Some images stay in your memory forever. Sometimes you just need a reminder and they come pouring back again, just as potent and gut-wrenching as when you first saw them. So when I first read about Jean-Euphèle Milcé's Alphabet Of The Night, set in Haiti, a film reel started up in my brain.
It showed decrepit boats in choppy seas of fthe coast of Florida, overflowing with humanity, being turned away from the sanctuary of the United States by the Coast Guard, bigotry and Ronald Regan's paranoia; mobs running down streets waving machetes, houses burning in the background; and most gruesome of all, smoking corpses with their garlands of burnt tire laid out on streets and sidewalks.
It was the end of Papa Doc and Baby Doc's rule in the poor, set-upon island community. A descent into anarchy would have been a relief compared to what happened in the days that followed. For years afterwards coup followed upon coup, leaving the people destitute and the land scarred with blood and fire.
It's into this atmosphere of fear and unrest that we are dropped in Milcé's novel, Alphabet Of The Night. Through the eyes of his main character, Jewish storeowner Jeremy Assael, we watch and listen as both the history of Jews in the island nation is told, and the contemporary hell is played out.
As if being Jewish in a nominally Catholic country isn't enough of a minority, Jeremy is also gay. Although no one seems to make too much of an issue out of that fact, it may be because he's been very discreet. When your past includes a family forced to convert to Catholicism in order not to be expelled from the island, you grow up learning the meaning of the word surreptitious.
When we enter Jeremy's life he is trying to find out what happened to his long-time friend and lover who had "been disappeared" some time ago. Since then Jeremy has stayed in the shelter of his store, not venturing far from its premises. All that changes, however, when his current lover, who acts as store security guard, is gunned down by an off-duty police officer who had taken offence to something he had said or done.
Lucien's body left draped over the doorstep of the shop and the cop walking away completely immune propels Jeremy out the door to travel around the island to search for news of his vanished friend, Fresnel. Setting out on the search also sets him on a trip inside himself as he revisits some of their own old haunts which, triggers memories and thoughts.
I don't think that I have read a book before that deals with material this potentially dark in a manner as poetic as Milcé has managed. His use of language is evocative and compelling without being flamboyant or distracting. He has managed to find that delicate balance that separates art from indulgence in his creation of what is virtually a prose poem.
From his description of the home and headquarters of the American Protestant missionary to his detailing of Jeremy's participation in a Voodoo rite, he uses language that conveys both the characters' feelings about what is being described, as well as its physical characteristics. This economy of words, having them serve double duty as it were, is not just an amazing technical achievement, it also increases their emotional impact.
With each new description Milcé is able to continue to add to the atmosphere of the book and expose new facets of his character. As a place reminds Jeremy of the past he details more of the history of his people in Haiti. As this process continues he begins to realize how much of an outsider he really is in this place he has called home.
Even more important is the understanding that through no fault of anything but birth he is a constant reminder to the black majority of those who have over the years been the ruling elite. First the Spanish, then the French, and now America have picked over the bones of Haiti and have kept what few choice morsels there are to be had for themselves.
Part of Jeremy's journey takes him to an area where the location's history illustrates this in only too damning fashion. When the government allowed the river flowing through the Artibonite valley to be dammed, the valley began to flood on an annual basis. At first the farmers of the valley were almost wiped out, but then it was discovered that conditions were ideal for the growing of rice. The government encouraged the farmers and helped them by setting up co-operatives to market and sell rice overseas and at home, and if the farmers weren't exactly prosperous at least they enjoyed a level of comfort that their parents hadn't.
Then the government sold the land out from under them to an American business, along with the licence to export all the rice. Those farmers who did not flee to the slums of the cities became tenants who surrendered three-quarters of their crop as rent. If the harvest is not good they are evicted. If they protest they are branded as communist agitators and hunted down.
Is it any wonder that Haiti is a hot-bed of anger and resentment against anything that reminds the people of the ruling class? Even though Jews were the outcasts among the Europeans, thrown out of Europe only to see the same Europeans get them expelled from their supposed safe haven, and still a pariah in society to this day, Jeremy still wore the emblem of the oppressor – white skin.
Alphabet Of The Night is a beautiful, haunting novel about the search for identity and a place in the world. With poor tortured Haiti as the backdrop, and the ultimate alien exile – the wandering Jew – as its principal character, it shows how far people are willing to go to delude themselves they are at home no matter what the circumstances.
Jean-Euphèle Milcé is a masterful writer able to evoke worlds of emotion with a line or even on occasion a word. Without hyperbole or melodrama he opens a door for the rest of the world to walk through and see Haiti as more then just Voodoo and death. It is the home of real people who are just trying to go about their lives like everyone the world over, but with mitigating circumstances that would test anybody's will to survive.
Alphabet Of The Night is available for the first time in English through Pushkin Press. Now celebrating their tenth year in business the small English publisher specializes in translations of European works that otherwise might not come to people's attention. Their intent is to increase the English-speaking world's awareness of the way other languages and cultures perceive the world in literature and thought.