The book opens in a decrepit railway station in a “City -State” that has seceded from the “Back-County” which we may surmise is somewhere in the Congolese region abounding with mines. Requiem, a no-gooder who clearly has his sticky fingers in every shady dealings of the criminal persuasion to be made in the city-state, is there to meet his writer frenemy, Lucien, who conversely is so noble and idealistic, it is ridiculous.
The duo frequent Tram 83, a popular bar that caters to the runaway appetites of all kinds of humanity such as tourists (for profit or non-profit), miners, officials, students, globalisers, hungry hookers, spies, soldiers, gangsters, journalists, poets, petty thieves and killers. Together, the duo are sucked into the seamy underbelly of a chaotic world run by a corrupt warlord where “the mightier crush the mighty, the mighty defecate in the mouths of the weak, the weak sequestrate the weaker, the weaker do each other in and then split for elsewhere.”
Tram 83 is dominated by wild, jarring rhythms, smooth sounds and pulsing beats that plunge those in for the ride into a bleak and truly terrifying place whose violence-afflicted past has paved the way for a dark reality that is riddled with vice gone on a rampage. It is a dog eat dog world where everybody eats dog kebabs. Of course, this can be discomfiting to say the least. There are too many baby-chicks (underage prostitutes) and notorious child soldiers to be comfortably borne, and the degree of exploitation doing the rounds is enough to make even those hardened to the foibles of human nature feel queasy.
Conversations are not straight forward and rudely interrupted by the musings of those in the bar who have little patience for conventional niceties, forcing one to keep up using all the senses if need be. Nearly every page is peppered with the sexual innuendo of those who eat by the sweat of their breasts to paraphrase the author, which definitely cannot be repeated in polite company. Regular homilies on the reigning preoccupation with steatopygia are thrust into every other page. Everything seems to be permeated not only with the rank odour of the regulars, but the fouler stench of dull cynicism and lost hope. This is not to say the proceedings are fully dark and dreary interspersed as the narrative is with bright bursts of humour.
At the centre of this maelstrom are the former friends. Requiem takes it all in his stride, throwing himself into the demands of living in such inhospitable terrain with savage determination and ill grace. Lucien on the other hand is practically a caricature who clings to his principles for dear life even when faced with the prospect of rotting in a prison cell. Mujila invites readers to closely examine the viewpoints of both men and take sides, inviting the occasional laugh or shocked gasp while keeping alive the curiosity to see which one will triumph over the course of events that clearly indicate that there are likely to be no winners.
Mujila’s debut has been long listed for the Man Booker Prize and is one of those books, which have already won in addition to being in the process of winning, a slew of prestigious awards. Whether this translates into a winning read for the average reader depends on his or her openness towards an unconventional style that takes more than a little getting used to. Some of the stylistic devices and conceits on display such as mind-numbing descriptive lists or constant refrains run the gamut from exasperating to engaging. And yet the author has captured the morass of decay redolent of this land and the teeming undercurrent of vibrancy that is the essence of this unnamed place.
Nothing is sacred here and there is mounting evidence that the horrific past will bury the present and obliterate the future. But even so, Tram 83 may just be worth the visit if you are not unwilling to plunge into the depths of hell for a brief glimpse before getting the heck out of there.