Alphabet of the Night by Jean-Euphèle Milcé (translated from the original French by Christopher Moncrieff)

Alphabet of the NightThere’s a passage in Alain Mabanckou’s Black Bazaar where he compares expatriate Haitian writers to “hunted birds”.

I wondered why Haitians are either brilliant writers or taxi drivers for life in New York and Miami.  And when they’re writers they are in exile.  Do writers always have to live in another country, and preferably be forced to live there so that they’ve got things to write about and other people can analyse the influence of exile on their writing?…

…These Haitian writers are like hunted birds.  They’ve had more than thirty-two coups d’état back home and not a country in the world has equalled this record yet.  With each coup d’état, flocks of writers have emigrated.  They left everything behind, setting out with nothing apart from their manuscripts and their driving licence.  I wish I’d been born Haitian so I could be a writer in exile who understands the song of the migrating bird, but I don’t have any manuscripts, or a driving licence to become, in the worst-case scenario, a taxi driver in the streets of Paris …

Jean-Euphèle Milcé is one of those “hunted birds” Mabanckou refers to.  Born in Haiti, he both attended and taught school there.  Currently he  lives in “voluntary exile” (Milcé’s words) in Switzerland with his wife and children.  His novella (published by Pushkin Press) deals with loss; grief; displacement; and what it means to abandon one’s country.  Alphabet of the Night contains many beautiful moments which form a fractured portrait of a man and his country.

The man, the book’s protagonist, is Jeremy Assaël – a gay, Jewish shopkeeper whose lover is murdered in the street in front of Jeremy’s shop. It is his breaking point.  Engulfed by grief Jeremy leaves Port-au-Prince and travels back to his childhood home.  He is searching for his friend Fresnal, who disappeared suddenly and mysteriously several years ago.  Jeremy wishes to learn, definitively, whether Fresnal is alive or dead.  His quest for the truth about his friend becomes a spiritual journey which forces him to confront the truth about his place in the country he considers home.

The book is told primarily from Jeremy’s point of view.  Each chapter begins with the date and time, like journal entries.  And almost every chapter ends with a radio bulletin, written in italics, describing the deteriorating state of the country.  These bulletins are the best bits of the book.  They contain a frenetic urgency and gallows humor which rings true.  They also form a welcome crack in the fugue state of Jeremy’s thoughts. We spend the first two-thirds of the book trapped inside Jeremy’s head attempting to follow his densely written, stream-of-conscious style narrative.  It’s after the final third that the story (and landscape) opens up and there is forward movement in the plot.

Haiti often reminds me of a train station, or airport terminal, or any other node that men pass through on their way to or from someplace else.  It’s population is constantly in flux. Prior to independence French planters and African slaves poured into the French colony Saint-Domingue by the hundreds of thousands.  When revolution came the mulatto and remaining French planters fled in droves, seeking refuge in places as unlikely as Philadelphia (bringing Yellow Fever with them).   And in the 20th century the frequent and violent changes in government, natural disasters and a 77% poverty rate has sparked an influx of aid workers and a diaspora of Haitians who seek new homes in cities around the globe.

During WWII Haiti became a safe haven for many Jews fleeing Nazi Germany.  This is perhaps how Jeremy’s family came to the island.  The Haitian government  offered Visas to Jewish refugees at a time when other countries refused.  Some stayed on (though today the Jewish population has dwindled into the double digits).  Milcé uses this concept of “being a Jew” to explore a larger theme.  There’s an elegant parallel between the “wandering Jew” and the Haitian diaspora.  Jeremy first leaves his shop, then his city, and ultimately must decide whether or not to leave his country.  He returns to the same touchstones  – he is a Jew; his family has been in Haiti for three generations; he comes from a line of shopkeepers – without finding solace.  Jeremy’s thoughts loop back on themselves.  They become repetitive, though never to the point of becoming contrived.

Morning found me down at the harbour, by a sea that was pursuing an old, everyday wave. It caught me with my head in hands that were still warm with desire.  Its rhythm stood bolt upright in my path.  I have a horror of the sea. It is too closely linked to my family history. How many Jews have made a destiny for themselves out of fantasies about the ocean swell?  I have no right to leave. The sea reminds me to much of running away, of stories told to one horizon after another.  My family tradition is a bottle thrown by a chain of events, trailing behind it a steam of discriminations crammed together in every harbour in the world.

Instinctively I step back from the sea.  How can a whole race make an entry in their diary which might involve being tossed about by floods? To my way of thinking, exile is that profound self-perception that comes after every journey into the events and places nearest me.

Jeremy is a man four-times displaced.  In addition to being Jewish: he is white in a predominantly black country; a wealthy man selling to the poor; and a homosexual.  He is reminded repeatedly of his outsider status.  Yet the idea of leaving tears him apart.  There is no sense of him being uncomfortable or at a loss as he travels around the island.  Haiti is the only home he’s ever known, but it becomes clear that the only true ties he has to it are his memories.

I believe Alphabet of the Night is Milcé’s first novel.   He took part in a panel at the PEN World Voices Festival on the Critic’s Global Voice this past Summer and was charming, funny, intelligent and (despite having to speak through a translator) incredibly eloquent.  Which led me to buy his book after the event.  Alphabet of the Night delivered on my expectations in that you can open it to any page and find lovely, lyrical prose. But as a whole this small novella never quite came together for me.  The sentences are disjointed, particularly in the early pages.  Too much of the plot is spent treading water.  And I have some serious concerns about the quality of the translation (which at times reads awkwardly and is too self-conscious).

Despite these flaws I recommend reading Alphabet of the Night.  Milcé has written an original story, with an unusual character and often lovely prose.  And, equally important, read it because novels set in contemporary Haiti are difficult to find. Haiti is country that weaves drunkenly back & forth between extremes:  violence and idealism, hope and cynicism, incredible beauty and incredible depravity.  It  is also a place of great hope and courage.  With that in mind, anything about this small island’s – half an island, really – rich history is worth reading.

Publisher:  Pushkin Press, London (2007)
ISBN:  978 1 90128 5 765

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