Fiston Mwanza Mujila. Photograph courtesy of Center for the Study of Europe Boston University / Flickr

Fiston Mwanza Mujila’s Tram 83 is a noisy book, constantly interrupting and shouting over itself. Most of the novel takes place in the nightclub that gives the book its title, a “popular restaurant and hooker bar” (in an unnamed “City-State,” in an unnamed African country) whose hedonistic bedlam, heaving clientele, desperate pleasures, and dissipated despair the novel strains to evoke. To match the rhythms and polyphonic noise of Tram 83, Mujila bends and cracks the language, producing a feverish Joycean prose that can be dizzying, wearying, and brilliant by turns. It’s always excessive: he wears out the language, and the language wears you out.

This seems to be the point. You can’t really read passages like this description of the nightclub in question, for example; you can only allow the words to wash over you, let them become sound:

“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 laborers and former transsexuals and polka dancers and pirates of the high seas and seekers of political asylum and organized fraudsters and archeologists and would-be bounty hunters and modern day adventurers and explorers searching for a lost civilization 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 brica-brac traders and mining prospectors short on liquid assets and Siamese twins and Mamelukes and carjackers and 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 self-proclaimed “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.”

If there’s a verb in that extravagant Whitmanesque run-on, it’s “overran” not “search.” You don’t search Tram 83. You just throw yourself onto the tracks, and let it run you over.

Set in a nightmarish wet-dream of a “hooker-bar” nightclub, Tram 83 can seem like a novel about fucking and music and precisely nothing else. If you see Mujila perform his work, in fact, you will see him melt down the words into a blurry wash of sound and fury, sometimes accompanied by a saxophone player (plus his translator, Roland Glasser). You might be tempted to presume that it signifies nothing, but both music and fucking are inevitably political. And as a meditation or debauch on the nothing that is left behind when everything falls apart, Tram 83 is a literary manifesto, or at least a literary revelation. Its ambition has to be seen in the context of African literature’s predicament: if African literature is in need of saving—as critics regularly contend that it is—then this might be a book you could turn to as salvation.

When critics complain about the current state of African literature they tend to condemn one of two things. If the problem with African literature isn’t the predominance of “poverty porn” and other forms of “issue”-based committed writing—a kind of over-politicization of the literature—then the problem is the reverse, the apolitical detachment and narcissistic satisfaction of the “Afropolitan” writers whose bourgeois (and diasporic) position allows them the privilege of leaving the continent behind. African literature’s rather schizophrenic problem, then, is that it is too focused on issues and politics to produce good literature while also trying so hard to produce Great Literature, without reference to the continent and its dilemma, that it has lost touch with its roots. It’s an old argument, played out with a deadening inevitability that never seems to transcend the underlying assumption: that African writers must choose, that they must write one way or another. African literature, it seems, can only afford one kind of writing.

The best argument against this critical impoverishment is Mujila’s insistence on having it both ways: as a wildly inventive and gleefully amoral farce, Tram 83 is also a deadly serious anatomy of the Democratic Republic of Congo’s mining frontier. It is political to its core, committed and “relevant,” while also being a glorious mess and a lot of fun. By reflecting or imitating the hedonistic bedlam (or, perhaps, the musical and rapturous transport) of a nightclub in a rebel-controlled mining town—or being burdened by its cacophonous disorder, or by riding it, or by all of the above—Mujila’s prose doesn’t so much straddle the very fine line between celebrating and damning his subject as he stomps all over it. If the novel revels pornographically in the violent pleasures of a failed state’s failed city, it also thinks clearly about the forces that make it what it is, about the history of violence that has produced this very banal disorder.

The novel begins with the arrival of a history teacher named Lucien, who aspires to write “a stage-tale that considers this country from an historical perspective” that he plans to call “The Africa of Possibility: Lumumba, the fall of an angel or the pestle-mortar years.” He wants to write the Great Congolese Literature, in other words, to forge the uncreated consciousness of his nation in the smithy of his soul. He has been failing at this project for some time—it seems implied that he has come to the City-State to get back in touch with Africa so he can write his book—and so he fields increasingly frantic calls from his producer in Europe, who demands pages he can’t seem to produce. The problem is him, his expectations, and his very limited sense of what literature is and does. In a moment of idealist euphoria, he explains his philosophy of literature to a fellow patron of Tram 83, a local publisher named Malingeau, telling him:

“I think, unless I am mistaken, that literature deserves pride of place in the shaping of history. It is by way of literature that I can reestablish the truth. I intend to piece together the memory of a country that exists only on paper.”

He believes that literature will save his non-existent country, his Congo that exists only on paper: by telling the tragic story of the Congo’s fall from grace—starting with Patrice Lumumba—he commits to redressing past injuries by writing them. It’s an essentially derivative discourse, of course; he seems to want to re-write Aimé Césaire’s A Season in the Congo, in fact—recently and magnificently produced at the Young Vic—and doesn’t seem to realize that in writing tragedy a second time, he will produce farce.

The present is defined for him by the trauma and injuries of colonial history; the future will begin by repairing them.

In response, Malingeau offers the other side of this now-familiar argument: “We’ve already had enough of squalor, poverty, syphilis, and violence in African literature,” he declares:

“Look around us. There are beautiful girls, good-looking men, Brazza Beer, good music… Doesn’t all that inspire you? … 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!”

Lucien is, himself, “single, neurotic, perverse, depressive, childless, homeless, and overburdened with debt,” and his main foil in the novel is Requiem, an old friend from their student days together. But while Lucien went away to Europe, where he remained committed to literature and its nation-building role, Requiem remained in the City-State, where he has become the very picture of cynical post-ideological nihilism. They are a matched pair of perfect opposites: Lucien holds tight to his principles, refusing to sleep with women, give bribes, or have fun of any kind; Requiem is a pimp, smuggler, blackmailer, and a general cash-and-carry scoundrel, who takes it easy (and any way he can get it). They are thesis and antithesis, two directions for youthful revolutionary idealism to go after the train-wreck of post-independence history. They are, also, two directions for African literature to go.

As thesis, Lucien wants to piece together and rebuild from the fragments, to re-establish the truth of his country by re-investing in idealistic stories of what could have been, and what should have been. He is post-colonial: the present is not only defined for him by the trauma and injuries of colonial history, but the future will begin by repairing them. He is therefore fixated on Patrice Lumumba, the nationalist leader whose assassination—ordered by Dwight Eisenhower, whether or not the CIA carried it out themselves—marked the beginning of fifty years and more of dictatorial misrule followed by post-dictatorship disorder. As Lucien rides Tram 83, he faces backwards. Like Walter Benjamin’s Angel of History, “he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet… [he] would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed.” But he cannot: “a storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward.”

As Lucien is re-educated by Tram 83, he begins to produce something very similar to the novel we are reading (perhaps precisely the novel we are reading)

As the novel blows Lucien forward, he loses his bearings. When he performs an early draft of his Lumumba play for the assembled patrons of Tram 83, for example, he is chased off the stage and viciously beaten; his insistence on literature’s “pride of place” rubs them the wrong way, as do his vanguardist pretensions. Who is he to tell them their own story? How dare a history teacher instruct them on their future?

Lucien’s friend Requiem is not much better. Once a poet and revolutionary, years of disillusionment and loss have made him a pimp and a blackmailer. But in his total commitment to survival, Requiem has something to teach his old friend, whom he and the book both seem to regard as a kind of holy fool. They have affection for his misplaced idealism, his naïve optimism in the power of the written word; they also take a glee in puncturing his illusions, and bringing him down to earth. And so, after a picaresque series of misadventures, Lucien begins to write about what actually is (rather than what should have been); in a chapter called “Malingeau, Lucien, and Requiem or the love impossible,” the narrative voice opens by declaring:

“There’s 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… She was written by her gigolos, her baby-chicks, her diggers, her four-star whorehouses, her dissident rebels ready to imprison you, her prospectors, her semi-tourists…”

As Lucien is re-educated by Tram 83, he begins to produce something very similar to the novel we are reading (perhaps precisely the novel we are reading). He becomes inspired by the voice of “The Diva,” a singer at Tram 83 who inspires him to write and stage a play filled with music and noise, what he calls:

“Locomotive-literature or train-literature or tram-literature or rail-literature or railroad-literature or literature of the iron road, my writing displays similarities with the railroads that depart from the station which is essentially an unfinished metal structure, gutted by artillery, train tracks, and locomotives that call to mind the railroad built by Stanley.”

By the time Lucien speaks these words, on page 135, the phrase “essentially an unfinished metal structure” has become a refrain, part of a leitmotif that has become so familiar it can be left unfinished, only gestured towards. On the first page of the novel, for example, the Northern Station where Lucien and Requiem first meet is described as “essentially an unfinished metal structure, gutted by artillery, train tracks, and locomotives that called to mind the railroad built by Stanley, cassava fields, cut-rate hotels, greasy spoons, bordellos, Pentecostal churches, bakeries, and noise engineered by men of all generations and nationalities combined.”

Over the rest of the book, this phrase and variations on it occur and re-occur so many times that they are worn smooth with use and re-use: the “station whose unfinished metal structure, gutted by artillery, train tracks, and locomotives that called to mind the railroad built by Stanley” becomes the “station whose unfinished metal structure,” and then the “station whose structure,” and then simply “the station,” as such, containing an entire story in a word. Sometimes an ellipsis marks the place where parts of the phrase are being left off, and sometimes the narrative refers with a practiced incompleteness to “the station whose structure” before hurrying on. But one learns to see that the rest is implied, left unsaid: “the station which” is enough.

By the end of the novel, these words start to come from Lucien’s mouth, and the polyphonic voice of the novel is channeled through him: Lucien has become Mujila, you might say, and Tram 83 has become Tram 83. His education is complete; his literature is written.

Tram 83 has many precedents. Walt Whitman strung together extravagant lists and run-on sentences of anything and everything that composed America—singing and celebrating it all as poetry, and declaring the United States itself to be the greatest poem, at great and glorious and self-indulgent length—because he wanted to show that America was not the space of negation and absence that Europeans saw it as being. If it was a barbarous country, if it was young and wild and essentially lacking in everything that made for civilization, Whitman believed with all his heart that the United States was also surfeit, superfluity, and excess: if Europeans looked at the American content and saw a howling absence—if they saw the failed state left behind after the empire withdrew—then Whitman wanted to insist that America was itself literature. Not in its books and arts and museums, which were sadly lacking by European standards, but in its very being, in the craft and culture (and passion and pain) of its common bodies and common blood, the collective all barreling together towards the future. If America lacked history, it was because its glories were yet to come.

The parallel should be clear. Mujila insists on surfeit, superfluity, and excess—and adopts similar artistic strategies—precisely because so many readers of the Congo look toward this negation of a country, this “nation which exists only on paper” and see it as a failed state, defined by being young and wild and essentially lacking in everything that makes for civilization. As a “failed state,” it is a cartographic fiction, an absence, and a heart of darkness; in Foreign Policy’s annual “Failed States Index” in 2009, for example, Jeffrey Herbst and Greg Mills insisted that “the international community needs to recognize a simple, albeit brutal fact: The Democratic Republic of the Congo does not exist.”

What is a state if not the collective co-existence of peoples, groups, and interests?

Statements like this one (which Herbst and Mill repeated in 2013) make it difficult to use the adjective “Congolese” in any meaningful way. If the Congo doesn’t exist—if, indeed, it is defined by its own negation—then to be Congolese is to be a function of your own failure. To be Congolese is to be not-Congolese, to be from a place defined by its lack of therethere.  

Europeans were of course correct to look at the United States in its first half-century and see a state of failure. British capital was merciless in foreclosing on the many states and industries whose returns failed to match the expectations of their creditors in London, roughly equivalent to the rough treatment meted out on Africa by the IMF and World Bank over the last few decades. It’s also hard to argue with Herbst and Mill’s assertion that the Congo is “a collection of peoples, groups, interests, and pillagers who coexist at best”; the story they tell about the DRC is true in at least its most general particulars. But as Whitman demanded, the empty glass might be full of something else, something different: the problem might not be the vessel, but the standards by which its contents are measured.

After all, what is a state if not the collective co-existence of peoples, groups, and interests? Moreover, Congo is not unique in possessing “pillagers,” nor does its lack of a consistent governing authority, shared culture, national unity, and/or common language make it particularly unusual, except if a very small handful of Western European states are taken to be the norm (and a very idealized homogenous fantasy of them, at that). This is precisely what happens: in magazines like Foreign Policy, a fantasy of the orderly and unified Weberian nation-state will always be the standard against which selectively chosen realities of an African country like Congo will be measured and found wanting. Such a standard would never be used against a country like Belgium, however; its lack of a “shared culture that promotes national unity, or a common language” will not count against it. We discover what we already know: failed states are African while white nations are too big to fail.

Herbst and Mills present themselves as realists—with the courage and honesty to recognize and speak the truth—but they are actually mythologizing, and building on a long and venerable tradition: the “heart of darkness” story of “darkest Africa” and the “dark continent,” for which the “Congo” has so often been pressed into service to name. Their refusal to credit stories about liberation, sovereignty, and the nation is simply neoliberal wish-fulfillment, the desire to strip away society (and expose everything beneath) that Thatcher so infamously and aptly expressed. But to argue that “the only way to help Congo is to stop pretending it exists” is at best a very strange claim and an absurd paradox at worst: how can you help a thing which doesn’t exist? But the contradiction demonstrates what a strange concept the “failed state” is, and how its strangeness works in practice: As a function of the “we” that is presumed to be doing the helping—an amorphous sense of the international community (and usually the one with the bombs and drones)—an image of a helpless Congo replaces the Congo that tends to insist, in fact, that it does exist. But the Congolese need not be consulted on the matter. How could they? They don’t even exist.

As Collette Braeckman once put it, the failed state is a “concept qui tue,” an idea that kills. To declare a state “failed” is a weaponized and self-fulfilling prophecy, making claims to sovereign integrity null and void and building a paper trail for invasion or intervention (or just quiet looting). But the idea that the intervention of outsiders is required (or acceptable) when a nation-state has failed to be what it is—the claim that when the state has failed to be a state, others must restore the state to itself—makes sense only if you accept that there are real states, which do the sorts of things that real states do, and then there are failed states, which do not, and which therefore have no rights which the international community needs to respect.

In Africa, this is a pattern precisely as old as the Congo. For the West, African sovereignty is always provisional by default, a function of geopolitical convenience. The Congo is asserted not to exist, for example, by those who wish to proceed as if it doesn’t, as when Herbst and Mills argue that because the Congo doesn’t exist the government in Kinshasa can be ignored, advising instead that “foreign governments and aid agencies would deal with whomever exerted control on the ground.” Instead of holding to quaintly liberal notions of democracy and governmental legitimacy, the barrel of a gun becomes explicitly the definition of sovereignty.

It’s not surprising that Herbst and Mills invoke the Katanga region—where Fiston Mwanza Mujila was born and raised, and where Tram 83 is clearly set—to demonstrate Congo’s non-existence. “It is hard for anyone sitting in Lubumbashi, the capital of mineral-rich Katanga province in the far southeast,” they write, “to see Kinshasa as ruling.”

“It is a two-day journey from Lubumbashi to South Africa’s Johannesburg; the trip from Katanga to Kinshasa—of similar distance—is seldom attempted, even contemplated. With more in common with its southern Anglophone neighbors than with Kinshasa, no wonder one Zambian minister privately refers to Katanga as ‘Zambia’s 10th province.’ Congo’s neighbors have learned to ignore its sovereignty.”

Despite the pretense of invoking the perspective from Lubumbashi, Herbst and Mills see with outsider’s eyes, the eyes of those for whom the Congo’s mineral riches are there to be taken. The Congolese people have few illusions about the state of their state, but Congolese nationalism is anything but a fiction. There were a variety of angry responses to Herbst and Mill’s article, though the best argument remains, simply, that “once put it, “has systematically looted the Congo.”

Tram 83 insists on moving forward because “Congo” is a story that will not die.

The history is not ambiguous. When Congo first declared its independence from Belgium in 1960, for example, a coalition of Belgian mining conglomerates, American shareholders, and the CIA conspired with ambitious local actors to carve off the mineral-rich portions of the Congo from the rest of the country. The Katanga region only seceded because Congo’s first president, Patrice Lumumba, threatened to nationalize the mines; Eisenhower gave the order to kill Lumumba, the CIA transmitted that order, and Lumumba was killed. Belgium sent troops to assist the secessionists, and the UN stood by. Only once when Lumumba had been killed by firing squad and buried (then dug up, chopped to pieces, dissolved in acid,and burned) and a friendly strong man had been placed in power—Mobutu Sese Sekocould Congo’s “neighbors” respect a Kinshasa-based government.

People like Herbst and Mills like to insist that a map of the DRC shows you more spaces that the government in Kinshasa doesn’t control than spaces that it does. But while there is nothing Weberian or Westphalian about the forms of sovereignty we find in the Congo, Christopher Vogel pointed out that ““Life in the DRC is framed by the massive presence, not absence, of the state. In urban areas, the concentration of policemen and military is so strong that getting ‘taxed’ illegally is almost unavoidable…In rural areas the presence of the state is less dense, and admittedly in some areas very limited. Nonetheless, its influence is heavy—in particular where state representatives also hold customary office. In spite of their vocal complaints about the state, Congolese people generally do not deny its existence and always maintain a sense of patriotism.”

Patriotism, in fact, is one way to criticize the workings of the DRC’s predatory state, and of the myriad mini-states to which monopolies on violence have been issued. As a variety of state and non-state actors have struggled to control the vast mineral wealth of in the east and south of the country, “facts on the ground” are—like Lumumba’s corpse– the ideas that have been killed for.There is no fact on the ground more bloody than the gold, diamonds, coltan, and other minerals buried in Congo’s red soil.

There has always, however, been someone to kill. Congo exists because people like Fiston Mwanza Mujila are Congolese, and Tram 83 insists on moving forward because “Congo” is a story that will not die. When Mujila said (in an interview with Sofia Samatar), “I come from a country that exists only on paper,” he doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist: he means that it does exist, but that it exists only and precisely in the imagined community produced by art (on the paper of his novel, for example). And as he went on to explain, state “failures” produce a very particular and intense form of existence:

“The Congo—by its very history, its everyday life—is an extraordinary, or shall we say paradoxical, country. There is no such thing as moderation there. We are always immoderate, excessive, exuberant, etc. Everything happens as if the world was going to end in forty-eight hours and we should therefore make the most of our remaining crumbs.”

Jazz is what happens while history was making other plans.

To see what Tram 83 is doing, then, we have to look past Lucien and Requiem, the idealist and the cynic, to the real subject of the novel, the “we” which is the first-person plural from which Tram 83 is briefly, and intermittently, but crucially narrated. This is a distinctly Congolese “we” that affectionately regards Lucien as a fool and turns against Requiem the moment his schemes begin to fall apart. The novel might begin with Requiem meeting Lucien at a train station—and ends with the two of them fleeing, together, from that same train station—but they are always the objects of this novel, not its subjects. The novel’s “we” watches them, and judges them, but mostly doesn’t have time to concern itself with them. It’s a “we” that emerges when music calls it into existence, as in this passage, late in the novel, when The Diva gets on stage and sings:

“[B]eers were passed around, we trembled from head to toe, we dumped in our pants, we masturbated, we climbed on the tables, we banged our head against the walls, we gathered at the doors to the mixed facilities, that voice, that voice, that voice, it penetrated us, flayed us, trampled us, shredded us, depart, be born, dream, we thought of those whom the earth had swallowed up, all those whom the trains had taken following a derailment, the bitterness and the eyes riveted on those who’d left to seek new lives across the ocean and who’d never got there betrayed by the waves, that voice, Requiem sniggered arrogantly, Lucien clung to his pen and scrawled joy is a violent dream and you need this violence in your dream to give it flavor…”

Elusive, intense, brief, and insubstantial, these moments of community, imagined and real, are the novel’s beating heart, the moments when shit turns to diamonds: buried under 50 years of disappointment, oppression, and struggle, weighed down by facts on the ground and watered with blood, Tram 83 is the paper on which the Congo continues to exist, the song of ourselves which Mujila sings and celebrates. If it is the story of a writer who comes to Lubumbashi to tell his story of the Congo (and his foil, the scoundrel who never met a Congolese body he wouldn’t sell), it becomes—out of the dimness—an opposite that equals advance, always substance and increase, always sex, always a knit of identity, always distinction, always a breed of life.

It is musical, because it is a song of the Congolese self, because in all its riotous multiplicity, music is the imagination of community where none would otherwise be found. But Tram 83 has nothing in common with the kind of classical perfection that Flaubert famously called le mot juste, the symphony conducted by the master-author, who uses just the right word, precisely, with maximal efficiency; for that strain of belles lettres, “clarity” and “precision” praise the pen as an instrument playing exactly as the score dictates. Tram 83 couldn’t be more different: all improvisatory excess, it says nothing with precision, says everything in three or ten different ways, a familiar standard warped beyond beautiful recognition. It is jazz, then, because of the decentering effect of its theme and variation, call and response; because of its obsessively elastic sense of time, because of its propulsive forward plunge, because of its liberating use of dissonance and noise to pervert any sense of the perfection of form, and especially because of the black tradition from which it comes. Nothing is finished; everything is in motion, and jazz is jouissance, the opposite of efficiency. Jazz is what happens while history was making other plans.

Tragedy only becomes farce if you insist on repeating the past precisely, if you try to deny the propulsive movement of the present. This is Lucien when Tram 83 runs him over. But if you’re looking forward, there are no mistakes; play it twice, as Miles Davis was to have said, and it becomes jazz. Tram 83 plays it twice. And it reminds us, though it’s often forgotten, that before he was a politician, a nationalist leader, an anticolonial icon, and a corpse, Patrice Lumumba got his start selling beer in Congolese nightclubs.

Aaron Bady

Aaron Bady is a writer who lives in Oakland and an editor at the New Inquiry.

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