Alphabet of the Night, by Jean-Euphèle Milcé
Alphabet of the Night is a 2004 novel by Jean-Euphèle Milcé, a Haitian expatriate and “voluntary exile”. I understand this is his first novel, his previous works being poetry (yes, a poet’s first novel). Written in French, the edition I read was published by the ever excellent Pushkin Press and translated by Christopher Moncrieff. The language of the book is remarkable, so much so that I intend to track down Moncrieff’s own work.
It is the story of a gay Jewish shopkeeper, Jeremy Assaël, working in Port-au-Prince, who on the casual murder of his lover by a policeman goes on a journey to find a former lover long since lost, on the way encountering an American evangelist, a government fixer of considerable power and a houngan visited by the rich and poor alike.
Where Alphabet shines though is not in plot, there’s barely any to speak of, but in its fevered heat-dream vision of Haiti, full of dust and suffocation. It’s an intensely poetic work in which sentences frequently make very little sense on the literal level, but in which the cumulative effect has a hallucinatory power which utterly convinces.
The opening paragraph:
The dawn brings me its first tints in changing swirls of colour. Port-au-Prince always wakes to find its cries, its ill-expressed sorrows smothered by a pall of smoke. Rising up from the ground, hopes destroyed by the daily struggle for survival hang over a place that has lost all sense of being a capital. The town howls. Its voice fills the air with the shouts of the thousands of street vendors, the bootblacks, those polishers of oppressive boots. As if we have been under constant shellfire, smoke rises straight into the sky, blocking out the light. It is the omen of another dreary day.
Here a description of Jeremy Assaël’s family’s original home town:
Along a weary old road that reminds you of the chaos you find after a place has been cleared of mines, you enter the little town of salt marshes. The houses, leaning against posts eaten away by the salt, almost buried in dust, preside over a deathbed scene. During the daylight the cathedral, closely protected by its parade ground or the heroes of the Independence, meets the eye from all directions. This iconic landmark of the town has never changed; it must hide the secret of how the game is played. Endlessly.
As the above illustrate, Milcé has a real gift for description, and it is that which makes this book so rewarding. The novel is an exploration of Haiti, of its fearful days and its nights from which it is too easy not to return. Each day, the news on the radio recounts the deathtoll from the night before, each year fewer of those Assaël knows remain, as people die, emigrate, simply disappear. Even the voice on the radio, which interrupts the text in each chapter as Assaël listens to it, sounds increasingly despairing.
Assaël himself is a living symbol of Haiti’s internal division. Gay, white, Jewish, he is in every sense an outsider, asked to leave education before university as part of a policy aimed at preventing a feared Jewish domination of the Haitian state, he is part of a group tolerated but feared and hated. His being gay is less an issue than his being Jewish, his being white, as a poor white he is also of course a reminder of past colonial rule and an object for potential retaliation.
Assaël is not however always a fully convincing character. He has psychological depth, his travels bring home to him quite how much of an outsider he truly is, but he is also very much a vehicle for ideas, a mouthpiece for exploring Haiti and the nature of life in Port-au-Prince. At times, Milcé’s desire for poetry and imagery takes precedence over Assaël’s internal truth:
Music is a cure for fear. It has countless lives. I always buy two of the same record. I listen to them. I copy them on disc, I put them on cassette.
That’s genuinely a lovely image, but I don’t believe for a moment that anyone in Assaël’s situation, a poor shopkeeper, buys two of every record. It feels emotionally true, it illustrates Assaël’s character, but it doesn’t make much sense as a literal statement. It is a novelist’s and poet’s conceit. It’s not an issue for me as this is not a wholly naturalistic novel, but it is worth noting that where strict likelihood conflicts with beauty of imagery, imagery wins each time.
But such imagery, and such beauty. Milcé is a writer of notable talent, each page contains a line I would dearly love to quote here, the cumulative effect of the novel is one of doubt, loss, desire, the terrible juxtaposition of the regime and the compromises made by those who try (and often fail) to live under it (“I settled for a reactionary and treacherous reply. Fear was making my survival instincts work at full speed.”).
As Assaël travels, he goes to a bar from his youth, a place of refuge from the litany of death of the nights and the streets, from the small daily battle for survival:
Pleasure has been decreed a substitute for conscience, a painkiller for misfortune. Even when happiness is writ large in the subdued light, every creaking door adds a strangled voice to the necklace of stolen lives. Wounds, concealed by the attitude of girls who rule over nights behind closed doors, get a cynical reception. Queens of the night, witches of the day, they live in fear of dawn’s approach. The daylight likes to feed on make-up and illicit perfume. No one is sole owner of the non-stop party. The prostitutes at the harbour turn their backs on the sun and look forward to the reign of the half-light.
It is a good idea to have drink. It is advisable to make love. It is wise to forget your sorrows. The news will wait outside the door for morning. This special neighbourhood beside the sea is deaf, and suffers from amnesia.
Travelling further, Assaël sinks deeper into the heart of Haiti: the American evangelist condemns him for his homosexuality, living himself in a vision of American perfection that is clean and tasteful and rich; the fixer is a man feared by all, who had the schools closed for a day because he met a boy in the street who was crying, and on being asked why said he was not yet ready for the next day’s exam; a houngan leads ceremonies in which the dead speak, the future is told, the German Consul General is among his clientele. A wrong word can lead to death, a wrong glance, mere mischance. The Jews are essential to the finances of the state, but their position ever precarious.
This is a novel of machetes and flies, of a profoundly failed state and of the compromises and defeats that brings.
At home we had a swimming pool, built to make my father’s last days more comfortable. Most of the time it was empty, due to lack of water and guests.
I thought Alphabet of the Night extraordinary, strange and at times a challenging read, such was the density of its imagery. In some respects it is closer to a work of poetry than a novel, which makes its brevity (it is just over 100 pages long) in some senses welcome. Like poetry, however, it uses that space to leave a lasting sensory impression, Assaël is the eternal wandering jew, Haiti a place from which all are ultimately exiled.
On a more pragmatic note, although Alphabet of the Night is published by Pushkin Press, it is published (as are many of their contemporary works) in a standard paperback sized format rather than their more typical reduced size. My copy had not been fully guilottined, with some pages still attached at the top resulting in small tears when I separated them. This is unusual for Pushkin, and may have been a problem just with my copy. I do prefer their more standard, smaller, format however.
For the interested, there’s an excellent review of Alphabet of the Night here, which I agree with and have sought not to duplicate in my own comments.