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Mark Thomas

Two millennia may have elapsed since Pliny the Elder noted that something new always comes out of Africa. As far as novels go, though, his judgment still holds just as true now. The best African stories during the past generation (all that great river of wonderfully lush, vivid prose which followed Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart) have been consistently new in form and structure, as well as disconcertingly new in their unsparing, unflinching approach to tragedy and horror.

Tram 83 proves the point once more. Its story is spiky, quirky and edgy. The eponymous tram, itself a nightclub, restaurant and "hooker bar", offers refuge and recreation to an ever-swelling band of rascals and scoundrels. We are not in Studio 54 territory anymore. Tram 83 is notionally placed in a residual government zone in a sprawling, lawless city in one of the Congos. The sole redeeming feature for this neighbourhood seems to be that its rebellious hinterland, the Back-Country, is even more appalling.

In reality, though, we are conveyed back to the heart of darkness once again, the one Joseph Conrad explored on the Congos' great river. Take, as only one example among many, Mujila's description of a railway station, "the only place on earth you could hang yourself, defecate, blaspheme, fall into infatuation, and thieve without regard to prying eyes".

Mujila is only 34 years old and this is his first no ... Read Full Review

Two millennia may have elapsed since Pliny the Elder noted that something new always comes out of Africa. As far as novels go, though, his judgment still holds just as true now. The best African stories during the past generation (all that great river of wonderfully lush, vivid prose which followed Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart) have been consistently new in form and structure, as well as disconcertingly new in their unsparing, unflinching approach to tragedy and horror. Tram 83 proves the point once more. Its story is spiky, quirky and edgy. The eponymous tram, itself a nightclub, restaurant and “hooker bar”, offers refuge and recreation to an ever-swelling band of rascals and scoundrels. We are not in Studio 54 territory anymore. Tram 83 is notionally placed in a residual government zone in a sprawling, lawless city in one of the Congos. The sole redeeming feature for this neighbourhood seems to be that its rebellious hinterland, the Back-Country, is even more appalling. In reality, though, we are conveyed back to the heart of darkness once again, the one Joseph Conrad explored on the Congos’ great river. Take, as only one example among many, Mujila’s description of a railway station, “the only place on earth you could hang yourself, defecate, blaspheme, fall into infatuation, and thieve without regard to prying eyes”. Mujila is only 34 years old and this is his first novel. He should be proud of his weirdly disparate cast of characters, of the jolting and bracing incidents with which he litters his narrative, and of his skill in bringing to life an exotic setting that nonetheless seems as familiar as anyone’s worst nightmares. It may not be deemed technically possible for an author to be too enveloped or enthralled by his subject. Nonetheless, in Tram 83 there might occasionally be a bit too much information, on arcana like the socio-economic distinctions between jazz and rumba, archaisms in tipping, or the predominance of Brazilian buttocks among prostitutes. If you are bored by those subjects, then Mujila is happy to entertain a reader by discussing how notes of music comprise a speleology of the soul, or the merits of torture as an artistic discipline. He readily digresses into the local menus, starting with “cat and olive stew”, them moving on to “dog kebabs with saffron potatoes”. In addition to the monologues and arguments, the book does contain lots of lists and lots of clutter. However befuddled by alcohol or besmeared by the world outside the nightclub door, Mujila’s characters love to talk, gossip, ruminate and simply make stuff up. Mujila cuts back and forth between these conversations, sometimes with a dab of cut and paste as well. The novel sometimes runs off at the mouth, so to speak, but also runs on an odd brand of natural exuberance. The main characters court and evade hideous fates. An outsized dictator is brought down by a photograph of his under-sized body parts. The patrons of the nightclub defend themselves against threats of demolition. As Mujila notes on his final page, a reader has been invited to “the predators’ ball”.

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