Alphabet of the Night, by Jean-Euphèle Milcé, trans. Christopher Moncrieff

Terror and poetry from hell’s laboratory
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The Independent Culture

Jeremy Assaël runs a shop in beat-up, smoke-blackened Port-au-Prince during the dying days of the Duvalier dictatorship in Haiti. Each morning, after haggling with bent officials at the docks, he takes the padlocks off the shutters of his shop to greet his dwindling band of customers, wondering who will have been killed, who will have disappeared, and who will have given up the unequal struggle for survival and emigrated.

Every day, he listens anxiously to the radio, attempting to decode the heavily censored news bulletins to assess the night's depredations: a shanty burned down by property speculators, a boatload of refugees drowned in the Florida Straits, a shift in the balance of power that has consigned a few score bodies to a shallow grave.

One morning, his security guard and desultory lover Lucien is shot dead by an off-duty policeman he has "insulted" in a bar – just another of many uncounted, uninvestigated, killings. Shaken by this death, Jeremy closes his shop and sets out to discover what has happened to his childhood companion Fresnel, who disappeared without trace earlier.

Christopher Moncrieff's fine translation effectively conveys this book's heady, poetic style. Jean-Euphèle Milcé – a former director of the National Library of Haiti and founder of the literary magazine Lire Haiti – has described himself as "essentially a poet", and first attracted attention reading his Creole poetry at literary gatherings organised by the poet and novelist Lyonel Trouillot. His powerful and affecting first novel paints a terrifying picture of a society spiralling inexorably downwards. He has chosen to view the alienation of Haitian society through the lens of a protagonist thrice alienated: Assaël is white, Jewish and homosexual. In his quest to discover the fate of his friend, he consults a shady fixer, an American Protestant missionary and finally a voodoo priest.

English-speaking readers will be familiar with Haiti mainly through The Comedians. But while Graham Greene's American evangelists, the Smiths, are absurd figures in their naive misunderstanding of this tragic society, Milcé sees the missionaries as far more sinister, colonialists who have turned Haiti into a "Hell's laboratory" by offloading into it those unfit for work elsewhere: "paedophile headmasters, swindlers in charge of humanitarian aid, Nazi prison chaplains". While the religion of voodoo is for Greene a force of dark unreason, it becomes in this novel an attempt to achieve some understanding in a world in which the only predictable element is the randomness of violent death. Through it, Assäel learns the fate of his friend, and comes to a tentative understanding of his own destiny as a Jew and a Haitian.

Pushkin Press £7.99 (109pp) (free p&p) from 0870 079 8897

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