Northern Station. Friday. Around seven or nine in the evening. “Patience, friend, you know full well our trains have lost all sense of time.”
The Northern Station was going to the dogs. It was 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.
It was the only place on earth you could hang yourself, defecate, blaspheme, fall into infatuation, and thieve without regard to prying eyes. Indeed, an air of connivance hung ever about the place. Jackals don’t eat jackals. They pounce on the turkeys and partridges, and devour them. According to the fickle but ever-recurring legend, the seeds of all resistance movements, all wars of liberation, sprouted at the station, between two locomotives. And as if that weren’t enough, the same legend claims that the building of the railroad resulted in numerous deaths attributed to tropical diseases, technical blunders, the poor working conditions imposed by the colonial authorities—in short, all the usual clichés.
Northern Station. Friday. Around seven or nine.
He’d been there nearly three hours, jostling with the passers-by as he waited for the train to arrive. Lucien had been at pains to insist on the sense of time, and on these trains that broke all records of derailment, delay, and overcrowding. Requiem had better things to do than wait for this individual who, with the passing of the years, had lost all importance in his eyes. Ever since he’d turned his back on Marxism, Requiem called everyone who deprived him of his freedom of thought and action armchair communists and slum ideologues. He had merchandise to deliver, his life depended on it. But the train carrying that son-of-a-bitch Lucien was dragging its wheels.
Northern Station. Friday. Around…
“Would you care for some company, sir?”
A girl, dressed for a Friday night in a station whose metal structure is unfinished, had come up to him. A moment to size up the merchandise, a dull thud, a racket that marked the entrance of the beast.
“Do you have the time, citizen?”
He had adequately assayed the chick and even imagined her lying on her mean little bed, despite the half-light. He pulled her body against his, asked her name, “Call me Requiem,” stroked his fingers across the young creature’s breasts, then another line: “Your thighs have the allure of a vodka bottle…” before disappearing into the murky gloom of the slimy, sticky crowd.
Instructions were required. To designate a place they could chat without distraction. The young woman grew pushy. He sighed, bit his lip, and sputtered: “Meet you at Tram 83.”
Quite pointless, of course, for he had to take that Lucien home. Requiem shook his head at the very idea. And then there was the merchandise to be delivered to the tourists freshly arrived from Eastern Europe. Meanwhile, the racket had increased tenfold. The curse of these trains that arrived at this time of night was that they carried all the scum, be they students or mineworkers, who couldn’t get back to town under their own steam.
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For reasons still unknown, the railroad cut the only university in the region in two. Afternoon classes were disrupted not by the ruckus of the engine but by students gathering their things and leaving the premises, because if you missed those trains, you’d piss your pants, dear intellectual. The few professors who crashed in the suburbs of the City-State slipped their moorings along with their disciples. The survival instinct can’t be learned. It’s innate. Otherwise they’d have introduced instinct classes at university already. The trains passed without stopping, which meant the swiftest students had to grab ahold of the beat up railcars. All’s fair in love and war!
In stark contrast to these impulsive students with their sense of entitlement were the brutish diggers, who departed and returned on the same contraptions. The former reproached the latter for selling short their dignity to the mining operators and brokers of diverse origin. The latter couldn’t care less, displaying, through their rotten luck and bodies stiffened with radioactivity, that you needn’t spend time in the classroom to fuck and then clink glasses of ice-cool beer after.
Some students even scratched out a living in the mines to pay their debts.
Requiem began to search for the needle in the haystack. The scrawny students, overwhelmed by the goings-on, and angry too, brandished theories like spoils of war. The miner–diggers, or digger–miners, it depends, voiced imprecations we shall refrain from expressing. Every evening, the same opera. They eyed each other up, balked, traded insults, and even came to blows. A legend suggested the figure of one thousand seven hundred dead in the most recent clashes, without counting suffocations and other serious injuries.
Weary from the noise, and the alcohol he’d just consumed, Requiem leaned against a pillar, waiting for them to vacate the field. They loitered on the platforms till late into the night: the students with their strike, the miner–diggers with their stinking rusty breath.
“I’m a free woman, but I’m still looking for the man of my dreams.”
He was already thinking of the silicone breasts of the girl waiting for him at Tram 83. But after so many years apart, how could he abandon Lucien and slip into the folds of the night with that doll? The students and the diggers of mines were still squaring off. As the flurry of insults reached its peak, they headed off on the same road to nowhere. Requiem sensed a presence. He raised his eyebrows: Lucien, in the flesh but skeletal. Requiem stepped forward. He realized that his friend had lost all his weight. That an era was on the wane. That a civilization was champing at the bit. Lucien was dressed all in black, the harmony broken only by a red scarf, the wad of papers under his arm, and an imitation-leather bag, worn thin, slung over his shoulder. Tousled hair. Crumpled face. Mustache intact. Cold gaze. Hoarse voice. They embraced without much enthusiasm.
“The bastards, don’t tell me they’ve mangled your brains.”
“What’s your news?”
“What about Jacqueline?”
“How did you get out?”
“I’ll tell you.”
“The bastards, the bastards, they…”
“Shall we go?”
“Yes,” replied Requiem, coldly, no doubt haunted by the girl dressed for a Friday night in a station whose metal structure is unfinished, where dissident sex-starved rebels, students, and diggers head off on the same road.
“I’m a really sensitive girl.”
Two fat tears slid down the face of the man who’d arrived by train in this station whose metal structure… In silence, they crossed the concourse and the other fragments of the station, where neglected single-mamas roamed, along with professors selling their lecture notes, intellectuals reeking of salted fish, and Cuban musicians performing salsa, flamenco, and merengue for no reason at all.
© Fiston Mwanza Mujila
About the book
Two friends, one a budding writer home from Europe, the other an ambitious racketeer, meet in the only nightclub, the Tram 83, in a war-torn city-state in secession, surrounded by profit-seekers of all languages and nationalities. Tram 83 plunges the reader into the modern African gold rush as cynical as it is comic and colorfully exotic, using jazz rhythms to weave a tale of human relationships in a world that has become a global village.
Fiston Mwanza Mujila was the recipient of the gold medal for literature at the 2009 Francophone Games in Lebanon for his text “The Night”. His debut novel, Tram 83, was a French Voices 2014 grant recipient.
In the same year (2014) Tram 83 was published by Éditions Métailié to considerable acclaim. In autumn 2015, an English translation (by Roland Glasser) of Tram 83 was published by Deep Vellum Publishing in Dallas, Texas, and received widespread praise.
This translation was also published by Jacaranda in the UK and Scribe in Australia and New Zealand. Other translations of Tram 83 have appeared in Italian, Catalan, Dutch, Swedish, Spanish and German.
The 2015 Etisalat Prize for Literature was awarded to Mujila on 19 March 2016 for Tram 83, having earlier in the month been announced on the longlist for the Man Booker International Prize.
- Fiston Mwanza Mujila was born in 1981 in Lubumbashi, Democratic Republic of Congo, where he went to a Catholic school
- He studied Literature and Human Sciences at Lubumbashi University.
- He now lives in Graz, Austria and is pursuing a PhD in Romance Languages.
- His writing has been awarded with numerous prizes, including the Gold Medal at the 6th Jeux de la Francophonie in Beirut as well as the Best Text for Theater (“Preis für das beste Stück,” State Theater, Mainz) in 2010.
- His poems, prose works, and plays are reactions to the political turbulence that has come in the wake of the independence of the Congo and its effect on day-to-day life. As he describes in one of his poems, his texts describe a “geography of hunger:” hunger for peace, freedom, and bread.
- He has been performing at readings and festivals since 2002.
- Fiston Mwanza Mujila will participate at the Brooklyn Book festival on September 20.