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

Terror and poetry from hell’s laboratory

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

Arts and Entertainment
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy

tv Review: Miranda Hart and co deliver the festive goods

Arts and Entertainment
The cast of Downton Abbey in the 2014 Christmas special

tvReview: Older generation get hot under the collar this Christmas

Arts and Entertainment
Dapper Laughs found success through the video app Vine

comedy Erm...he seems to be back

Arts and Entertainment
Wolf (Nathan McMullen), Ian (Dan Starky), The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Clara (Jenna Coleman), Santa Claus (Nick Frost) in the Doctor Who Christmas Special (BBC/Photographer: David Venni)

tvReview: No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Arts and Entertainment
Bruce Forsyth and Tess Daly flanking 'Strictly' winners Flavia Cacace and Louis Smith

tv Gymnast Louis Smith triumphed in the Christmas special

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

    Christmas without hope

    Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
    After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

    The 'Black Museum'

    After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
    Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

    Chilly Christmas

    Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
    Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all