. Most of the descriptions are less obvious than that one, and there’s some fun to be had working out which novels Porcupine is talking about since he tends to be a very literal reader.

Porcupine is a lifelong rogue, but he’s a likable one. He has charm. Whether it’s his occasional attraction to human women (he picked up Kibandi’s tastes there too, porcupine females do nothing for him), his cowardice or his all-too-human ability to rationalise away his own failings he’s one of the more human characters I’ve read recently (though he’d probably find that an insulting observation).

Memoirs is a book full of sly asides. In one scene Porcupine is sent to kill a palm-wine tapster, an old man who Porcupine kills and leaves at the foot of the palm tree he was tapping when Porcupine found him. It couldn’t be a clearer shout out to Tutuola’s Palm-Wine Drinkard and it’s a nice touch of homage to Mabanckou’s predecessors.

Porcupine then is a very funny novel, but it’s also one with an underlying serious point. Take a young man, expose him to brutal abuse (here a sorcerous potion, but the world is hardly free of more prosaic horrors), and see how his life warps and distorts in consequence. Stu in his review over at his Winston’s Dad’s Blog draws parallels between Kibandi and the fate of child soldiers and I think he has a point.

I’ll end with a short observation on style. Mabanckou writes here in a free-flowing style reflecting the Porcupine’s garrulous speech. Mabanckou partly achieves this through avoiding use of full stops (I don’t think there are any), though just as with Enard’s Zone that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have sentences but simply that they’re structured using commas and natural pauses.

Mabanckou gives Memoirs the feel of a spoken rather than written work. Like Tutuola, like Lord, he draws on the rhythms of oral storytelling to give life to the page. It works well, and allows a final little end-joke on how Porcupine’s tale found itself published in book form. It’s a typically deft touch of levity in a novel that could easily have been rather bleak, but which never is.

Other reviews

The review that put me on to this book specifically and Mabanckou generally was this one from Stu’s Winston’s Dad’s Blog, as mentioned above. Given how much I enjoyed this I owe Stu massive thanks for this one, not for the first time.

As an aside, it occurred to me that Memoirs of a Porcupine might have been an inspiration for Lauren Beukes’ rather good Zoo City given the use of animal familiars in that. I asked Lauren Beukes however on twitter and she’d never heard of it. Different writers drawing on the same mythic references clearly.

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Filed under Congolese fiction, French, Mabanckou, Alain