Thursday, January 14, 2016

do you have the time?

Just outside Tram 83, someone rakes at
your arm and asks a simple question: “Do you have the time?”

Tram 83 is the hippest, loudest, most notorious and down-and-dirty club in the breakaway African republic known as City-State and it’s the title of the ingenious and unnerving new novel by Congolese writer Fiston Mwanza Mujila, released in English late last year by Deep Vellum Publishing.

“Do you have the time?” In Tram 83 -- the novel and the bar -- people interrupt conversations with this question, or start conversations, or  blurt it out though they're not exactly expecting a reaction. On the street, in the stairwells, at the train station, inside and outside the bars. “Do you have the time?” is the rumba of the city, the refrain of the book’s little-noticed Greek chorus, objectifying the ways in which the residents of this barely fictional locale cope with the destruction of the body of their city.

No, Tram 83 is not a Georges Perec-style tour-de-force that finds inexpressible horror and regret in the chronicle of a series of people running horribly late for some horribly punctual fictional Parisian streetcar line. And, though much of action is lubricated with alcohol, this is no nostalgic riff on the old American advertising slogan “if you’ve got the time, we’ve got the beer.”

In this novel, “Do you have the time?” doesn’t mean “Do you have the time?” Rather, “Do you have the time?” means “I’m ready to fuck if you’re willing to make the right deal.”

In the chaos of City-State, each interjection of “Do you have the time?” functions as a tragicomic repetition – an expression of just how commonplace the hustle of self-exploitation can be. Indeed, the phrase is part of the globalization of discontent. I first encountered it in 1993 (though I'm sure it existed long before that), in Cuba, when the peso had crashed and there were no more subsidies from collapsed formerly-communist Russia. Everyone became a jineteiro, selling everything, including themselves and their little sisters. So when someone came up to you on the street and asked – in Spanish or English – “Do you have the time?” no one expected you to look at your watch.

Tram 83 chronicles a moment of guarded reconciliation in the lives of two former friends – Requiem and Lucien – in a place so turnt by corruption and zonked on mineral money that people are assiduously buying and selling themselves at all times. Requiem and Lucien – as Mujila adroitly puts it, “two life forms adrift in a city become a state by force of Kalashnikovs” – had once been comrades-in-arms leading a youthful revolution (and pursuing the same woman, who married one and then the other, we are told, though she never appears in person in the novel.) But they have long since gone separate ways. Requiem quit the social change racket to become a soldier, and then a mercenary, before returning home to live by his wits, taking over a portion of the illicit trade in City-State. Given his new position, he dismisses “everyone who deprived him of his freedom of thought and action [as] armchair communists and slum ideologues.” Lucien also gave up activism, and is now pursuing the dream of being a writer (though Requiem might insist that is the definition of an armchair communist, the unnamed narrator simply points out that Lucien’s writing produces almost nothing for society and forces him to be a parasite, living off the largesse of friends.) There’s a third member of their fraternity – a renegade Swiss publisher and onetime exploitative mine-owner named Ferdinand Malingeau, who has a deep history of friendship and enmity with Requiem and who ultimately publishes Lucien’s work.

In the kleptocracy that is City-State – splintered off from the larger kleptocracy known as Back-Country that used to control it – power is held by a dissident general who compensates for a serious case of penis envy by ruling with carefree brutality. Which forces everyone within the boundaries of this hallucinatory republic to ditch their dreams (Mujila calls this “achieving closure of their previous life”) and start hustling -- in the mines, on the streets, or in the bathrooms.

This novel exists in an eternal and phantasmagorical now – you can’t call it a dystopia because people are working too hard and having too much frenzied fun. Everyone is fucking everyone else and fucking over everyone else (“It’s the new world here," one of the all-caps chapter headings accounces. "You don’t fuck. We fuck you.”) and no one is exempt from contempt.

From its first page, Tram 83 announces itself as a demented bible for the resource-cursed continent.
“In the beginning was the stone, and the stone prompted ownership, and ownership a rush, and the rush brought an influx of men of diverse appearance who built railroads through the rock, forged a life of palm wine, and devised a system, a mixture of mining and trading.”
A perfect meme for a number of African countries, with a nod to the immense influence the bible has for many on the continent. Mujila’s fictional testament contains a Harmattan of hilarious proverbs that blow away braindead colonial and post-colonial constructions. Tram 83 is emphatically post- post-postcolonial:

  • “Long live globalization! Long live American porn. Long live Russian porn.”
  • “Poverty is hereditary, just like power, stupidity, and hemorrhoids. It’s even contagious.”
  • “Foreplay is like democracy…If you don’t caress me, I’ll call the Americans.”
  • “The tragedy is already written. We merely preface it.” (Here, I’d say translator Roland Glasser, whose work here is smooth and sinuous, stumbled. His original version, from the uncorrected proof, was “The tragedy is already written. We are the preface” – far more direct and powerful, though perhaps less literal.)
  • “Profit equals retail price plus wholesale price minus packaging.”
  • “There are cities which don’t need literature: they are literature.”
  • “There needs to be fucking in African literature, too.”

And there is, off-stage, in the “mixed” – multi-sex, multi-culti – toilets of Tram 83.

Mujila also gives us fragrant descriptions that emanate from this chamber-pot world, like the man who speaks “in a hoarse voice like someone in a restroom stall who doesn’t want to be disturbed.” Or the dream of a man trying to figure out how to say “love” with the 5 words he is still permitted to use: “history,” “tonsillitis,” “truce,” “shame,” and “weld.” All of this punctuated by young girls asking "Do you have the time?" or declaring, with great solemnity, "I give great head."

In this novel, there's no reason to engage in palaver about the way things were and the way things might have been. There's only the way things are. Lucien’s sole lament for the past comes after he’s arrested for trespassing in a mine and despairs that City-State is not a more stable dictatorship, where the torture is an art-form. In this nouveau nation, he frets, torture is inflicted by “minor upstarts, plucked from here and there” and thus “ignorant of the basic techniques.” His jailer, a police department lifer who cues up Rimsky-Korsakov as he asks for a bribe, has rigged up speakers and floods the cells with a surreal mélange of Stravinsky, Bach, Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich, Glazunov and Rachmaninoff. When Lucien refuses to pay up, he asks, “Do you know the pain I endure when I find myself with individuals like you? Potentially innocent?”

There are shadows of Ken Saro-Wiwa here -- Sozaboy, from 1985, written in pidgin English, featured a naive soldier lost in the torments and politics of the Nigerian Civil War who wants nothing more than to settle down with an ideal woman with JJC, or Jumping Jesus Christ: breasts that sway marvelously when she moves. The civil war in Tram 83 is a drawn-out economic battle, but the men drool over women the same way, admiring their “massive-melon-breasts” and “round-juicy-breasts.” And Mujila’s rancid but entirely believable story of a split nation made me think of Patrick Chamoiseau, whose novel Solibo Magnificent offers his country’s sclerotic history in microcosm through an obscure charcoal picker, storyteller, and drunkard who keels over and dies in the midst of one of his sensational orations.

Tram 83 offers an unapologetic take on modern Africa. It's a book for hustlers, with all that that implies. This book won't draw you into the characters' lives and emotions, but it will captivate you with its polyrhythmic surfaces. It’s a literary stop-and-frisk, too, because after you’ve enjoyed your energetic dalliance in Tram 83, you’ll discover that Mujila has also raised serious questions about whether a society based on hustling to the max has any social contract. You will notice your gears grind for a second as you ponder whether the novel is a joyous guidebook or a requiem for this messy reality.

By the end, the tin-horn despot who rules City-State has put a price on their heads, and Requiem, Lucien and Malingeau are wanted men. Together, they sneak into the rusting hulk of the colonial-era train station, seeking to make their way to the relative insecurity of Back-Country – though Malingeau, who, when he was at his most powerful, orating in the bar, insisted he was as African as anyone else on the continent (“If I am not African, what am I then? Did the first man not appear in Africa? Was he not my ancestor, too?”), now castigates Requiem: “Don’t speak to me in that tone! I was born in Geneva, Requiem. I was born in Geneva, you know.” You can’t go home again because you never left.

As Tram 83's three antiheroes clamber across the tracks in the suddenly empty station, the bar called Tram 83 is packed with people. The jazz-band's clamor bounces off the steel girders of the station. In the post-post-colonial world, as Lucien writes, with impeccable foreknowledge of self-exile, “all paths lead to Tram 83.” Places like Tram 83 help everyone scrape by -- while also helping to ensure that nothing changes.

One cavil: The book’s opening epigraph is “You will eat by the sweat of your breasts.” And, undoubtedly, this is what all the baby-chicks and single-mamas of the novel (aka, girls under 16 and more mature women between 20 and 40) do. But the world of Tram 83 is exclusively a man’s world. There are only two half-way elaborated female characters here: Émilienne, who makes her money running a bar and a brothel and who has the hots for Lucien (who rejects her), and The Diva, a singer who has developed an act that transports the crowd in the Tram and with whom Lucien performs (and from whom he borrows a bit of performative juju, too). But what about all those girls who bravely and brazenly interrupt the action to ask, “Do you have the time?” How did they get here? And even as they’re asking, they must be conscious that the liberation inherent in endless fucking for drinks and money offers little more than the prospect of more endless fucking for drinks and money. Until, if they’re lucky, they can perhaps look forward to owning an oasis dedicated to endless fucking for drinks and money. Somewhere on the continent, I hope, someone is writing a parallel post- post-colonial novel that emerges from this sweaty female milieu.

In the meantime, you’ll have to be satisfied asking yourself: “Do you have the time?” And when you've successfully answered, head on over to one of those mixed public restrooms also known as bookstores and make yourself a deal for Fiston Mwanza Mujila’s Tram 83.